Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Monkeys and Their Mother”*

Posted by jlubans on June 27, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Hand-coloured wood engraving by Joseph Swain, in Charles Bennett’s The Fables of Aesop, p.23. 1857

“THE MONKEY, it is said, has two young ones at each birth. The Mother fondles one and nurtures it with the greatest affection and care, but hates and neglects the other. It happened once that the young one which was caressed and loved was smothered by the too great affection of the Mother, while the despised one was nurtured and reared in spite of the neglect to which it was exposed.”

“The best intentions will not always ensure success.”


A very Victorian moral (from Charles Bennett) further impugns the parent: “A plant may thrive better by the roadside than in a hot-house where a Fool is a gardener.” Harsh! It’s the mother’s fault one of the two twins is a delinquent, copped by the canine copper, as depicted above.

What do the antics of these Aesopian simians have to do with work? Well, if I have a boss who, with the “greatest affection”, is more friend than supervisor, then I could suffer from a lack of challenge and discipline. It might be better to be the one neglected and have to fend for myself, something Bennett’s contemporary, Charles Darwin, would have espoused.

*Source: AESOP’S FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at Gutenberg.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

“Bar Rescue”: Model for Change?

Posted by jlubans on June 24, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Preparing for my Leading Change seminar in August, I’ve been looking for ways to show how the change process works.
“Bar Rescue” is a TV show I’ve seen a few times. It may sound unlikely, but Bar Rescue is about organizational change, in this case, the process of saving an organization (a bar) on the skids, in a downward spiral, on self-destruct. The star of the show is Jon Taffer, an abrasive, bar business consultant. He may be in the first percentile on the jerkitude chart, but he appears to get the job done: saving your bar, business and job.
Before Mr. Taffer appears on the scene, the desperate owner(s) give Taffer full access to the financials and the staff. He glowers, in the dramatic, always-confrontational all-staff meeting at the top of the show: “For the next seven days, you work for me!”
Taffer knows his stuff and brings in experts in marketing, architecture, building renovation, interior designers, mixologists – drink makers – and chefs.
The show features badass customers, thieving wait staff, absentee – often drunk - owners, and incompetent, grasping and groping managers. Not exactly your cheerful neighborhood pub, nor the congenial “third place”. Rather most of Taffer’s bars are the type that ruined the corner tavern’s once wholesome reputation.
The language is coarse, loud and usually degenerates into shoving matches or in a few cases fists flying. Taffer would do well on a show like “Cops”; while not wearing a gun or armor, he spouts, machinegun like, verbal bullets, sometimes at hapless targets.
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Caption: Mr. Taffer making himself felt in the kitchen

There’s a formula – a method to the madness:
Observe. Give feedback. Provide a vision. Train. Stress-test. Collapse. Re-group. Excise corruption. Re-train. Re-design. Transition. Stress-test again. Succeed.
Maybe that’s akin to Lewin’s highly distilled three steps for change: un-thaw, change, and freeze. Or, you could apply Kotter’s 8-step change process, (create a sense of urgency, recruit powerful change leaders, build a vision and effectively communicate it, remove obstacles, create quick wins, and build on your momentum) but the one change model that fits like a glove is Kubler-Ross’s. Bar Rescue displays, for all to see, the raw denial, depression, rebellion, and resistance when sudden change is thrust upon us. You might not see the Bar Rescue extremes in businesses like libraries, but (from the library-rescues of which I have been part) the emotions are there - muted, restrained - but just as real as those on violent display in the bar. We tend to come out OK at the end of the change, but the journey's been brutal.

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Caption: Mr. Taffer in a calm moment.
By show’s end there is some appreciation by an owner and his staff of what they have been through and how far they have come. Sort of like what I expect occurs at the end of basic training in the military under a tough drill sergeant.
On a rare occasion, a boss or a staffer expresses a genuine respect for Mr. Taffer and an appreciation for the essential change Taffer’s helped bring about.
Will I use a Bar Rescue episode in my seminar? Probably not, but, having seen the show, and now written about it, I have a deeper understanding of what change is like and what aspects promote effective change. That’s what I will try to communicate.

@ Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Bald Man and the Fly”*

Posted by jlubans on June 20, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Fly in rebuttal.

“A Fly settled on the head of a Bald Man and bit him. In his eagerness to kill it, he hit himself a smart slap. But the Fly escaped, and said to him in derision, ‘You tried to kill me for just one little bite; what will you do to yourself now, for the heavy smack you have just given yourself?’ ‘Oh, for that blow I bear no grudge,’ he replied, ‘for I never intended myself any harm; but as for you, you contemptible insect, who live by sucking human blood, I'd have borne a good deal more than that for the satisfaction of dashing the life out of you!’"

Well, keeping to my contrarian ways, the fly may have a point. Why be thin-skinned about a tiny insult? Some criticism isn’t worth a response. I recall an insinuation against me that while no longer employed by an institution I was still trading on its “good” name. This was absurd; since my departure that library had returned to its smug and conventional ways. If anything, I was embarrassed about the numerous (and inevitable) google links. What did I do? Nothing. I figured my professional work – separate from any institution - would speak for itself and the rumor-monger and the google links would diminish.

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.


@Copyright John Lubans 2014

The “GM NOD” & Doing Nothing

Posted by jlubans on June 17, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: "For the want of a nail ...."

After multiple deaths, injuries and millions of dollars in lawsuits – attributable to a faulty ignition switch - the new boss of General Motors hired someone from outside the company – a former Federal prosecutor - to find out what happened. The prosecutor observed what “… what was known as the ‘GM nod,’ in which ‘everyone nods in agreement to a proposed plan of action but then leaves the room and does nothing.’" So, according to the investigator GM had a corporate culture that resulted in and sustained a passive, dependent, and uncritical management.
Since the investigator’s report 15 managers have been fired – a good first step – but just how deep does this GM nod tradition go?
It isn’t just being a benign (for the most part) yes man or a sheepish follower; the GM nodder has elements of collusion, insubordination and sabotage! A tacit decision is taken to do nothing. What causes that to happen in an organization? How can any organization survive that kind of behavior?

Back in 2008 GM was deemed “too big to fail” and was bailed out with billions of tax dollars. I have to wonder if the bailout did not accelerate and immunize the GM nod culture. While economists and politicians claim that GM had to be bailed out, I would have preferred a structured bankruptcy in which GM was forced to re-organize. For me, GM was TOO big NOT to fail. I suspect they would have survived bankruptcy and come out much stronger and more attuned to behaving in responsible corporate ways. Hard times help people make tough decisions. Camaraderie develops and trust blossoms as people survive, pull together, and depend on each other. A bankruptcy helps get rid of wasteful processes, bad habits and incompetent people and policies.

GMs “nodders” remind me of P. G. Wodehouse’s masterful story, “The Nodder*
about Hollywood’s “yes men” during the time (early 1930s)
when Wodehouse was employed as a highly paid but grossly underused screenwriter.
In this comic story*, Wilmot Mulliner - “quiet, respectful, deferential, and obsequious …” is the ideal Nodder, according to the stereotypical studio boss, Mr. Schnellenhammer. But in Wodehouse’s happy conclusion, the worm – in love - turns and Mr. Mulliner confronts and confounds the overbearing boss.
In my career, I’ve encountered a variety of organizational cultures, ones that support an array of followers, including nodders and yes men, and some independent and original thinkers. When I was a manager in the research library field of about 100 very large libraries, I observed vastly different levels of innovation, openness to change, risk-taking, staff empowerment, and propensity for action. It was apparent then, as it is now, that organizational culture defines organizational well-being or not. It took some doing – indeed my skulking around undercover - to find those few libraries I’d term “best practice”. These libraries I discovered had managers who somehow had their staff performing far better than their peers at other institutions. That was the type of culture I was looking to introduce and to emulate where I worked, but oddly enough, the culture was often isolated to the departmental level and not across the organization. It was like finding out that the love of your life comes from a family with a meth lab in its backyard. Worse, the best practice’s department was often internally regarded as subversive to tradition, a sort of Cinderella with more than a few jealous stepsisters.
One Ivy League institution took pride in making known that any new hire arriving starry-eyed and wanting to change the world, would be soon dissuaded. There was a particular trainer (or “cultural enforcer”) in charge of adjusting the newbie’s perspective. At the end of the first year, the new hire was gone or as one with “The Way” of X University. Unfortunately, X University was one of the least productive and most tradition-bound and least innovative among my peer group. X University would have benefited from a Wilmot Mulliner! While not as lethal as GM’s nodders, X University’s nodders (uncritical and unquestioning) certainly stifled that library’s ability to improve and to innovate services for its readers. Perhaps it was a campus wide mind set, but that library’s leader could have taken the lead in promoting and rewarding an independent thinking and action prone staff – just like GMs leaders should have.

*P. G. Wodehouse, “The Nodder”, in his Blandings Castle.
NY: The Overlook Press (original copyright, 1935) 2002, The Overlook Press edition also includes one of Wodehouse’s best short stories: “Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend”, a story about leaders and followers.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable: Jean de La Fontaine’s “THE ACORN AND THE PUMPKIN”*

Posted by jlubans on June 13, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Licorice candy advert from early 1900s(?) with LaFontaine fable featured.

“God's works are good. This truth to prove
Around the world I need not move;

I do it by the nearest pumpkin.
'This fruit so large, on vine so small,'
Surveying once, exclaim'd a bumpkin--
'What could He mean who made us all?
He's left this pumpkin out of place.
If I had order'd in the case,
Upon that oak it should have hung--
A noble fruit as ever swung
To grace a tree so firm and strong.
Indeed, it was a great mistake,
As this discovery teaches,
That I myself did not partake
His counsels whom my curate preaches.
All things had then in order come;
This acorn, for example,
Not bigger than my thumb,
Had not disgraced a tree so ample.
The more I think, the more I wonder
To see outraged proportion's laws,
And that without the slightest cause;
God surely made an awkward blunder.'
With such reflections proudly fraught,
Our sage grew tired of mighty thought,
And threw himself on Nature's lap,
Beneath an oak,--to take his nap.
Plump on his nose, by lucky hap,
An acorn fell: he waked, and in
The matted beard that graced his chin,
He found the cause of such a bruise
As made him different language use.
'O! O!' he cried; 'I bleed! I bleed!
And this is what has done the deed!
But, truly, what had been my fate,
Had this had half a pumpkin's weight!
I see that God had reasons good,
And all his works well understood.'
Thus home he went in humbler mood.”


For those of us who know it all, these small truths from Master La Fontaine should make us humble and not too proud of our knowing-ness. Alack, we may know something without knowing it!
Our human wisdom is bounded by our experience; some things truly are beyond our ken. If we think not, then look out for that banana peel on the slippery slope of absolute certainty. If being human and erring is a bitter pill, suck on some sweet licorice.

*Source: THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE Translated From The French by Elizur Wright. [original place and date: Boston, U.S.A., 1841.] A New Edition, with Notes by J. W. M. Gibbs,1882. Available at Gutenberg.

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: Tuscaloosa Public Library, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA


@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Who Domesticated Whom? Dog or Human?

Posted by jlubans on June 10, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: One Very Tolerant Dog.
Here’s a test* for you:
When a feral dog pack decides where to go, whom do they follow?
A. The most dominant dog in the pack.
B. The dog with the most friends in the pack.
C. The dog who is best at finding food?
D. Feral dogs do not live in packs.

If your answer is “A”, you have a lot of company (68%).
But, research shows that the pack will follow the dog with the most friends in the pack, “the dog with the strongest social network.”
In other words, the pack follows the one with the best social skills and ability to interact (to play, if you will) with others in tolerant and cooperative ways.

What does this have to do with work? Well, most of our work structures are designed around “A” type leaders. We are taught to believe that a dominant leader is the best kind of leader. Even when research and experience show that the unboss gets more done, society still has a strong inclination to believe that a strong boss is superior to someone who leads through participation.
Interestingly, Hare and Woods* write that the few modern populations that still live as hunter-gatherers “do not have a leader or dominant individual who makes decisions for the group. Instead, bands of hunter-gatherers work together against any individual who tries to dominate the group.”

I suppose one could argue that it is the dominant personality - the one that has to have things done “his way or the highway” - who is more responsible for societal problems over the past 50,000 years than it is the vast majority of humans who tolerate, cooperate and do not seek to impose on others.

I use these ideas in teaching about freedom at work, the democratic workplace, and leading from the middle to trigger discussion about who we are and why we behave the way we do. Science offers us insights into how animals behave and by inference how and why we humans behave. Where does our ability to work together come from? Evolutionary science has it that our survival depends on tolerance and cooperation – something that is also shared with other animal groups, especially dogs. Colin Groves, a researcher at the Australian National University suggests: “Humans domesticated dogs, and dogs domesticated humans.” Hare and Woods add their own claim: “Dogs may have civilized us.”

I hope you find these ideas as fascinating as I do, ones well worth some thought as we seek to figure out how we work best and what elements are most important for productive and satisfying work.

P.S. A constant question for me is How is it, in the evolutionary process, that negative traits, like aggression, persist even though there has been an active “selection against” those traits and behaviors? Is there then something like an aggressive gene? Perhaps it is something more cosmic like evil and its insinuation into humankind. I have no answer. Maybe it’s a simple as “there be jerks here” as the early cartographers explained the unknown. I know, not jerks, dragons.
One philosopher’s take on “jerkitude” is well worth a read:

“A theory of jerks: Are you surrounded by fools? Are you the only reasonable person around? Then maybe you’re the one with the jerkitude,” by Eric Schwitzgebel. Aeon Magazine, June 4, 2014.


*Source: “The genius of dogs: how dogs are smarter than you think”
by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. New York, New York: Dutton, 2013.


@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable: Aesop's “The Frogs and the Sun”*

Posted by jlubans on June 06, 2014  •  Leave comment (1)

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Caption: Parasol hoisting frogs.

“On marriage of a knave of state,
Esop this fable did relate:
‘Report had thro' the marshes spread,
That Sol was on the point to wed;
The croaking tribe made such a clatter,
That Jove inquir'd what was the matter.
‘One Sun,’ a frighted Frog replies,
‘Consumes us, when our lake he dries:
Then what will be our wretched fate,
Should this new couple propagate!’"


Likewise, in one metropolis there were three major libraries. One of the directorships opened and was duly filled. Shortly after, the second library’s top job became vacant and, the decision-makers, for unknown reasons, hired the spouse of the first library director. Apparently, the threat of like-mindedness and the lack of diverse thinking, made little difference in the hiring decision. Shortly after, the third library’s executive job became vacant and that institution hired a former colleague of the first director who was also a good friend of the second director! I can well imagine the staff of these three libraries, like the frogs, were concerned about how these three similar personalities – none was particularly visionary or innovative - would influence the cooperative initiatives. Did these appointments help or hinder. Hard to say, but I would tend to lean toward the latter since all three were traditional in view and perspective. Why make these hires? Perhaps it was that each institution’s boss wanted to get the decision made and, after all, “it was just a library”, so what matter if the three were of a similar mindset?

*Source: Boothby, Brooke. Boothby, Brooke, Phaedrus, Aesop, and Marquard Gude. 1809. Fables and satires: with a preface on the Esopean fable. Edinburgh: Printed by George Ramsay and Company for Archibald Constable and Co. Available at Google Books.
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Caption: Sir Brooke Boothby, 1781 by Joseph Wright of Derby
Prof. Laura Gibbs introduced me to Mr. Boothby’s fables. Ms. Gibbs is an excellent source for the fable-phile and the aspiring fabulist. Here is one of her several sites dedicated to Aesop and other fable writers and translators.



@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Losing the Hierarchy: Or, What the VA Needs to Do.

Posted by jlubans on June 03, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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The “iron triangle” is one of the concepts I will talk about at a seminar this August. *
It’s named the iron triangle because when all three points – point #1, the agency or bureaucracy (administration and staff); point #2, the clients and interest groups, and point #3, the funding and oversight agencies - are reciprocating with each other all goes swimmingly. The iron triangle appears impervious to external change, especially when the independent media (the Fourth estate!) behaves more like an interest group than a constructive skeptic. Worse, the iron triangle can block desirable internal change initiatives! While the iron triangle can be a protective wall against budgetary interlopers, for the most part it makes manifest many of the worst bureaucratic practices incorporated in Parkinson’s Law.
However, even the best iron triangles have moments of weakness; when one of the points corrodes, the iron triangle may collapse.
Illustrative of this are the headlines in the USA about a large federal agency by the name of the Veterans Administration, the VA. After decades of criticism, internal and external, the icy resistance may be thawing. What is the VA? Its charge is to provide medical care to all USA military veterans. How big? In the 2014 fiscal year the VA budget is estimated to be $150.7 billion. Billion. That only a third of that goes to the provision of medical care is an acre-size red flag. One estimate numbers VA staff at 280,000.
The VA has long had problems, but the iron triangle has handily rebuffed change initiatives. Until now. What’s different?
The VAs iron triangle is composed of patients (clients), the VA (its administrators and staff – including some much maligned and punished whistle blowers - and the funding agencies (Congress and oversight committees). One of this trio, the client, the soldier, is now up in arms. The patients are rebelling and publicly calling the agency bosses and the Congress to task. Aggravating the fall out (for those with vested interest who benefit from the status quo) is the media’s finally showing some critical thinking instead of buying into the governments’ claims that all is well.
At long last, positive change may be around the corner.

Clearly the VA is not a democratic workplace. Of the VA staff I know, they’re good people, wanting to do a good job; really not much different from the rest of us. So, I think using the staff to help heal the VA is a feasible idea. What other ideas do the concepts of freedom at work, leading from the middle, and the democratic workplace offer? Here are a few, not necessarily in order. These are free, and we know what that’s worth! Still, here they are:

First and foremost, a new leader must share an immediate sense of urgency. Create a “war room” and use it for coordination and communication about issues, debate, actions, and progress. Use no titles in the war room. It’s a disaster, all hands on deck.
Use only existing resources, pool the budget.
Establish change councils, linked to the “war room”, and charge them with finding and implementing improvements.
Open the books, budget and personnel.
Unplug the ideas reservoir. Blow up the blockade.
Harvest the low-hanging fruit. (After decades of denial, there ought to be a bumper crop.)
Take the “experts” and consultants out of the room – they are not part of the solution.
Gather ideas from all over, debate and vote on ten best and take action. Repeat.
Set a budget goal: a 10% shift in 2 years from administrative budget to the medical services side.
Freeze 5% of the budget and use it as a creativity pool for testing ideas and implementing them. Include the purchase of new capital equipment, but only if labor and budget savings occur.

I hope the VA can once again function according to its founding principles – to help veterans. “Losing the hierarchy” is a first step.

*”Leading Change”: A seminar on leading and following change in libraries and other organizations. Sponsored by the University of Latvia. August 25-28. (On August 29th there’s a separate library event and a very special reason to be in Latvia: the grand opening of the National Library of Latvia in Riga!)
If you are in Europe, come to the seminar. It’ll be in English, in a beautiful setting (near Sigulda, an hour out of the capital) and in a lovely time of year. Write me and I’ll let you know how to register.

@Copyright 2014 John Lubans