Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE DOG AND HER MASTER*”

Posted by jlubans on September 28, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“A man who was about to go on a journey said to his dog who was standing beside him, 'Why are you just standing there with your mouth hanging open? Get yourself ready, you're going to go with me.' The dog wagged her tail, fawning on her master as she said, 'I am all ready to go; you are the one who's delaying!'”
Caption. Bridger: Let’s go!
Having just been on a ten-day road trip with Bridger, my daughter Mara's black lab, I can well attest to a dog’s preparedness and readiness to move it!
And, I think there are times when a manager can be misled into thinking the staff he or she has to work with aren’t really that interested or prepared to take on challenges. In Leading from the Middle I give at least one example of how a large group of staff were viewed by supervisors as hidebound reactionaries. It did seem that way as supervisor after supervisor directed the staff to do the job “My way.” Each effort failed. Those supervisors never consulted with the staff on how best to do the work. Finally one supervisor, under the gun to lead the group to higher productivity, admitted to the staff he did not have a clue about what they did and asked for help. Imagine that!
Within a day or two, the former "hardshells" showed they were not the ones delaying; they were ready to go. This staff produced a multi-page list of what could be done immediately to unplug the chronic logjams. The supervisor had little to say beyond, “Do it!” They did.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

More Mistakes, Faster!

Posted by jlubans on September 26, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Looking around for examples of democratic workplaces, I came across the English firm, NixonMcInnes, which specializes in social media for business. Few large organizations pursue democracy in the workplace, most are small and these latter tend to be smart and edgy start ups, often in the IT industry.
NixonMcInnes appears to have many democratic concepts in place and I assume those are practiced, not just window dressing. I hope to learn more about this organization. One of their corporate rituals is a monthly “Church of Fail” meeting during which employees can share their failures – "in a non-threatening and fun way and ultimately to resounding applause". This nudged my memory about other instances of staff at all levels being encouraged not to hide their mistakes but to openly talk about them.
Southwest Airlines, as mentioned in Leading from the Middle, does something similar.
One of Southwest’s values is to “Focus on the situation, issue or behavior, not on the person”. Enabling this is an “Admit your bloopers” exercise during leadership classes. By being unafraid to talk about what normally would be embarrassing for mgrs or staff in other organizations, SWA moves away from blaming others, to openly talking about how things could be done better.
I got to see first hand a ritual practiced in Latvia during the winter solstice. In certain regions, villagers haul a log that’s been designated to hold all the past years grievances, sins, wrongs, and mistakes.
20120926-big log solstice.jpeg
Caption 1. The yule log haul re-enacted on a soggy Solstice at Riga's Outdoor Museum by a group, "Milzkalniece" from Milzkalne.
20120926-little log.jpeg
Caption 2. A clean slate for Christmas!
People dress up, often in pantheistic and carnival costumes, and drag the log through town and then the log goes into a bon fire along with the year’s accumulated guilt. There’s music, dancing and presumably lots of beer, another approach to drowning one's sorrows. A video made in the old town section of Riga on a frigid winter night shows the yule log, music, costumes and dancing.
In some "future searches" where an organization comes together to look at what’s been and where the organization wants to be, there’s a ritual of listing out so called "prouds" and “sorries,” the things that did not work out, grievances, hurt feelings, and failures. These are shared on flip charts read out to the group. Then, literally, participants dig a hole in the ground and deep-siz the sorries; to be forgotten. Obviously the more open and trusting the organization the better the chances that everyone can forgive, forget and move on to a brighter future.
I used to madden my traditionalist colleagues when discussing how we could be more productive. I'd say, "What we need is more mistakes, not fewer. More mistakes, faster." This ran counter to the mistake-free ethos held by many in the business. My point was that we needed to learn from our mistakes and the way to ramp up our learning was to experiment and to make the inevitable mistakes.

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “AESOP AND THE WRITER*”

Posted by jlubans on September 21, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“A man had read to Aesop selections from a badly written work in which he stupidly boasted at length about what a great writer he was. The man wanted to know what Aesop thought, so the writer said to him, 'Surely you do not think I have too high an opinion of myself? My confidence in my own genius is not misplaced, is it?' 'Not at all,' said Aesop, who was utterly exhausted by the writer's wretched book. 'I think it is a very good idea for you to praise yourself, given that no one else is ever likely to do so!'”
Indian runner pic
And so it must be for all of us who labor in solitude. Until our stuff, our art, our product meets the eye or ear of the beholder, we may be kidding ourselves about the “goodness”, the novelty of our insights and our conviction that few have trodden this way before. But, and it is a big but (hah!), I suspect there are instances of crystalline vision and heroic action never picked up by the cognoscenti. I recall a friend dismissing my assertion that while Roger Bannister ran the first recorded sub four-minute mile it was not the first four-minute mile. I argued that there must have been dozens of times, maybe hundreds of times, when in fear or friendly competition runners ran like the wind, "trailing streams of glory". Tradition has it that Native American runners daily peeled off dozens of miles and I would contend could easily do 60 second quarters over long distances. He denied it - no way. Maybe a record depends on who’s holding the stopwatch (or camera)? Well, that’s far apiece from Aesop’s pricking a vain author’s ballooning pride, so you may have to forgive me!
*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Senescence and Senility in the Workplace

Posted by jlubans on September 19, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Parkinson, in 1957, made several observations* about organizational decay. He diagnosed the condition, naming it “Injelititis”, and prescribed cures.
Injelitance results in a moldering organization, its leadership “plodding and dull”. The injelitant leader does not seem to mind or notice that not much is getting done. When called upon to do better, his or her response is MORE: people, money, and equipment. When asked to streamline operations, he responds: “Everything we do is valuable and cannot be modified or improved without MORE ….” My book, Leading from the Middle, describes several instances when I encountered on the job what I would now term injelititis .
This torpor is self-induced and the unfortunate prognosis leads to a final coma.
As to causes, “The first sign of danger is represented by the appearance in the organization’s hierarchy of an individual who combines in himself a high concentration of incompetence and jealousy.” (INcompetence + JELousy portmanteaus into INJELititis.)
(I would say a jealous but adequately competent boss can do almost as much damage.)
The injelitant- marked by an inadequate performance in her own department - “tries constantly to interfere with other departments and gain control of the central administration.” Personal experience suggests that while it may seem unlikely, in practice the articulate injelitant can indeed make his way up the corporate ladder. Indeed, the injelitant may have entered the organization at a high level!
Once at the helm, the injelitant never promotes or hires the best. Rather, she populates the organization with “sheep" and “yes men”. The effective follower - the one we should all want in our organizations - either leaves or becomes a survivor, playing the game behind enemy lines.
For Parkinson, the injelitant subtly reverses the rise of the competent. When two candidates (A&B) vie for an open position, the injelitant leader says, “A might be Clever, yes, but is he sound?”
“He dare not say, ‘Mr. A makes me feel small’,” so he says ‘Mr. B appears to me to have the better judgment.’”
I’ve heard the word “nuance” used in a similar way. A candidate can be seen more nuanced than another, and the supposedly more-nuanced one gets the job even though the supposedly less-nuanced candidate is vastly superior in experience and accomplishments. Parkinson said the word “judgment” as applied here signifies the opposite of intelligence, perhaps the same for “nuance”. (BTW, I think the word, "elegant" is an injelitant word. Next time you hear it, listen for how it is used.)
Pretty soon the organization is full of people who share the boss’s insecurity, so only inferior candidates are hired. You get the idea of how slowly but surely good people are forced out and replaced by also-rans.
The tertiary stage is the coma. “There is no spark of intelligence left in the organization. It may remain in a coma for 20 years.” The coma’s hallmarks range from smugness to apathy: apathy over productivity, surly attitudes, a deteriorating physical plant, and no innovation. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!)
Parkinson offers hope. “Eventually intelligence may creep in: stealthily, concealed under a mask of imbecilic good humor” - the beloved fool. Then, when promoted, he tears off the mask and starts to do something!
Absent this turning-the-tables, Parkinson suggests the external introduction of a militantly intolerant boss. Her mantra: “The best is scarcely good enough” and “There is no excuse for anything”.
Ridicule and Castigation are also cures, but they have their limits. The organization may have an inch-thick hide and the daily kick-in-the-ass becomes a bore for the person doing the kicking.
If bad enough, Parkinson says the entire organization has to be buried. “No survivors can be tolerated. Even the equipment must burn along with the files….”
Beware the injelitant virus!

*Source: From the book, Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration. Chapter 8, “Injelititis or Palsied Paralysis” pp.100-113. 1957 (1973 edition.)

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE SOW AND THE LIONESS”*

Posted by jlubans on September 07, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“The story goes that a sow who had delivered a whole litter of piglets loudly accosted a lioness, 'How many children do you breed?' asked the sow. 'I breed only one,' said the lioness, 'but he is very well bred!' 
The fable shows that a single man who is remarkable for physical strength and bravery and wisdom is mightier than many weak and foolish people.”

The epimythium, the Latin term for the tacked-on moral, is largely lost on me because of the lioness’ artful response to the overly enthusiastic sow. Better to savor the delicious riposte than to squeeze out an all too obvious moral.
As I think about it, there is something to be said for the sow’s quantity breeding. I recall in my supervisory salad days staff reprimanding me about wanting to gain ever-greater heights of production. I always wanted more!
A few regularly told me that I was sacrificing QUALITY for QUANTITY. They never did see that sacrificing quantity for an unspecific quality might be frustrating to our customers who were deprived of our products. Worse, the most quality-conscious staff member never consulted the customers about what quality meant for them! The more I heard this moralizing, the more it became a classic “mess”, one of those "messes" under which large problems invariably lurked. My chapter on Sherlock’s Dog in Leading from the Middle takes a look at “mess finding”.
*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Un-democracy flipped

Posted by jlubans on September 05, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

As you know, my first step in defining the democratic workplace was to list out what it is not.
Today’s post is the flip side of the Un-democracy; it is the definition I will use in my teaching.
By flipping the negatives – for example, “closed books” becomes “open books” - I get to the positive workplace.
In my eyes, it is natural for people to cooperate. Uncooperation is the abnormal. Humans prefer – with some noted competitive exceptions – to collaborate. The democratic workplace is indeed a natural environment. It is our evolved inclination – with language - to help each other that separate us from other species. “You will never see two monkeys carrying a log” is just as true as that when most of us see someone in need we want to help. Finally, the quintessential reason for a democratic workplace is that we get better at what we do, more so than under any other scheme.

Many leaders.
(There is a head leader, but leadership is delegated and distributed throughout the organization. Workers take initiative and cross boundaries to improve services and production. Team leaders, consulting with workers, meet to set goals and iron out production needs. (The “many leaders” concept was recently discussed in the Wall Street Journal, Who's the Boss? There Isn't One.))
De-centralized power.
(Workers make decisions about their work. Units within the organization make decisions and spend money relevant to their work in concert with other units.)
Open “books” (finances and personnel).
(No secrets. Workers see financial and personnel records and take part, as relevant, in personnel budget decisions and in the recruitment and hiring of new staff.)
Planning involves everyone.
(Workers participate in planning; they are stake-holders equal to managers. Decisions are made in a collaborative process that may include anonymous voting.)
Team-based, flat organization.
(No non-working supervisors. Team members, including team leaders, do their fair share of real work. A flat organization promotes communication across the workplace. There is a “grape vine,” but it is an informal network among workers and no longer the main source of knowing. The democratic ethos is clear: no back stabbing, differences are settled face to face.)
Many effective (independent and critical thinking and action-taking) followers.
(While some workers are less-able followers, all have the freedom and peer-expectation to move from dependent and uncritical thinking to thinking independently and to taking action.)
Managers do “real work”.
(With increased worker responsibility comes a reduction in the need for managers to supervise. Managers take part in doing what needs to be done and take the lead in thinking about trends, improvements and challenges for the organization.)
No formal performance appraisal.
(Performance appraisal is replaced by regular conversation and guidance among team members and managers. As necessary, discipline and guidance is addressed immediately by leaders or peers. Goal setting – Why are we here and what can we do better? - is a natural discussion among leaders and followers. )
Workers help define individual perks, from parking to pay.
(Workers, collaborating with managers, set fair salary levels and other compensation.)
A proactive organization.
(Most staff act like owners. They look to improve what they do; they are alert to trends, new ideas and they are free to carry out new initiatives. The organization has the highly developed capacity to anticipate change and to take on new challenges.)

There you have it. Let me know what you think.
There are, of course, some who question the advisability or feasibility of the democratic workplace. If you have doubts, you might derive comfort from an essay by Phillip J. Jones and George J. Fowler, The Limits of Democracy….
Then again, you might be thinking about how much fun it would be to work in a productive, proactive workplace instead of a hunkered-down bureaucracy.
Apart from the Wall Street Journal article linked above – with its several examples of democratic workplaces – there is another one-of-a-kind success story out of Brazil.
Leading from the Middle, of course, applies many of these democratic workplace principles at work.

And, the blog went over 200,000 hits (quien sabe?) on September 4, 2012.