E-spinach & the Wood Wide Web

Posted by jlubans on April 30, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)


A recent headline declared, “Scientists Taught Spinach How to Send Emails to Help Fight Climate Change!”
That declaration suggested to me (and maybe Popeye) a suddenly sentient spinach, its tiny roots tapping out texts!
Regardless of the hyperbole, the spinach story did get me thinking about something called the Wood Wide Web, aka WWW.
And, in turn, that moved me to think about Complexity Theory, a topic I sometimes try to teach in my management classes.
Complexity theory applies to systems that exhibit “non trivial emergent and self-organizing behaviors.” In other words, something happens in the system with no boss to dictate behavior or make decisions.
The theory holds that leaderless groups can indeed thrive and survive; e. g. the self-organizing World Wide Web operates with simple rules and no central control resulting in highly complex collective behavior.
While the spinach research makes no claims to complexity (i.e. a root system linked with other vegetables in nearby fields), the researchers have indeed created a new method for detecting major changes in our climate via spinach root systems.
According to the study, when spinach roots detect certain soil compounds they can send a signal to an infrared camera, which then triggers an email alert to scientists.
The Wood Wide Web is very much a complex system. The buried roots of trees and fungi in the soil cooperate and communicate back and forth.
Forestry researcher Suzanne Simard - by injecting fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes (!) - ultimately showed how fungi and tree roots collaborate for each other’s benefit, an underground “network” of relationships, a mutualism.
She asserted that fungi and roots ‘forged their duality into a oneness, thereby making a forest’, a ‘co-operative system’.” Trees ‘talk’ to one another, resulting in a collaborative intelligence, a ‘forest wisdom’.
It is claimed that older trees even ‘nurture’ smaller trees that they recognize as their ‘kin’, acting as ‘mothers’.
While her tie-dye speak may be akin to the spinach email hyperbole or Silicone Valley’s hyperventilating about “singularity” – I too have been known to ascribe human qualities to trees and have even hugged one or two.
Indeed my fable, “The Fallen Tree”, embraces “forest wisdom”.
Perhaps more of a genuine mutualism and complexity can be see among starling murmuration
in which thousands of starlings a-wing make impromptu yet coordinated evasive movements to discourage predators.
But, and this is a big but, all may not be sanguine in leaderless systems.
An already noted, just like the human workplace, the WoodWW is a competition – not solely a collaborative mutualism.
A BBC News video helps explains the difference between the wish and the reality of the WoodWW, how some trees and fungi benefit by sharing nutrients and signals, and how some trees take more than they give.
What looks like mutualism is actually a closely played competition.
As one researcher put it, “For every birch donating carbon to its fir neighbors, there’s an orchid stealing carbon from nearby trees. For every plant that informs others of a disease outbreak, another sends out toxins to kill its rivals".
Sounds like the last place I worked!
Most of us want to cooperate – it comes naturally to humans - but genuine collaboration takes work to avoid imbalance; it takes sacrifice and not always getting what you want.
This is where leadership matters.
As for the Internet, by leadership I am not talking about an executive council or dictator to regulate the Internet.
What’s needed is for the producers and consumers (US -you and me) of content to lead in letting the platforms know we are not going along.
If you don’t like Facebook (for umpteen reasons), stop giving them content.
If you are offended by the egregious censorship on Twitter, stop tweeting.
If you are tired of Google’s money-grubbing, privacy-plundering ad biz and its skewed search results, use another search engine or go to the library and ask a trustworthy librarian.
If you are offended by Amazon’s “book-burning”, go to another vendor.
Apply your opting out to any and all Internet participants who assert they know best.
Remember, the Internet is us.

Only two days left.
Leading from the Middle: Changing approaches to library leadership and communication,” offered May 3-28, 2021.
Lyda Fontes McCartin, Interim Director, Center for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning, University of Northern Colorado
Andrea Falcone, Dean, Steely Library; Northern Kentucky University,
I have no connection with this class, but it looks interesting since the title is identical to my book from 2010, Leading from the Middle.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021


Posted by jlubans on April 15, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. Bridger in “Come on, let’s go!” mode.

A CERTAIN Man was setting out on a journey, when, seeing his Dog standing at the door, he cried out to him,
"What are you gaping about?
Get ready to come with me."
The Dog, wagging his tail, said, "I am all right. Master; it is you who have to pack up."

This will be the third time I’ve written about this fable. You can see the 2012 version here
and the 2016 one here.
To set the scene for 2021:
Should I stay or should I go?
I was on tenterhooks, as they say.
Well, as much as a tranquil personality like mine can be.
I had a new boss.
My previous boss - the one who hired me – had been pushed aside by his new boss and the governing board.
Prior to his departure, he told me that there were people on the board who, at the urging of an outside consultant, wanted me gone.
This consultant had engineered my boss’ early retirement.
The board left it up to the new leader to drop the hammer on me.
So, would the new boss give me the boot?
Remarkably, I did not get fired.
Another leader – a less ethical one - in the same situation would likely have pulled the plug to score points.
Instead, the new boss focused on pulling the organization out of its well-worn ruts: “We’ve always done it this way!”
It would be a labor worthy of Hercules.
My ideas for the organization aligned with those of the new boss.
Predictably, these ideas conflicted with my peers stuck in the status quo, namely, that our problem was not stodginess, it was a lack of staff. “All we need is MORE”, they crooned.
One day my boss called me aside and asked if I was up for a challenge.
He told me I was a “bent reed”, bent toward his way of doing things.
In other words, I probably could learn to do things his way.
I would have appreciated a different metaphor, indeed another fable. Instead of alluding to the “Tree and the Reed” he could have used the present fable.
Yes, I was that dog at the door, barking: “I’m ready, let’s get going!'”
Remember, an effective follower like me thinks independently and believes in his or her vision just as much as any effective leader.
While the bent reed allusion didn’t make me feel warm all over, it sure beat being fired!
Subsequently, he asked me to lead and turn around the most recalcitrant departments. Their excessive pride and an inflexible bureaucratic mindset had pretty much painted a target on their backs.
Earlier calls for simplification invariably were met with additional layers of complexity resulting in more bottlenecks, backlogs and alienated clients.
I was not certain I had the expertise to unravel this mess, but, lo and behold, his choosing me proved to be brilliant.
I was no “expert” so I was unafraid to ask the people doing the work for their help.
Nor, as he insightfully surmised, did I have the hubris of my predecessors who believed it was their birth-right to dictate solutions.
So, I took a collaborative approach (it's called letting go) and gave the staff free rein to innovate and to implement long delayed changes. In short, tons of positive results.

*Source: Babrius, Fable 110 translated by Thomas James in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

If you liked this fable, there’s more! Buy this book and get a hundred workplace relevant fables:

And, don’t forget my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle is available at Amazon.

© Copyright all text and photo John Lubans 2021

Joie de Vivre

Posted by jlubans on April 11, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Photo by John Lubans July 2013, Riga, Latvia.

Our kitchen window overlooks Salem’s downtown, including a large bank building. At quitting time, a parade of office workers streams forth.
Recently, a couple of young women – in their work clothes - were walking toward the parking lot. One began to dance, a graceful move, more waltz than Watusi.
Her friend responded with a similar, but different, step.
Obviously, they were happy to be done for the day or, maybe, they had somewhere fun to go.
That bit of exuberant joy – which continued all the way to their car - took me back to 2013, to an open air sports stadium where hundreds of folk-dance groups were performing.
It was the outdoor dance venue for the quinquennial Song and Dance Festival in Riga, Latvia which celebrates national song, dance, music, theater, art and crafts with approximately 40,000 performers.
The above photo is of two of the thousands of folk dancers. They were taking a victory lap around the track at performance’s end. Who would ever think from this photo of the soaking rainstorm half way through the festival that poured down for a half hour; yet, without hesitation, the performers danced through the rain and the puddles on the turf?
The beatific, beaming expression on their faces, brings to mind the joy we can find in a job well done - of “nailing it” – in solidarity with others in the human community, with people we like, achieving something greater than what we could do alone.
Latvians, as introverted as any of the three Baltic nations, rarely smile in public. The joke that’s told is that their non-stop smiling during the five-day song and dance festival
uses up their smile rations until the next festival!
There’s another, darker interpretation for the grim faces; it’s how you learn to look during 50 years of communist rule.
I think I could make an argument that the photo is an example of “flow”, that state of being when we derive great satisfaction in a doing a good job and doing it masterfully.
Our exuberance overflows.
When I ran long distance – without any aches or pains – I rejoiced in the physicality of my movement, of my gliding effortlessly (so it seemed) over hill and dale, the wind against my face, full out under the open sky.

Caption: Detail, photo by John Lubans, 2013, Riga, Latvia.

Click to buy:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, while not discounted, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright all text and photos John Lubans 2021


Posted by jlubans on April 06, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The Mouse (in a hole in the Wall) taunts the bull

A BULL was bitten by a Mouse, and, pained by the wound, tried to capture him.
The Mouse first reached his hole in safety, and the Bull dug into the walls with his horns, until wearied, crouching down, he slept by the hole.
The Mouse peeping out, crept furtively up his flank, and, again biting him, retreated to his hole. The Bull rising up, and not knowing what to do, was sadly perplexed.
The Mouse murmured forth, "The great do not always prevail.
There are times when the small and lowly are the strongest to do mischief."
Here the wee mousie puts one over on Ferdinand the Bull.
How does this apply to the workplace?
With just a little imagination - and my magic wand - I can relate that sanctuary Wall to a few experiences I have had with HR.
Ever seeking to avoid law suits and an organization’s embarrassment, HR sometimes produces rules and regs that stymie administrators from moving out or even disciplining ineffective people.
Like the mouse, these folks quickly learn they are safe in the HR constructed wall and that only self-sabotage or a cash payment will un-lodge them.
Yes, yes, I know HRs intentions are noble and well-intended and meant to protect employees from capricious administrators (like me).
Alas, sometimes those layers of protection backfire and result in no action taken to remedy poor performance.
Talk about a staff morale buster!
Another example is apparent in how the “mice” can hobble a basic American constitutional right - the freedom of speech (and the intellectual freedom to think for myself).
Take a look at the controversy surrounding Andy Ngo's book, “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy”.
The rightly famous Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon had to promise the blockading antifa “mice” and the store’s censoring union employees they would only sell the book online and not display or promote it in their retail bookstores.
A fairly objective report can be found in Reason magazine.

*Source: Babrius, Fable 112 in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021