Archive | May 2012

Children Have Laser-Sharp Perception: We should learn from them sometimes, if not all the time.

Maybe it’s mother’s day.  Maybe it’s the death of Maurice Sendak on May 8th.  It’s definitely Robert Townsend’s unassuming writing style and his “child-like” laser-sharp perception, in his Up the Organization, that made me think about learning from children, much more so lately.  And then, one of my favorite comic strips, “Non-Sequitur” gave me added inspiration.

So, let me take some space here for children, or children’s common sense.

I learned from Sendak’s interview with Terry Gross why he stopped offering autographs and visiting classrooms: because he ended up frightening children and making them miserable.  How so?  Because adults impose on children the “social non-sense” of autographs:  We teach children to not write in books but then take them to queue up (requiring patience, a rare commodity in children) to face this “scary” man with hair coming out of his nose, who is for sure going to take their favorite books away.  What’s more, he was going to write something in their books?!  Horror!!  So, one time, a little boy who was coached and nudged by his father to come to the desk where Sendak was sitting, and to surrender his book.  The little guy was clearly agitated and frightened, and when he finally got to the table, he broke down and shouted, “Don’t crap up my book!”

Sendak then had to take the dad on the side and have a little chat, reassured him that the boy’s response was lovely and really courageous, and dad was not to punish the boy for being honest, though he did embarrass the dad.  Shortly after this incident, Sendak stopped doing autographs.

Seriously, adults.

Similarly, Sendak stopped visiting classrooms because of the paradox that made him, the person who adored children, the enemy of the children.  Inevitably before his visits, the teachers would prepare the children with warnings and threats about “be nice, raise you hand before speaking, go to the bathroom first…etc.”  Took all the fun out of the intended visits.

I am not advocating that we don’t provide any rules or boundaries; of course, we all need them regardless of age.  I am, however, pointing out the rigidity and the unnecessary paradoxes we keep building around us.  Along the way, we corrupt our children’ sense of creativity and fun during that process – as well as our own.

The author of “Non-Sequitur” has a brilliant way of exposing some of this nonsense.  In a three-day illustration, Danae, the precocious and self-righteous girl in Non-Sequitur, one day passed a store with a sign in the window that said, “Attention:  Not liable for lost items or injuries in this store!”  A “legal epiphany” came to Danae, in the form of “Accountable Fashion Accessories!”, wearable boards on the front and back with messages, such as “Warning:  Nothing is my fault!” on the front, and “so Shut Up” on the back.  She reasoned that if business can do it, so can she.

These days, we see these types of disclaimers so frequently we no longer really see them.  But once in a while when I actually “see” such a sign in my local gym’s locker room, I just want to shout, “Really?  You really think I’d come and hold you accountable if I lost something here?!”  Yes, I know some people have launched frivolous lawsuits…and won.  But inevitably, we impose restrictions and boundaries on the majority based on the few outliers.

So, what’s the point in relating these stories?  How is this related to organizations?  Just this:  Organizations and lives are intertwined.  Life and work, it’s not about balancing them; it’s about how to embrace them, in ways that make sense to each individual.

From these reflections, and remembering James March’s notion of “The Technology of Foolishness” and my fondness for children’s book, such as “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” I thought, once again, why not actively create channels of learning from children?

Here is my suggestion to all managers, of all levels but particularly the top levels:  consult with third graders, or 8th graders, or juniors in high school.  If you can’t explain your decisions, or proposals in the workplace, to the future generations, that’s already a loud signal.  Once they understand what you are trying to do, watch their facial expressions, and listen to their reactions.  And please do give them a report back on what suggestions from them you may have incorporated.

Here are a couple of links demonstrating children’s perspectives; they are about much bigger causes than what I am advocating here.  However, the point is that when children take up a cause, it’s to clean up one of the messes adults have created.  So, why don’t we shorten the path by working with them sooner?  After all, as Chief Seattle once said, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

A similar suggestion that I mentioned before:  Bring some of your favorite children’s books and read to school children, chat about the books and uncover some creative suggestions from their reactions.  Why not start with a few of Sendak’s books as a way of honoring and celebrating his achievement?

In addition to regaining some of the wisdom of innocence, working with children also helps instill and/maintain a sense of humility in us.  I see this as a win-win strategy.  Don’t you?!

This week, in reflection upon the first anniversary of my mother’s passing, I am taking some time to visit her neighborhoods, near and far.  I will come back to this space after the Memorial Day long weekend.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.  I love you, Mom.  Till June,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Back To Basics

I enjoy reading and grasping complicated theses, such as Kenwyn Smith’s intergroup dynamics, or parallel process; however, at times, I also crave simple and elegant arguments.  Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization is a dose of simplicity that is the perfect antidote for weeks on Smith’s diet of complexity and convolution.

first score of the year at the farmer’s market

Townsend was the CEO for Avis for years and lifted the car rental company from obscurity into the #2 giant.  He translated his “simple” principles – structuring the organization so that people’s talents would flourish and trusting people to want to work and employ their talents –in a folksy writing style and the resulting slender  volume of organizational gems became a cult classic.  The content is organized in alphabetical order, from “Advertising” to “Wearing out your welcome,” and each takes up anywhere from half of a page to a “lengthy” five-page thesis on “People.”  Townsend intended for the readers to pick any topic at any given time – still true – but he also recommended that you start with the “People” section, because as he puts it, “it’s the place to start.”

What I plan to do for the next few weeks is reflect on a few topics and areas that most resonate with me.

In Townsend’s preface, he urges people to not copy others.  “They didn’t get to the top doing things the way they are doing now.”  Copying is about noticing only the superficial aspects, which everyone can do.  When everyone copies the same thing, where would be the unique advantage?  In addition, by the time many of the great products or “excellent” organizations get noticed, (1) they may be at their peak and on their way downward, and (2) that which made them “great” was already in the distant mirror that even they themselves might not see very well.

This doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try to study why and how others do well.  But the keys are in the “why” and “how,” and therein lie the major obstacles. I would add that understanding the why’s would make knowing the how’s a little easier.  Most organizations seem to lose sight of why they are there in the first place, and so I would contend that management at all levels should keep that in mind often.  And yet…stubbornly holding onto the original purpose can also render the organization obsolete if the organization doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on in the environment (physical, social, and political).  Apple may be a great place to work and its products are hot right now, but the power of the cliché, “sitting on one’s laurels” is universal and indiscriminant.

In one of my researched cases, an immigrant Chinese divorced woman owned a small Chinese restaurant on the edge of the local Chinatown.  It was very much like every other good eats in every such Chinatown, and her business was moderate and her profit margin precarious.  She herself eventually noticed that what she was doing was what every Chinese restaurant practiced:  A busy menu with low prices.  She thought about what would really attract her:  A simple and easy-to-read menu offering quality food and coffee that she liked.  She made a 180-degree turn on her business.  She invested in the siphon type of brewing coffee, very unique at the time.  All her service pieces were good looking (and purchased at wholesale cheap prices), and the presentation of her food and coffee was lovely.  The café was clean and decorated with modern posters.  She kept her menu simple and doubled her prices.  Immediately, she lost almost of all her Chinese and Asian customers, but she gained many young non-Asian professionals, of whom many became regulars.  Her café was rated #1 in the local magazine for a few years.  It was one of my most dramatic cases.

This restaurant owner would have loved Townsend’s simple words.  However simple his words are though, we need to think them through for ourselves.

I did read “People” first.  Again, much of it was common-sense, reflecting simple but oh-so-neglected principles.  The assumptions most organizations ascribe to, and against which Townsend riled, are based on the beginning of industrial machine age and sometimes called “Theory X”:  (1) People hate to work.  (2) Therefore, one needs to threaten people with punishment in order to “drive” them.  (3) By and large, people prefer to be told what to do.  Refuting this set of assumptions was part of what motivated me to write this blog, and I discussed these very points in my first entry.  What Townsend embraced were the total opposite of these assumptions, delineated in “Theory Y:” 1. “Work” is as natural to people as rest and play.  2.  They don’t need to be threatened; if they find worthy causes to commit to, they’ll drive themselves.  3.  But they will commit only to the extent that their development needs are met.

These days, most organizations, or I should say decision-makers, seem to be erecting as many roadblocks and speed bumps as possible for others.  I accept that they don’t do this consciously and intentionally; in fact, their decisions are usually under the banner of “for the good of the organization.”  Further, this is done usually in conjunction with managers’ losing sight of what the organization’s true purpose is.  Townsend reminds readers, especially managers, to pay attention and find those “idiotic” practices.  However, what’s “idiotic” to person A might be a sacred cow to person B.  Reminding oneself what the organization’s purpose is may help solve only some of these differences.  It is always more complicated than “common sense” would dictate.

Townsend’s description of Theory Y is very much in concert with Dan Pink’s exquisite and persuasive presentation on “motivation.”  I am also mindful of Townsend’s words on motivation:  You can’t motivate people.  I think Mr. Pink would heartily agree with that.  It’s all about how you structure organizations.  The best way to structure organizations in which people can motivate themselves is to allow them:  autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Give people these, and they’ll help make organizations grow, and grow healthily.

almost like an abstract...almost

Simplicity and elegance can only provide the foundation.  Operating an organization is complicated; however, focusing on and remembering some basic principles can go a long way to success.  A good mantra:  People and their relationships are the most important assets for all organizations.

Till Mother’s Day,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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