“Failing to Fail”, Part 2.

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


“You have to lose to know how great it is to win.” – A Monopoly™ executive on why not to “throw” a game to a family member.

It’s that time of year. Festive family gatherings. Board games like Monopoly will be played. Winners will smile gleefully. Losers will cry. Some losers will vow to never play again. Most will survive to play another day, yet feelings may be bruised and grievances linger.
Back in 2011 I wrote “Failing to Fail”,
my assessment of how difficult it is to accept failure in ourselves, or, if we have the choice and the ability, to let others fail. We intervene out of mankind’s tendency for altruism. And, we may intervene for other less lofty reasons, like the parent who lets a young child win at Monopoly. (More on that below.)
Regardless of what we are told about losing, the glory goes to the winner. It’s almost as if failure is something shameful, the very opposite of success. We rarely see failure and success as inter-related, hand in hand, like the sign with the arrows pointing in the same direction. Rather, in our culture, there are two roads, one is success, and the other is failure. Quo vadis?
My 2011 essay was about how the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – the self managing orchestra which plays at the highest level without a conductor - coaches student orchestras to play like Orpheus, sans conductor. But, and this is a big but, the theory does not always work out in practice. The time pressure of an imminent public performance and poor decision making by the student players may turn the Orpheus coach into the traditional conductor, telling not showing. Like the parent who wants his child to succeed at Monopoly, the Orpheus coach wants the students orchestra to “succeed”. (After all, there’s more at stake than the student orchestra’s putting on a good show. The Orpheus philosophy of organization is also on display.)
I asked, rhetorically, what would happen if the students’ orchestra “failed”? If failure is a great teacher, why not let the students take responsibility and learn from it? Or, if the coach backs off - after explaining what’s at stake - during rehearsal, will the students get it together before the performance? Isn’t that what happens in the happy-ending movies?
I once helped facilitate an outdoor problem solving exercise for engineering students.
These were first year students from a prestigious engineering school. Each of several groups of 6 or 8 students was assigned a half day problem-solving task: build a raft out of lengths of rope, several plastic barrels, wooden poles and, most important of all, their ingenuity and resourcefulness as incipient engineers. After much discussion and construction, each group was ready to put its raft to the test. Ooops! The rafts sank and all hands went down with their ships in the muddy water.
I have rarely seen a more downcast group of students. The debrief, in which we talk about what went well and what could have gone better, lasted about five minutes and was largely a glum silence, even with prompts from me. I intuited some blame coming my way, as if I were that parent playing Monopoly and holding back hints. Alas, as sometimes happens, I had no technical hints to offer beyond notions about group dynamics, communication, teamwork and advising them, gently, to “use all your resources”. If only the rafts had floated, what shouts of joy might have been heard on that summer’s day, echoing along the riverbanks.
So, was this failure on the river useful in helping these students become better engineers? Hard to tell when no one is talking!
I like to think these kids reflected and used it to improve how they would problem solve; that this failure, however bitter, prepared them for future success. Or, was this failure written off as an aberration, a failure on the part of those who organized the event?
Back to Monopoly.
In an article just in time for Christmas, the author asks the question, “Should you let your child win at Monopoly?” and responds with a quote from an child psychiatrist:
“Everyone remembers the kid in the playground who kicked the ball into the woods when he lost the game.” “That kid wasn’t given the skills to recover from failure. You don’t want to be that kid.”
What can we derive from failure? If we choose to ignore it, to write it off, or to cheat to avoid it, it seems there’s not much gained. What can parents and children, leaders and followers, do to avoid being “that kid”?
A letter to the editor followed the Monopoly article. It was from a grand mother who explained that two can play at “throwing” the game. The worse she played (on purpose) the kids played even worse! She was never happier than when her 7-year-old grandson beat her for real at chess.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “JUPITER AND THE TORTOISE”*

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

Caption: “Bruņurupucis” (Turtle) in Winter at Jurmula Beach in Latvia, heading out, house and all, to the Baltic Sea.

“Jupiter was about to marry a wife, and determined to celebrate the event by inviting all the animals to a banquet. They all came except the Tortoise, who did not put in an appearance, much to Jupiter's surprise. So when he next saw the Tortoise he asked him why he had not been at the banquet. ‘I don't care for going out,’ said the Tortoise; ‘there's no place like home.’ Jupiter was so much annoyed by this reply that he decreed that from that time forth the Tortoise should carry his house upon his back, and never be able to get away from home even if he wished to.”

So, now we know how the turtle got its carapace; well in advance of the tiny house movement. And, it goes to show that a blasé answer might get you more blowback than you want. Be not a dolt; mind your manners. There’s a reason.
I recall how - when answering Suggestions and Questions in a public forum - sometimes I’d make a supposedly funny reply instead of taking the question seriously. While I apologized, I probably should have had a more sensitive ear. Taking the question seriously, I’d follow a different path for repairing something broken or fixing a policy or situation in need of improvement rather than dismissing it out of hand for a cheap laugh. Sort of like Jupiter’s turtle, stupid things said and done can become a burden.

*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

Bored & Plateaud

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

Caption: Avoid plateaus; stay OFF the trails.

Boredom; I’d guess it hits all of us from time to time. It may be inevitable, but when it becomes a daily enervating event – the office turned into Dante’s purgatorium - it’s probably time to do something.
Let’s be clear. I am not talking about the casual boredom born of too much time on my hands – like the boredom of waiting for the bus or doctor.
On-the-job-boredom, the heavy-duty kind, comes from busyness (working at not working), the ritualized daily routine, and too little challenge and change. Think standing committee meetings. Think performance appraisal. Think of a low risk, low innovation and reactive organization.
Un-boring work is different. A secretary I’d met while writing about the Richard Petty (auto) Racing team told me she loved her job so much, “I don’t need an alarm clock to get to work.” Boredom’s on the flip side of that.
Another point for clarity, not all boredom is bad; it depends on what you choose to counter it with. If recognized and acted upon, boredom can trigger much needed change, individual and organizational.
The first step to doing something about boredom is to consider causes. Ask yourself these questions.
Is it you or where you work?
If your colleagues have neither the resources nor the inclination nor the desire to undo the boring parts, well, what are you going to do?
If you derive little joy from your work or if there is little joy to be derived, what will you do?
If the organization is prone to dither, content within its contentment, what will you do?
If at one time your job was challenging and something you looked forward to, like the Petty Racing secretary, what can you do to reclaim that “old time feeling”?
“Flow” is something I alluded to in a 2011 essay, “A Dog and His Bone”.
The notion of “flow” helps explain when and why work feels good or not. When challenge and skills are near equal, then we can experience something similar to the relish and full engagement of man’s best friend gnawing on a bone. But, when challenge and skills are clearly out of sync, (for example, high challenge with low skills or low challenge with high skills) then we can experience frustration, boredom and apathy.
There’s another word for on-the-job boredom: plateau. A recent article from the Wall Street Journal, “How Your Job Can Make You Smarter” is relevant.
The article discusses brain lab research on learning at work and what conditions are most conducive to learning, to sharpening one’s skills. It’s unstated, but learning keeps one fresh, and for me, learning is challenge based, something to understand and to master.
The author, Sue Shellenbarger, describes several of the conditions under which you become “smarter” (I’d add that you also become engaged and un-bored) in the job.
“You work at tasks that are difficult enough that you make some mistakes.”
“You have a job that is continually challenging.”
“Improving your skills is rewarding enough that you want to keep trying to do better.”
“Your work lets you progress to higher skill levels but never lets you master it.”
(BTW, I believe there is an implicit leaderly role in making each of these happen.)
According to research, those conditions stimulate and change the brain for the better – and, one hopes, dissipates boredom. While citing the research on activities that “increased density or activation of regions of the brain related to core job skills”, the author has the good sense to qualify these stated claims of “brain plasticity”: “The impact of such physical changes in the brain on workers’ overall cognitive ability isn’t clear.”
Avoiding ruts
The bored, the plateaud or otherwise beleaguered followers represent challenges for leaders. Pay attention to what is happening with your followers. Help them overcome challenges. And, once overcome, pat them on the back and up the ante.
All but one or two of my bosses supported my research, writing and teaching along with doing the “job”. I suppose, unconsciously, I always went beyond the job to stave off the boredom that is never far away in a traditional job, with its predictable ebbs and flows each day, week and year. It was a way for me to journey on unmarked paths and avoid the plateau.
Other paths:
Career experimentation.
If I had it to do over again, I’d question the rationale for staying in the same job, on a linear track for 40 years. Talk about stultifying! But, it’s pretty much what I did.
Why not change your career a few times? Longevity and economic policy is extending our working years (now into age 70 and up); if there’s ever been a time for multiple career tracks, now’s the time.
A good friend started in one field, left it for another and then another. She did well at each position however brief her tenure. She was, at career’s end, regarded as one of the best in her field. If she was bored, I never observed it. And, leader after leader realized just how her diverse experience augmented and benefited what his or her organization was trying to do.
Another friend, a NYC gourmet food store manager, was well paid and successful in his field. One day he told his boss he was leaving. He and his wife left Manhattan for a farm in the hinterlands of Maine. As sometimes happens, their back-to-nature adventure did not work out and they decided to return to the big city. When my friend asked for his job back, did the leader of the gourmet store reject him for leaving or suggest that he was no longer au courant with the food business? No. Without hesitation, he hired him back, knowing full well that what he learned and experienced in Maine would help him do his NYC job even better.
Job exchanges (within an organization or with another organization on another continent!) just might add some zest to someone in need of a fresh challenge. While some jobs may be too specialized for an exchange, I think most administrative jobs with professional staff are amenable to job swapping. When I experimented with job swaps – domestic and international - I saw improved attitudes, personal growth and idea generation on both sides.
Sabbaticals or paid leaves are another way for the plateaud manager to break out. It’s best if you truly get away and do something different, so do not indulge in a busman’s holiday, instead literally “let go”. Trek somewhere, drive a truck, live in the woods, or travel/volunteer in foreign cultures – you get the idea. There’s risk here; one sabbatical leave taker, whom I supervised, discovered his inner artist and left the field to become a successful and happy artist. A failure for the program? Not at all if you consider a leader’s role in adding value to human existence.
Honest talk. If you are plateaud, it’s time to talk with someone you trust and respect about the long term. Put away the wristwatches, leave the premises and talk about how you are feeling and ask for help. A good boss, a good listener, will hear you and offer insights and ideas to take on fresh challenges and endeavors. If it is time to leave, or to hand in your lunch pail, then that should be on the table, like it was for my artist friend. As I said above, this conversation is leader’s work; it’s the service side.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

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

Posted by jlubans on December 18, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


“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."

Reading this fable, Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue” came to mind. As only Mr. Cash could sing it – premiered, no less, at San Quentin prison - it tells the tale of what it's like to be named Sue:
“I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named ‘Sue.’”
Confronted at long last, Sue’s no-good father congratulates himself:
“For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Cause I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you ‘Sue.'"
Maybe that’s what Momma Monkey was trying to do, like Sue’s dad, dish out some “tough love.” Maybe.

*Source: 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 the Gutenberg Project.

Christmas Present: The Suggestion Answer Book (1982-2000) Archived.
Tracy Jackson, Technical Services Archivist for the Duke University Archives offers up a fondly written appreciation of “The Archives of the Library Answer Person.
As I noted in an accompanying note to this donation of several thousand loose-leaf pages of suggestions and answers, “the SA Book was a highly approachable and personable source of humor, an enjoyable and informative discussion, with some great ideas and complaints from students, all conducted in an open forum. For the most part the SA Book was a way for students to express themselves about the library (and the campus) and to seek to influence and improve library policies and practices.”

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. (Sir Roger L'Estrange) Abstemius’s, “A Miser and his Bags.”

Posted by jlubans on December 11, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: One of dozens of bronze sculptures by Tom Otterness, Nelson Rockefeller Park, NYC. Photo by author.

“A Covetous Rich Churl finding himself at the Point of Death, caus'd his Coffers to be brought up, and his Bags laid before him. You and I, says he, must part, and I would willingly bequeath ye to Those that will take most Delight in ye.
Why then, say the Bags, you must divide us betwixt your Heirs, and the Devils. Your Heirs will have Drink and Whores for your Money, and the Devils will be as well pleas'd on the other hand, that they are to have your Soul for't.”

“The Money of a Miser is the last Friend he takes his Leave of in this World.”

“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” sayeth the Churl. “I have loved you for so many years, I was hoping you’d come with me.”
“No? I thought – alas, wrongly - you loved me in return!”
Many of Tom Otterness’ sculptures in the Nelson Rockefeller installation are whimsical and mischievous, each suggesting just how a lust for cash can tie us down, enslave and stifle us.
Among the bronze moneygrubbers, penny pinchers, skinflints, cheapskates, and tightwads Otterness inserts the exploited and the downtrodden – the miser’s victims. Fortunately, all is not “dog eat dog”; he shows that happiness lies in simple things, in childhood innocence, in a mother’s love, in Nature.

*Source: Aesop’s Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

Of Jerks, Bozos, Dorks, Fatheads, Nincompoops, Dunderheads, Twerps, Bamboozlers, Fakers, Hornswogglers, et al.

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


Who finishes last, the jerk or the nice guy? Who gets the glory? Or, as the song goes, who gets the “bird of paradise (flying) up his nose”?
We all know “competent” jerks who have gotten ahead by crushing other people and we all know “incompetent” jerks who have stayed in place, their poisonous personalities denying them access to the top.
We all know “lovable stars”* who have done great things and are loved and respected by their work colleagues. And we all know some “lovable fools” who have been skipped over because someone at the top’s decided a dour punctilio is better than a cheerful bungler.
Complicating all of this - lest anyone think that mankind can be pigeonholed - is that fascinating array of people who just don’t fit on any short list of stereotypes. That array would includes the covert jerk who pretends not to be a jerk to higher ups (kiss up) but is petty and nasty to subordinates (kick down).
A breezy 28-page article in The Atlantic magazine, “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk
gives us the latest on jerks, in and out of the office. Jerry Useem, the author, takes an incisive look at anecdotal evidence of success among jerky people like the insufferably temperamental Steve Jobs, the egocentric, pistol-packing General George S. Patton, and the “inaccessible and arrogant” Howell Raines, ex-editor-in-chief of the New York Times. Useem uses the latter’s resignation from the Times as an example of how jerks often fail to build up any reservoir of good will so that when there’s an organizational crisis and a whipping boy must be found, the jerk, however powerful, gets the boot. Of course, in the Times example, it helped that the jerk’s boss (Arthur Sulzberger Jr) supported the group consensus that Raines was the problem not the solution. The downside costs of Sulzberger’s siding with Raines were far greater than the cost of losing Mr. Raines’ services.
Psychological research**, Useem suggests - albeit a bit too uncritically - provides counterintuitive answers as to why it may pay to be a jerk. Studies reveal that sneering behavior by luxury goods store clerks results in higher sales!
Or, another study implies that a rude customer - no greeting, no eye contact, no please or thank you, just outright insolence - will get better service from a retailer
It brings to mind what I call the “fur coat condition”. Does a woman in a fur coat get better service than the same woman in a cloth coat? In days gone by, the story goes, a woman in a fur coat always got more and better attention from retail clerks.
And, then there’s the more recent stealing coffee study involving pairs of people. A person who steals coffee only for himself will be seen as less powerful by the other person – a bit of a selfish jerk, and not someone you want as a leader.
But, a person who steals coffee for himself AND the other person, acquires more power in the eyes of the other person. Supposedly, the research indicates, “People want this man as their leader.”
Useem concludes that both sides, the jerk and non –jerk just might benefit from knowing each other better, melding the best qualities from the jerk sector research with the best behaviors from the nice guy or gal side. Learning and practicing when to be politely assertive and when to be graciously accommodating could make a big difference in one’s career trajectory and how she is perceived by her peers.
Here is Mr. Useem’s short list of melded behaviors for getting ahead, being more a nice guy or gal than an outright jerk:
“Smile at the customer. Take the initiative. Tweak a few rules. .… Don’t puncture the impression that you know what you’re doing. Let the other person fill the silence. Get comfortable with discomfort.... Be tough and humane. Challenge ideas, not the people who hold them.”
So, neither doormat nor dipstick be.
Organizationally, adopt corporate values, like New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team that makes it clear if you are a jerk you won’t play for the All Blacks. A jerk would undercut the Maori concept of whānau or the “extended family” of the team.

*Casciaro, Tiziana and Miguel Sousa Lobo, “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the Formation of Social Networks,” HBR June 2005

**The field of psychological research may have a jerk problem à la Diederik Stapel.
In August of this year Nature, the prestigious science magazine, concluded, “Don’t trust everything you read in the psychology literature. In fact, two thirds of it should probably be distrusted.” Emphasis added.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. LaFontaine’s “THE SUN AND THE FROGS”*

Posted by jlubans on December 04, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Aesop, the wide-eyed frog, lower left. Wood engraving by Percy J. Billinghurst, 1899.

Rejoicing on their tyrant's wedding-day,
The people drown'd their care in drink;

While from the general joy did Aesop shrink,
And show'd its folly in this way.
'The sun,' said he, 'once took it in his head
To have a partner for his bed.
From swamps, and ponds, and marshy bogs,
Up rose the wailings of the frogs.
"What shall we do, should he have progeny?"
Said they to Destiny;
"One sun we scarcely can endure,
And half-a-dozen, we are sure,
Will dry the very sea.
Adieu to marsh and fen!
Our race will perish then,
Or be obliged to fix
Their dwelling in the Styx!"
For such an humble animal,
The frog, I take it, reason'd well.'

LaFontaine’s poetic retelling of Aesop’s fable has an unusual structure. He begins with a drunken celebration of a tyrant’s (Louis XIV) wedding and slips in a dismayed Aesop who explains why the hoi-polloi should be wary not merry. The poem concludes with the climate-change-minded frogs realizing that if one “sun” is enough to dry up their pond, then a few more radiant stars will lead to certain doom.
My original take** on this fable was related to a tendency in some organizations to “procreate” like-mindedness among its employees resulting in low innovation and tentative decision-making. The cliché, “the acorn does not fall far from the tree”, pretty much encapsulates this phenomenon.

Today, I am reminded of recent research in which the more like-minded a group, the greater the probability it will polarize into groupthink. It gets worse. When a group is like-minded in extreme ways – no, it is not a condition unique to violent extremists but applies as well to hidebound members of very traditional organizations – that like-mindedness will polarize into a suicidal resistance to change and a willingness (among violent extremists) to perpetrate even worse atrocities.
In the workplace (innovative or traditional) we can counter groupthink through leadership that celebrates alternative thinking, that supports people with opposing points of view and that welcomes and defends differences. And, an organization that eschews groupthink deliberately recruits people who think critically, are independent in decision-making, and possess a bias for action.

*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.

**A retelling of this fable first appeared here in mid-2014.

Leading from the Middle Library of the week:
University of the Fraser Valley Library, Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada.

That time of year idea. A Christmas gift for your favorite unboss or a boss in need of a new way of leading. Buy it here.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015