Friday Fable. Lubans’ The Cat, the Man, and the Flying Sausages

Posted by jlubans on May 28, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Once upon a time, a hungry man went to the store. He looked and looked – he was a fussy shopper. He picked a big package of sausages because it looked the best of all; it had happy faces on the wrapper that was in colors of gold and green. I said he was a fussy shopper not a smart one.
Well, after frying up a few, he put the rest away in the fridge. The sausages tasted terrible and looked even worse when cooked, all curled up like mottled intestines.
But, whenever he went to the refrigerator, he wondered what to do with those disgusting sausages? Being frugal, of necessity, he could not bring himself to throw them away. When he offered them to his neighbor, she took a look and emphatically shook her head. No, thank you!
One day, looking out the kitchen window of his third floor apartment, he saw a raggedy white cat in the enclosed yard down below, a yard full of weeds and dandelions.
Aha! he thought, I bet that cat would like a sausage. So he tossed one out. Thirty minutes later, the sausage was gone –the cat must have scarfed it up. So, he tossed a sausage out the window each day until they were all gone. The man was happy.
The next day, he heard meowing below. The cat looked up at the man in the window, as if saying, “Where’s my sausage?”
So the man went to the store and bought more sausages. Each day he would throw out a sausage. Those flying sausages, the man thought, must be like manna from heaven.
The man had very little money and soon it was all gone, spent on sausages. He could no longer buy food for himself. He died.
The cat, also died. Not from hunger, but from over-eating.
In heaven, when they bumped into each other, the cat reproached the old man. “You are a kind man, but I have to tell you those were the worst sausages I have ever eaten. I only ate them because I like a tidy yard – after all it is where I live and hunt, under the vines up against the walls. I did not want the yard full of foul smelling sausages. When I meowed up at you that one day it was to tell you to quit tossing those damn sausages into the yard!”
The man was abjectly sorry. The cat flicked his tail, as cats will do, and went his way.

So think twice, my listeners, maybe try an ounce before buying a pound.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week Princeton University Firestone Library, Princeton, NJ. United States

© John Lubans 2015

The Occam’s Razors*

Posted by jlubans on May 25, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

No, not the name of a punk metal group. Rather, the nom de guerre for an organization’s ad hoc group to scrutinize a proposed decision for some major turn in the organization’s life.
As readers of my blog know, I’ve been re-thinking some of the ways to beat bias and to inhibit the all too prevalent groupthink when making decisions.
In my explorations I came across “red team”, a term borrowed from the military. I asked someone who worked in Special Forces for clarification: “The classic examples of red team missions were the penetration / security assessment of sensitive (defensive) sites. Going against secure locations that are staffed by truly unwitting armed guard forces is dangerous, especially since 2001.”
You can well imagine this type of mission was far more perilous than what goes on in corporate conference rooms even when a corporate red team is charged to be “brutally honest, relentlessly detail-oriented”, and to stubbornly refuse to accept anything but a crystal clear explanation. Obviously, there is a high risk that by doing your job on a red team, you could make career-long enemies. My source confirms: “There is always a danger of inciting more territoriality when red teaming if you use only members of one unit / organization. Both sides are given a mission and both want to win, i.e.- platoon against platoon within the same company. If both forces come from within the same organization it creates competition, which can be good or bad. Good in that it creates a result that is used as a metric to gauge the best course of action and stimulates thought/action or bad in that it pits subordinates against each (other) which results in a divide within the group after completion of the exercise.”
Now that is a lengthy quote for this blog, but it is far superior to biz school discussions about why red teams may not be all that popular in the work world. For a red team to be effective, it is quintessential that there be strong leadership and corresponding corporate values to permit red team thinking. Without that leadership and values, a red teamer could be hung out to dry. I ran into opposition and resentment by merely asking questions that made some of my colleagues squirm; just think what I would have come up against if I exhibited a red teamer’s brutal honesty, relentless attention to detail and a stubborn refusal to accept vague answers!
OK. So, when - if ever - to use the concept in the workplace? Based on my long and winding career, I can see how organizations in which I worked could have benefited from using an independent group to review complex decisions. The charge to the group – the Occam’s Razors - would be to frame “a problem from the perspective of an adversary or skeptic, to find gaps in plans, and to avoid blunders.” Here are a few real world episodes:
* When confronted with a choice of accepting or rejecting an inadequate budget for renovating a building. An underfunded renovation - you are convinced - will be inferior to what is needed by you and your customers.
* When pressured for seemingly illogical reasons to change from one system of warehousing to another. Doing so will require relabeling millions of pieces at a cost of millions of dollars, along with a huge inconvenience cost.
* When deciding whether to continue with a cooperative development of an online system or to abandon it for a readily available commercial product. The cooperative developer team is three years late and over budget. Your quitting may jeopardize other successful cooperative efforts.

Of these examples, all but one resulted in a poor and costly decision.
I do think our decision-making would have been greatly facilitated by independent and skeptical scrutiny by a group like my mythical Occam’s Razors. Of course, the group’s doing a good job would require an effective organizational leadership. And, as my Special Forces correspondent concludes: "At the end of the day two things matter - thick skin and candor."

*”Occam’s Razor” is a way of thinking that “the simplest answer is often correct.” Or, “When you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras!”

© John Lubans 2015


Posted by jlubans on May 21, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Milo Winter (1886-1956)

“A very young Mouse, who had never seen anything of the world, almost came to grief the very first time he ventured out. And this is the story he told his mother about his adventures.
‘I was strolling along very peaceably when, just as I turned the corner into the next yard, I saw two strange creatures. One of them had a very kind and gracious look, but the other was the most fearful monster you can imagine. You should have seen him.’
‘On top of his head and in front of his neck hung pieces of raw red meat. He walked about restlessly, tearing up the ground with his toes, and beating his arms savagely against his sides. The moment he caught sight of me he opened his pointed mouth as if to swallow me, and then he let out a piercing roar that frightened me almost to death.’…
‘If it had not been for that terrible monster,’ the Mouse went on, ‘I should have made the acquaintance of the pretty creature, who looked so good and gentle. He had thick, velvety fur, a meek face, and a look that was very modest, though his eyes were bright and shining. As he looked at me he waved his fine long tail and smiled.’
‘I am sure he was just about to speak to me when the monster I have told you about let out a screaming yell, and I ran for my life.’
‘My son,’ said the Mother Mouse, ‘that gentle creature you saw was none other than the Cat. Under his kindly appearance, he bears a grudge against every one of us. The other was nothing but a bird who wouldn't harm you in the least. As for the Cat, he eats us. So be thankful, my child, that you escaped with your life, and, as long as you live, never judge people by their looks.’

“Do not trust alone to outward appearances.”

The anonymous translator – more likely accumulator since Aesop is easily “borrowed” without attribution – decided on this lengthy rendering, more like a short fairy tale. The precocious mouse’s story advises caution when trusting someone, that all may not be as it seems. One rendering of this fable has Uncle Sam as the Predator Puss and guess who is the Friendly Fowl? Mr. Putin! Now, there’s a reach, at least for me.
So, remember sometimes even the best story can be taken and twisted to fit someone’s unique, even disturbed, perspective. Are we really any less gullible than in the days of this fable?
In the 80s, a young woman’s father defected from the Soviet Union to America. Torn between her family in Latvia and her father in the USA, she nevertheless decided to join him. Surely, she thought, she would be immune to the effect of her exposure to the Soviet’s daily anti-America propaganda. Still, when she got to NYC, she experienced a genuine, however irrational, fear – “a gun pointing at my neck” - that she would be shot on the street.
We should be mindful of the power of stories to shape, even distort, our personal views. Living in Riga, I’ve been told by some to never go to the Central Tirgus, the fabulous market. Why? Because bad people are there. And, I’ve been told with certitude to avoid one trolley bus route because I would be robbed. My real experience contradicts all these warnings. Had I followed this gossip I would be the poorer for it.
Aesop, a critical thinker, was forever peeling away the layers of untruth. He advocated in his own way, thinking that was “clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” Of course, we – in these enlightened times - are all “critical thinkers” are we not?

*Source: Aesop for Children (translator not identified). Illustrations by Milo Winter (1886-1956). Chicago: 
Rand McNally & Company, 1919. Available online at Project Gutenberg.

NOTE: I usually post twice a week, Tuesday and Friday. This Tuesday I was "off the grid." Twice a week posts will resume on May 26.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE FAWN AND HIS MOTHER”*

Posted by jlubans on May 14, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Semantic Sausage

“A Hind said to her Fawn, who was now well grown and strong, ‘My son, Nature has given you a powerful body and a stout pair of horns, and I can't think why you are such a coward as to run away from the hounds.’ Just then they both heard the sound of a pack in full cry, but at a considerable distance. ‘You stay where you are,’ said the Hind; ‘never mind me’: and with that she ran off as fast as her legs could carry her.”

One moralist has it that “No arguments will give courage to the coward.” Now that’s a bit harsh. The deer has the statistical wisdom not to take on a pack of hounds. The odds are stacked. Still, the fable exemplifies the adage: “Do as I say, not as I do.”
We are all prone to sanctimony, stating norms of behavior and then making exceptions for ourselves. So try to avoid absolutes but also avoid weasel talk. When I am obligated to read strategic plans - I normally run screaming the other way - I am struck by the language; the empty clichés, like so many helium hot dogs, pretending a robustness neither meant, understood or intended.

*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.

© John Lubans 2015

“Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes”*

Posted by jlubans on May 12, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The Hybrid Organization

Deep in the text of a keynote talk, “Do We Need Libraries?” I was surprised by Steve Denning’s ideas on “radical management”. He contends that the new organization model is economy driven; so out with the Traditional Economy and in with the Creative Economy. The former is led and controlled from the top and all that entails, a vertical arrangement. In the Creative Economy, “the management ideology is horizontal. The central goal of the organization is to delight the user or customer. The values are enablement, self-organization and continuous improvement to add value to the user or customer.”
Writing in Forbes magazine, Mr. Denning cuts a much wider swath than those of us under the interminable tail of the blogosphere, so it is nice to see one’s own ideas bolstered, however different Denning’s terms might be from mine. I have been making noises for many years about leading from the middle, the unboss, freedom at work, and the democratic workplace, perhaps most persuasively in "The Dog Under Your Desk" from February of 2014.
Besides nomenclature, Mr. Denning and I differ on the compatibilities between the traditionalist’s vertical ideology and the creative’s horizontal ideology. For Denning, they are as incompatible as a caterpillar in your Caesar salad. “When you try to plug Agile self-organizing teams into a hierarchical bureaucracy, you get continuing friction. It’s not sustainable. Either the horizontal ideology will take over the organization or the vertical ideology will crush the Agile self-organizing teams.”
Call me cautious, but I am less absolute; indeed, while I may agree with his certainty about the superiority of the horizontal ideology, I see the vertical ideology making a transition – over time - from the hierarchy to something more team-based, moving from top down to across the board.
When I helped introduce a horizontal ideology at work (mid 80s to mid 90s) I got to see just how the vertical and horizontal might clash. And, clash they did. Looking back, the verticals might brag about “crushing” the upstart horizontalists; in reality, a hybrid model survived, I am told. Certain horizontal practices continue, like a rear guard, to be practiced in the Restoration. This is not because of nostalgia; hardly, but because the ideas and practices work: they promote creativity and better decision making, get more work done, please more customers and lead to the all important internal motivators of staff recognition and achievement. Even the crustiest traditionalista could not deny these successes so it would be self destructive to return fully to the sclerotic hierarchy – regardless of how much the traditionalist might miss the good old, top down days. And, the staff, having tasted freedom, would dig in its heels much to the chagrin (and embarrassment) of the leaders of the Restoration. I call this a hybrid organization, a melding of teams and the towering pyramid of boxes, capped by THE Boss. However, a successful hybrid requires a different kind of leader, the unboss, who helps the people who work in the organization make the most of their skills and abilities for the good of the concern.
Unless you are a new organization, (Denning cites Apple, Amazon, Zappos and Zara ) you will have little option but to make the transition from the vertical to the horizontal via a hybrid phase. Just like the S-shaped curve of change, knowing when to jump from a downward curve onto an up-curve is a process of a few years length, preparing the organization for the leap onto the new ascending curve. That’s the hybrid phase, the horizontal AND the vertical.

*Jimmy Buffet’s song came to mind as I thought about Denning’s horizontals and verticals and the requisite changes in attitudes for a trad boss’ apotheosis into an unboss.

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Lubans’ The Pigeon and the Stone Lion

Posted by jlubans on May 07, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. Photo by John Lubans, May 4, 2015, Vērmanes dārzs, Riga, Latvia.

Long ago, when animals could talk, a pigeon grew accustomed to roosting on the head of a stone lion, something he would never have dared when the lion lived and breathed. The pigeon enjoyed strutting and preening on the lion’s head for all to see, all the while mocking the now powerless “king of beasts”.
Back then, not only could animals talk, but statues had resident spirits. The stone lion had one named Nemesis. Nemesis grew disgusted with the disrespectful ways of the pigeon and appealed to Zeus: “I was strong and honorable in life, why should this bird mock me and defecate on my head?” Zeus agreed and turned the stone lion into warm flesh and fur. The pigeon’s next landing on the lion’s mane was his last; the lion tossed his mighty head and snapped up the pigeon in his jaws.

Moral: Disrespect is no virtue. If you honor and respect something in life, don’t begrime its memory.

In the workplace, I’ve seen pigeon-like besmirching of a former leader’s good work, something that the denigrators would never have done to his face. And, sometimes, a good leader finds herself powerless, trapped between an unsupportive upper administration and a change resistant staff. Then, like the pigeon and the stone lion, the belittlers jeer with impunity. The moral of this story suggests, “Do so at your own risk; divine retribution might be on the horizon!”

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: Howard University Library System, Washington DC

© John Lubans 2015

Yessers, Survivors and Sheep.

Posted by jlubans on May 05, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption: From Punch magazine, 1895.

Followers, good and bad, feature in my class on Freedom at Work: The Democratic Workplace, which I am currently teaching in Riga.
G. du Maurier’s cartoon, famously known as “The Curate’s Egg”, catches some of the dilemma each of us faces when being a Yes Man (or Woman) – or as Wodehouse has it, a “Yesser”. There’s also a bit of the compliant Sheep in the young curate and most of all, the Survivor.
How times have changed, or have they?
The winner of a recent caption contest for this cartoon, has the milquetoast slanging the Bish, “You’re bloody right, this effin’ egg is off!” While refreshing for its candor the curate’s response – given the power imbalance between the two – would hardly help advance the curate’s career. But, then stranger things have happened. Perhaps the Bishop will slap his knee, and say something like: “You s.o.b! I sure do like a man who speaks his mind! You can do my sermon this Sunday!”
In Wodehouse’s literary world, the curate was a poor assistant to a vicar, striving to get to the next level, a vicarage of his own. Usually, that meant a guaranteed salary – a sinecure for life, and enough money on which to marry. It was all up to the bishop. So, there was more than a little motivation to not ruffle the bishop, at least not until you got booted upstairs.
When my class looks in on the various taxonomies of leaders and followers, I want them to consider the reasons behind being a star follower or a loveable fool or a Yesser. How does one’s apparent role choice happen? Are we born that way – sheep like, cooperative and dependent thinking – or do corporate and personal factors influence us? I ask them about the risks of speaking up, of speaking the truth, of being an active, independent thinker.
Why can’t we all be candid – in a nice way of course – about problems at work? What gets in the way? One answer all too frequently is the demeanor of the leader. If you speak honestly about a problem, does that leader support you? Really support you?
Does the leader squirm, visibly or not, when opposing perspectives clash? What happens over time to someone that takes an alternative view to the boss’s proposal? How does the boss treat her after the discussion? Is she marginalized or do her views influence the final decision?
By the end of our classroom discussion, there’s a good understanding of the leader’s essential role in creating a climate for open and frank debate. And, the students understand, I hope, why that is important. An unquestioned leader will likely make a poorer decision than that made by a leader willing to engage in energetic and urgent debate, demanding of alternative views, and respectful of opposing viewpoints. (That's my unboss.)
I ask each of the students to consider, in private, where they would land on these follower charts. That’s to ensure that our in-class discussion is not just an academic exercise. Most of the students in this current class are already employed, so they can apply these theories immediately not just to themselves, but also to where they are working.
At the minimum, I want them to have the vocabulary to understand what is happening to them in the organization. And, ultimately, I’d like for them to understand that there is no reason to be stuck in a particular role. If there’s an opportunity to be independent and active, then do it. The risk is there but so are the personal rewards.

© John Lubans 2015