Friday Fable. Aesop's (Joseph Jacobs) “Avaricious and Envious”*

Posted by jlubans on April 29, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Jupiter dreams up another zinger.

“Two neighbours came before Jupiter and prayed him to grant their hearts' desire. Now the one was full of avarice, and the other eaten up with envy. So to punish them both, Jupiter granted that each might have whatever he wished for himself, but only on condition that his neighbour had twice as much. The Avaricious man prayed to have a room full of gold. No sooner said than done; but all his joy was turned to grief when he found that his neighbour had two rooms full of the precious metal. Then came the turn of the Envious man, who could not bear to think that his neighbour had any joy at all. So he prayed that he might have one of his own eyes put out, by which means his companion would become totally blind.”
“Vices are their own punishment.”

Let’s leave our old friends, avarice and envy, alone for the nonce. Instead let’s look at this fable from a leaderly perspective.
Is Jupiter a bad boss, kick-ass coach, or caring unboss?
True to form, the uncaring, manipulative gods deliver, via Aesop, a message to us, error-prone man; if at all possible humankind will always screw things up! Well then what is Jupiter’s point? For us to learn from our mistakes? Perhaps. To give us counsel early in life so we avoid the mistakes of our forefathers and mothers? Maybe.
Or are these pranks out of boredom sitting around Mt. Olympus under Juno’s all-too watchful eye?
If we apply Kurt Lewin’s experiments with leadership philosophies,
Jupiter comes out far more autocratic and laissez faire than democratic. Jupiter is not an adviser, alongside, giving support and wisdom to these two neighbors. Instead, Jupiter, like a Greek tragedy, lets it rip, come what may. We imagine this type of boss sighing, “What fools these mortal be.” Turning, in smug exasperation, to Juno he exclaims, “I keep telling them and they don’t listen!”
Then, since he is in on the grand jest, he chuckles and starts dreaming up another practical joke for his entertainment.
Remind you of any bosses along your career path? I’ve known a few, arrogant and capricious, second only to Jupiter.

*Source: The Fables of Aesop, by Joseph Jacobs with illustrations by Richard Heighway (1894). Available at Project Gutenberg.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Edible Books, 2016

Posted by jlubans on April 24, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

The B2E team project in my class gives each team the opportunity to try out the several democracy-at-work concepts: developing into a productive team, collaborating, leading, following, supporting each other in getting something done, delivering a product; in this case a “book to eat”. It’s action-learning about group effort.
After lectures and assigned readings and after case-studies and experiential activities, each team now gets hands-on experience in rehearsing democratic concepts. And each team, like a musical group, gets to deliver a public performance of its metaphoric interpretation of the chosen story or song; its music, if you will.
Following their performances, I ask each team to gather for a plus/delta on how they worked together, what went well, what could have gone better? As in previous years, each of the 2016 groups stressed the value of getting to know each other:
“Good reason for bonding, getting to know our team members.”
“We would like to see each other again”
“Relationships go through stomach”
“(Meeting) Different people”

The three group presentations:
1. "Rabbit Meets New Friends", Latvian folk tale “Zakis Satiek Jaunus Draugus
Caption: Puppet show of story.

2. “The Sea Needs a Fine Net” " A plaintively sweet, traditional prenuptial song: Jūriņ' prasa smalku tīklu”.

Caption: Singing of nets and boats and unrequited love.

3. Mouse and rats, Latvian folktale, “Pelēns un žurkas” by Jānis Dailis.
Caption: Planning steps.

Prevalent in each team’s deltas was that time management could have been improved:
“Our performance could have been better, because of the lack of time.”
“We should have more rehearsals”
Each team appeared to come to an easy agreement on their choice of topic; two of the three mentioned voting to decide.
I was most impressed this year by how each team’s members fully participated in their projects and how each played a real role:
“Like in the story, everyone in our team did what they can do best.”
“We are creative, trust each other; no boss.”
“No one (was) left out.)
“We divided tasks equally.”
There is of course a tangible and immediate payoff for creating and working together: first, there’s the satisfaction of having gotten through the B2E project and the savoring by all of each team’s best effort.

©Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop's “THE MOUNTAIN IN LABOR”*

Posted by jlubans on April 22, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Richard Heighway (1832-1917?)

“IN DAYS of old, a mighty rumbling was heard in a Mountain. It was said to be in Labor, and multitudes of people flocked together, from near and from far, to see what the great Mountain would produce. After long expectation and wise conjecturing from the bystanders, out popped—a mouse.”
“A magnificent promise, but a paltry performance.”

More than a century ahead of cable news and its often fevered “much ado about nothing” coverage, Heighway’s cartoon shows a bug-eyed public, abuzz for results. Heighway even anticipates the expert bloviator on-the-spot in his beanie cap interpreting the event and what it portends (or not) for all who care to hear.
And so it can be at work, when we suspend our critical incredulity over the claims and promises made by someone who wants to sell us something, be it a job interviewee or a sales rep.
I recall Ellsworth G. Mason’s exposé article, “The Great Gas Bubble Prick't; or, Computers Revealed by a Gentleman of Quality” which warned against the unquestioned earth-shaking promises being made about library automation. Ellsworth anticipated “vaporware” well before the term was invented. The results from our early automation efforts, while helpful, were more mouse-like than volcanic.

*Source: J. H. Stickney. “Aesop's Fables / A Version for Young Readers.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2016


Posted by jlubans on April 17, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: You won’t believe what happens next when Kim Jong Un puts a bowl of M&Ms on the table!!!

Of late, I’ve been reading about meetings and groups; why they do or don’t do well. Take the humorously snide “Meet Is Murder” by Virginia Heffernan.
I read Heffernan side by side with the NYTime’s take on perfect teams at Google.
And, I’ve revisited my blog on how busy bees get it done.
Finally, the insights of the corporate sabotage manual resurfaced.
Here are two teams in meetings, according to the Google story:
Team A:
Composed of stars. Each in turn offers, at length, his or her expert opinion. Distractions are promptly reigned in. Starts and ends on time. No chitchat. At the end, people get up and leave.
Team B:
A mix of stars and regular employees. Discussion wanders. All listen and all interact with speakers. If the topic changes, the group follows. If Team A is efficient and tightly wound, Team B is inefficiently loosey-goosey. At meeting’s end people stay and gossip.
What’s your preference? There is evidence that suggests Team B is more productive than Team A. How can that be? How can a motley crew outdo the best and the brightest?
Why meet? There are the obvious reasons; to get together and exchange ideas and to take action. There’s an urgency about these initial meetings.
When that urgency dies out – and it almost always does - then meetings become formal and routine, sappers of time, dreaded by the productive and esteemed by the unproductive. Free food and drink, including color-coded M&Ms, do not bring back that initial sense of urgency, that quintessential reason to get something done. Nor does a bag of donuts or a slice of pizza establish trust between leader and followers.
Maybe some people do not need to meet; they just need to be left alone to do their job?
Meetings are work, hard work. The more we ignore the HOW of our meeting, the worse it gets.
I recall my meetings, one on one and in groups. At the start of my run with an organization the meetings went well. Then they split in two directions. It was like Team A and Team B above. Team B meetings continued in productive ways. Team A meetings became more and more formal and less and less got done.
When I took part in Team A type meetings, I had to accept some of the blame, at least half. I could have changed the tone of those meetings, but did not know enough on how to do that.
Team B meetings were a matter of personality and like-mindedness – we all agreed upon and wanted change and were willing to do more than our share. And, we trusted each other.
Team A avoided more. Team B confronted more.
Yes, I could have done something about the boring meetings, I could have asked myself: Why is this meeting so dull? Why is this person telling me things he/she thinks I want to hear? Why is this team not including me in idea generation? Why is this team not asking me for my ideas?
At one of my jobs, the little joke about Kim Jong Un’s bowl of M&Ms would apply. No, execution by anti-aircraft gun was not the likely outcome of a suppressed yawn, but there was some death of soul going on, much nodding and smile-making.
What would happen if Kim Jong Un told the assembly to put down their silly notebooks and pencils? In my case, it’s unlikely our alleged A team's going “at ease!” would transition us into a real B team.
At the end of her essay, Virginia Heffernan asks:
“What’s so bad about meetings, after all? At bottom, they are nothing but time with your fellows. Which suggests that hating meetings might be akin to hating traffic, families or parties — just another way to express our deep ambivalence about that hard fact of existence: other people.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Krylov’s “The Swan, the Pike, and the Crab”*

Posted by jlubans on April 14, 2016  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption: Look familiar? Some teams are like that.

“WHENE’ER companions don’t agree,
They work without accord;
And naught but trouble doth result,
Although they all work hard.
One day a swan, a pike, a crab,
Resolved a load to haul;
All three were harnessed to the cart,
And pulled together all.
But though they pulled with all their might,
The cart-load on the bank stuck tight.
The swan pulled upward to the skies;
The crab did backward crawl;
The pike made for the water straight —
It proved no use at all!

Now, which of them was most to blame
’Tis not for me to say;
But this I know: the load is there
Unto this very day.”

No doubt, there’s an easy solution: a kick-ass leader to bring this transfixed trio in line! Yes, a muleteer's whip would get the job done, but why do not the swan, pike and crab cooperate? Do they (and us) always need to be told what to do?
Had they cooperated, the metaphoric cart would have moved on. Probably Krylov’s point is that some people are never going to cooperate, “without accord”; hence “the load is there unto this very day.”
While we all offer different talents in a group effort, it makes good sense to establish Role and Purpose, two quintessential rules for group development. When work groups were at odds, I saw our organization’s cart bog down. Neither collaboration compromise nor consensus was possible, leaving outcomes purely to chance. Who to cut the Gordian knot?
I just heard about a not too distant international city with 5 boroughs, each with its own public library system. None cooperate; they all stand alone. The unnamed country has a literacy rate approaching 99.9% so these five libraries would see increased use (a desirable) were they to cooperate, pool resources, and create a single library card for readers.
Predictably, these library systems will be forced to consolidate and the readers and the libraries will be the worse for it. It’s like the s-shaped curve. When you are on the rise (daffodils a-bloom and skies are blue), that’s when you should be looking for the next upward curve, the next big improvement. When you are on the declining slope, it’s too late; you’ll have settle for whatever someone on the outside hands you and that’s only if they want to.

* Source: Krylov, Ivan Andreevich, Guy Daniels, and David Pascal. 1”5 Fables of Krylov”. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

From the Encyclopedia Britannica:
“Ivan Andreyevich Krylov, (1768/69-1844) Russian writer of innocent-sounding fables that satirized contemporary social types in the guise of beasts. His command of colloquial idiom brought a note of realism to Russian classical literature. Many of his aphorisms have become part of everyday Russian speech.”

Copyright © John Lubans 2016

The Elusive Effective Team

Posted by jlubans on April 12, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)


“What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” was a recently featured article in The New York Times.
The story tracks two people, a man and a woman, in their teamwork experiences, and both come to find by story’s end some satisfying answers – at least ones that work for them - about why some teams are better than others. Along with the two personal stories, the article offers up insights about Google’s exhaustive corporate quest for the “perfect team”.
While there is much team research already in place – much of it dating back over 50 years – Google’s brash, young re-inventors come up with some unique interpretations and applications. Being Google, the study is largely data driven, but it is not until the human element is taken into account that the findings begin to take a recognizable shape.
The Times story once again describes the teamwork lab studies at MIT and
Carnegie Mellon and offers a revised conclusion: “… what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right (behavior) norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.”
The studies showed, at least in a laboratory setting, that “social intelligence” or “emotional intelligence” (EQ) or even “collective intelligence” mattered more than IQ in how together a group was and how well it performed.
Googlers have coalesced around an extension of this research, the notion of psychological safety (shades of 1940s Abraham Maslow!) Psychological safety (PS) enables and encourages you to tell your group what is most on your mind, what is “eating your lunch”, and what is keeping you up at night. And, you can do so without recrimination or gossip mongering. One of the article’s two protagonists says: “(Googlers) must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.”
This ramped up intimacy among team members, the Times tells us, was prompted by a project leader’s revealing he had cancer. He did so at an off-site to address data-diagnosed problems in his team. His personal admission seemed to improve the trust level and the amount of sharing among the team members. Indeed, if there were “competent jerks” on that team, they became more humane and more able to work with the “star performers.” As they learned more about each other, the better able they were to work together.
So, Googlers conclude, when PS is established, team members can develop higher levels of trust and frankness than those that do not have psychological safety. While redolent of campus “trigger warnings”, “micro-aggressions” and “safe zones” - by and in which no offending opinions or viewpoints are tolerated - there is every reason to believe that when teammates trust each other, they work better together (they may even like each other) than when they do not trust each other.
But, surely there is a limit to this share-a-personal-story-around-the-meeting-table notion. I recall a friend who, when called upon at a university’s mandatory diversity training to share stories of one’s “former” prejudices, had a prepared story. With a straight face, he’d talk about his immoderate disdain of a certain type of pick-up truck – a Chevy 1956 Model 3100. This admission got him through the go-around and probably gained him a few points from the trainers, since pick up trucks are often associated with red necks. Like my truck hatin’ friend, when we run out of major personal issues, we may have to be ready to tell of minor events in our lives, say of how the barista got our latte order all wrong.
Levity aside, I do see value in sharing aspects of one’s life that we may suppress because of an artificial separation between work and personal life.
Establishing a PS climate brings to mind Tuckman’s group development research from decades ago, and, in particular his anxiety-inducing “storming” phase. Of the four or five stages in a group’s development, storming is often avoided, tacitly skipped over. Well, storming is where trust is established, boundaries are set, the team’s purpose is clarified, and grudges and agendas are buried. Most group failures, I would venture, can be traced back to giving the “storming” phase too wide a berth. Doing so usually results in a “pseudo-team” – barely adequate enough and far below its potential. When honest and vigorous storming occurs, new norms, relationships and expectations help everyone get on board and become effective.
The Times write up, while fully embracing the MIT/CM research, fails to mention “Factor C” (collective intelligence) which includes three elements: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, interestingly, the number of women on the team. The latter finding is not mentioned, as far as I can tell, in the Times write up; a remarkable omission given that IT is a field which has had more than its share of charges of sexist behavior directed by males vs. females.
The finding about PS recalls a teaching experience. The class was already a “good” class – about ten students. They did their work, they came prepared, and they were fairly even in their ability to grasp the course ideas and content. But, one thing I did early in the class was to become, at least to me, a difference maker. Due to it, the entire class achieved high levels of performance. What I did was to explain my absence during the previous week. I told them I was away to get my father’s ashes and to transport them from New Hampshire to North Carolina, for internment. I mentioned some of the complications of flying on a commercial airliner with a crematory urn. My giving them this personal glimpse into my life may have ratcheted up the level of PS in this class and led to a higher level of performance. Something did.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Wild Boar and the Fox”*

Posted by jlubans on April 07, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Alas, one bad vise (pun) can keep you from sharpening your saw!

“A WILD BOAR stood under a tree and rubbed his tusks against the trunk. A Fox passing by asked him why he thus sharpened his teeth when there was no danger threatening from either huntsman or hound. He replied, ‘I do it advisedly; for it would never do to have to sharpen my weapons just at the time I ought to be using them.’"

While I’m not much of a fan of the pandemic Mr. Covey and his Effectiveness nostrums, guess what habit came to mind when I read this fable? No, not “Love Potion #9”.
It was, of course, Habit #7, “Sharpen the Saw”.
For Covey, that means taking care of yourself so that you are suitably fit for whatever comes along - in life or work.
Of necessity, the boar is more singular in his focus: “I keep my weapons sharp in peace so they are ready in war.”
Now I do like the pun in the cartoon. And it does bear on what Mr. Covey suggests we do – get rid of immoderate behaviors. Sometimes, the vice (vise) – when broken – prevents us from looking sharp, being sharp. Well, in that case what do you do? You could become reflective, à la a Covey clone and ask yourself:
“What makes your saw sharp? What makes your saw dull?”
For me, instead of implying that one’s sorry ways lead to bad things, it is probably just as effective to look beyond the self to see what’s blocking progress. In other words, get a new vise.
Likewise, organizations should prepare in good times for bad times.

*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.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016

“Slackers of the World, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your YouTube”

Posted by jlubans on April 04, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Frederick dreaming. Leo Lionni. 1967

There may yet be hope for the torpid among us. A research study in the prestigious Nature magazine, as reported in an NPR story, “Before You Judge Lazy Workers, Consider They Might Serve A Purpose” offers up some unconventional insights on slackerism. (As a side note, the ant researcher is a university professor of agriculture and thereby has considerably more credibility than, say, a behavioral psychologist mashing something up for a TED talk.)
Slackers don’t get a lot of good press. Usually they serve as a contrast to the strivers, the ambitious, and the contributing members of society. Well, it appears that slackerism is to be found in other places than in Mom’s basement bedroom. The insect world is full of laziness; it’s abuzz with it. Observe the meandering ant, ogling the sights, while his mates get down to it pulling 5 times their weight in food or behold the snoozing ant while dozens of intertwined ants sacrifice all in service as a bridge for their bretheren rushing home with the bacon. NPR’s story states, “At any given moment, … half of (the) ants are basically doing nothing. They're grooming, aimlessly walking around or just lying still.”
How can this be? We are taught a life’s lesson in Aesop’s story of the
bon vivant grasshopper and the industrious, yet heartless, ants. Speaking of Aesop, does not Greece and her unforgiving debtors come to mind? Aesop’s counsel is direct, goof off and die. Not to be outdone, America’s Poor Richard offers up “the sleeping fox catches no poultry, there will be sleeping enough in the grave!” (emphasis added)
Well, there may be good reason for the fox to sleep.
Less final are the derisive smirks and scowls of the busy bees in our cubicle hives as I game, Facebook, and YouTube away the day.
From the Nature study’s abstract: “Evidence of the replacement of active workers by inactive workers has been found in ant colonies. Thus, the presence of inactive workers increases the long-term persistence of the colony at the expense of decreasing short-term productivity.”
In other words, please, this suggests that slackers have purpose, a raison d'être if you will; they are simply conserving their energy for when their number is called; for when they get to strut their stuff.
On the other hand, the office mate gazing off into the middle distance might be more poet than slacker. They might even be like Leo Lionni’s Frederick, the story of a poet/musician/raconteur Mouse, who, in winter, summons up images of warm summer days and happy times for the other mice.
When the ever-industrious-you is worn out, turned out to pasture, or found face down in a cubicle, the slacker next door is going to step up and in for you and make sure your pension or disability check arrives on time.
It seems slackerism is a component of natural selection or evolution; once the strivers in an ant colony burn out or die, the slackers pick up the slack, so to speak.
So, the next time you find yourself muttering that the bum in the next cubicle is not doing his share and you have to do more work because of his laziness, there might be a good reason for it. Alas, since humans may be more ambiguous than ants, “(t)he person slacking off at work might be a genuine slacker — or might be thinking through a complex problem. Sometimes being effective means getting perspective.” Let’s hope it is the latter and not the former.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016