Tag Archive | robert townsend

Wishful Thinking; Magical Thinking; Idealism; Reality: We seem to lose our ability to distinguish these categories

I try; I’ve really tried, and I truly want to hold onto appreciative mode of thinking. But these days reality frequently bites me with reminders of why so many people in our society, or for that matter, in the rest of the world, have become cynical.

Last week, Ted Cruz chose Carly Fiorina as his VP running mate in the GOP presidential campaign.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Snake has more grace than some humans.

Professor Jeff Pfeffer, of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, once described Fiorina succinctly, “[even] people who have presided over catastrophes suffer no negative consequences. On the contrary, Ms Fiorina, who by any objective measure was a horrible CEO, is running for president on her business record. I love it! . . . You can’t make this stuff up — it’s too good!” Perhaps Mr. Cruz thinks that Ms. Fiorina could help other businesses understand how not to fail?!

Oh, what am I thinking? That would require a degree of humility to acknowledge one’s mistakes. Humility in today’s leadership? either in organizations or in politics?!

The aforementioned Professor Pfeffer is one of the prominent scholars in the management field. He’s studied countless organizations and leaders/managers. He and his colleague, Robert Sutton, have written many books that are good reading for both academics and practitioners, of which “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense” was the basis for several of my earlier posts (here & here). Pfeffer’s latest book is titled, “Leadership BS.” According to the Financial Times writeup, even some of Pfeffer’s colleagues think that he has become too cynical, focusing too much on the “scorpions, spiders and cockroaches” of D- or F-rated leaders. Hmmmm…first, let’s not call these D/F-rated managers or politicians “leaders.” Second, only the cockroach should be used as the reference; the other species actually serve a purpose in the ecosystem. Pfeffer’s defense is: He relates what the data inform him.

In Professor Pfeffer’s view, we want to imbue inspirational qualities in the images of ideal leaders, qualities such as authenticity, consideration, humility, etc. But the majority of the managers in his studies do not live up to this inspirational image. This doesn’t negate the existence of a few truly inspirational leaders with abundant humility. Pfeffer himself has named a few inspirational leaders in his years of studying leadership. Jim Collins’ books, for example “From Good to Great,” illustrate some of the quiet type of leaders; yet, Mr. Collins has highlighted many charismatic, pseudo-inspirational leaders who focus on their own satisfaction rather than serve the good of the people in their organizations. Nonetheless, I take Pfeffer’s point that genuinely inspirational leaders are few and far between. By building up the “shoulds” in the leadership attributes while neglecting the reality, we (who like to write about or teach these topics) do a disservice for our audience and help create the disenchantment that’s been festering in our society. It is but one source for the loss of our collective trust in our management and leadership.

Another strand of criticism laid against Professor Pfeffer is that by focusing on the narcissistic leaders/managers, he is essentially condoning those who hoard power. Pfeffer argues that there are always those who hunger for power; we cannot ever eliminate that; it’s part of human nature. Nor can we wish it away by only focusing on the few inspirational leaders. We may try to contain the abuse of power, but hierarchy is part of our DNA where power is a tool. What his research has done is to help us understand how people acquire and keep power. Pfeffer uses the examples of President Lincoln and Nelson Mandela to illustrate that even true leaders have to lie and manipulate in order to achieve what they perceive as “higher” purposes.   As for how to use power for better purposes, for the greater good of the public, answers lie in our upbringing, our philosophical leaning, the kind of peer and social circles we have, etc.

Snake or twig?

Snake or twig?

And oh, by the way, just because someone can lie and manipulate masterfully, or even seemingly so, doesn’t make that person a shining example of a “leader.” Especially if at the end of the lying and manipulating, there is little evidence of accomplishment for anyone but him/herself…that’s simply someone drunk on power; it’s called “being Voldemort.”

Ultimately, what we look for in leadership is judgment exhibited in the track record. It isn’t just successes we want, but also the quality of these successes…as well as the nature and circumstances of failures. Making tough decisions is not the relevant metric; if (say) three out of five tough decisions lead to impressive failures then “the ability to make tough decisions” is hardly a bragging point – a tossed coin could have done better. Tanking a Fortune 500 company might be worth, say, five-fold failure.

According to Professor Pfeffer’s research, the data on the quality of leadership do not back up what the business schools teach or what the leadership industry advises. Should we give up? Of course not, but a healthy dose of realistic examination would be valuable. In fact, Pfeffer and Sutton have another book calling for such practice, “Evidence-Based Management Principles.

Robert Townsend in his book “Up The Organization,” offers an easier and much less costly method of assessing a good leader. “How do you spot a leader? They come in all ages, shapes, sizes, and conditions. Some are poor administrators, some are not overly bright. One clue: since most people per se are mediocre, the true leader can be recognized because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.(Highlight mine)

A genteel dog in real life.

A genteel dog in real life.

Regardless of the method we choose to assess leaders, the evidence clearly demonstrates that some of the business operators who attempt to enter into politics do not possess a good track record. Yet because they themselves have not suffered terribly in the business world, their narcissism leads them to think they know better. Hence the public cynicism. It seems there are no consequences for executives’ bad behavior and decisions. Ms. Fiorina was fired, but enjoyed a golden parachute of millions in compensation and stock options. Mr. Trump has filed four bankruptcies, but is touted as successful billionaire. As many have pointed out, had Mr. Trump just sat on his inheritance, he’d accrued more asset than what he currently claims to possess. In addition, having 1,300 lawsuits involving Trump and/or his companies since 2000 isn’t exactly a positive reflection on the quality of his business, is it?

Still, many keep arguing for a business operator to run the largest government on this planet. The assumptions for such a wish are fallacious. I will address these assumptions in the next post. Till then,

Staying Sane (and Calm) and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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I Like Brevity…Till I Need More.

Pithy comments can be enlightening, useful, and often embed great wisdom.  However, sometimes, their brevity leaves much to ponder over.  Or, maybe that’s the purpose of pithy words; it provokes us to think more.  While I cherish Robert Townsend’s “Up The Organization,” full of piercing observations of organizational nonsense and wise advise to counter it, I often want to parse some sentences for details on the how’s.  It is difficult to address how’s in a pithy manner.  A thoughtful and wise manager (yes, it’s a rarity but such managers exist) may be able to glean guidance from this modest volume, but most mortals need more.  Such is also my reaction to David Ogilvy’s observations on creative leaders’ quality and management principles.

A hummingbird moth

A hummingbird moth

Many considered Ogilvy to be the “The Father of Advertising,” or, the original “Mad Man,” according to Maria Popova, the curator and founder of www.brainpickings.org.  He was in the creative business and was successful at running one of the world’s leading ad agencies in the 50s and 60s.

Mr. Ogilvy offers many excellent points and lessons on writing, creativity, leadership, and management in his “Unpublished David Ogilvy.”

On the quality of creative leaders, he offers the followings:

  1. “High standards of personal ethics.
  2. Big people, without pettiness.
  3. Guts under pressure, resilience in defeat.
  4. Brilliant brains — not safe plodders.
  5. A capacity for hard work and midnight oil.
  6. Charisma — charm and persuasiveness.
  7. A streak of unorthodoxy — creative innovators.
  8. The courage to make tough decisions.
  9. Inspiring enthusiasts — with trust and gusto.
  10. A sense of humor.”

From http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/06/11/david-ogilvy-10-qualities-of-creative-leaders/

It is difficult to argue with these seemingly common-sense points.  However, times have changed since these words were uttered, decades ago.  For instance, Mr. Ogilvy explained the hard working principle,  “Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.”

If people are allowed to have their “purpose, mastery, and autonomy ” at work, they would want to work hard to reach their personal “high.”  But when an organization – through management – demands, seemingly wily-nily, that you surrender evenings and weekends, it kills your soul and spirit eventually…and possibly your marriage and family.   Working hard is what most of us desire to do, but that has to come from self-motivation rather than external incentives/disincentives.   If Mr. Ogilvy could see how much busywork there is in organizations these days, and how people are stressed because they can’t find enough time to do what they really care to do, he probably would modify his statement on “hard work.”

Twofer...including the blurry one.

Twofer…including the blurry one.

And about “charisma,” I am always a bit wary of charismatic people.  Lee Iacocca was hugely charismatic, so was Jack Welch.  Both of them had shining moments in their “leadership” years, but ultimately, much of what they did was for their own egos.  They are not considered “level-5” leaders, in Jim Collins’ taxonomy, for good reasons.  In fact, many “level-5” leaders are not at all charismatic but definitely methodical; they may even be a little dull.  Does this mean that executives in advertising industry have to be charismatic?  Does the nature of the industry have certain claims on leadership qualities?

Before you think I need to challenge most of Ogilvy’s words, here is one gem I love:  “If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.”  Yet…yet…beware of those self-important “exceptional” persons.  An “asshole,” no matter how brilliant, can be demoralizing for colleagues at the workplace.  So, I found strong resonance with Ogilvy’s point on creative integrity: “Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.”

Ultimately, my point is this:  For every wonderful pithy statement, there are many nuances one needs to consider.  However, I accept totally this piece of wisdom from Mr. Ogilvy:  “If you ever find a man who is better than you are – hire him.  If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”  What humility!  If you encounter such a boss or colleague, cherish your luck.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Let’s Celebrate Understated Leaders


“How do you spot a leader?  They come in all ages, shapes, sizes, and conditions.  Some are poor administrators, some are not overly bright.  One clue:  since most people per se are mediocre, the true leader can be recognized because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.”

From “Up the Organization,” by Robert Townsend

In what ways does this quote resonate with you?

Lance Armstrong at the team presentation of th...

Lance Armstrong at the team presentation of the 2010 Tour de France in Rotterdam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, two Armstrongs were in the news.  Lance Armstrong, of the tour de France fame, decided against continuing fighting doping charges.  Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the moon, passed away quietly.  While neither ran any organization, both were considered leaders of something.  One grabbed the spotlight, both willingly and unwillingly.  The other shied away from the spotlight at all times.  One inspired others to exercise determination and enhance physical mastery and the other steadfastly helped others build the prowess in science and engineering.  One is a charismatic leader and the other is a quiet level-5 leader.  Actually, by definition, level-5 leaders do not seek to lead any body of people; they just quietly, methodically and determinedly build something or solve some problems.

Flag of the United States on American astronau...

Flag of the United States on American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s space suit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American is an action-oriented culture; doing something is always deemed better than doing nothing.  So, every new manager has to do something, or change something.  Regardless!  Is there something wrong with “doing little or nothing” for certain times and contexts?

There was a good reason for assembly-line workers, burger flippers, or shop mechanics to have breaks throughout the day…though probably not enough.  But white collar (do we still use this term?!) professionals don’t seem to even take a lunch break very often…unless you are in the high ranking positions, and then, a lot of those lunches would probably give you heartburn, not from food, but from the stressful conversations.

We don’t take enough time to stop, to be still, to think and reflect.  As a painter, if I don’t step back and examine what I have just done, I can mess up my painting quickly.  Those who do detailed paintings or a large piece of creative rendition need to step back even more frequently.

Organization clears your path

Organization clears your path (Photo credit: nist6ss)

I advise people at work to take a ½ hour walk, rest and listen to some music for a while, read something light for 15 minutes, or engage in whatever takes one’s gaze off the task at hand.  I am not concerned for just the individuals; I am equally concerned, if not more, for those around such individuals — especially if they occupy a management seat.

Do you have examples of gaining a fresh perspective after a brief rest or an insight while daydreaming?  And when was the last time you followed your own example?

Happy Labor Day!  Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

From Celestial Wonders, to Creative Minds, to Organizational Constrictions

The recent solar eclipse and the Venus transit made me think again about creativity and mind.  I watched both events with awe, more a visceral appreciation than driven by any particular scientific principles.  The knowledge and technology that have made it possible for us to witness the beautiful bright rim around the black moon and the extraordinary sunspot-like black disk against the orange ball (as viewed through a small telescope) are mysteries for most of us.  And most of us take and enjoy such fruit with scant gratitude toward those who have created it.  We take so much for granted the daily conveniences in which our lives are embedded; we don’t even pause now to think how far the human mind has traveled.  These days, vacuous celebrities win our attention; mindless games and shows occupy our minds; the people who actually create and innovate are pushed aside, and those who manipulate money – not real products nor products of creativity – get to sit in the driver’s seat.

The economics Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, discussed this last point in his recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.  He stressed that corporations nowadays reward short-term financial gains over long-haul innovative and creative activities.  Indeed, most of the technological breakthroughs have come as a result of happy accidents.  How can you program a scientific discovery?

underground…above ground…all created by ourselves

How do all the above points relate to organizations? From the perspective that an organization is the collection of tens, hundreds, thousands of precious minds, it is all the more mind-boggling that organizations seem to strenuously obstruct what these minds can create.  This was the premise of Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization; its tagline is: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits.  He didn’t provide a 12-step program for making profits; instead, he focused on (1) how to treat people right, (2) how to make the work environment conducive for people to want to work, (3) how managers can get out of the way and make sure that there are as few obstacles for people as possible.  Follow these basic principles, and profits will come.

However, instead of providing nutrients in the work environment, management seems to be obsessed with weeding out all the elements that are inconvenient to them, not to the working people.  It is so much easier to apply pruning shears, pesticides and weed-killers in a garden or an orchard.  But if you want to grow veggies, fruits, or flowers, those items will do just the opposite.  You would think that for an organization emphasizing science and technology, management would want to encourage those minds to explore, to pursue all avenues of creativity.  The local science organization with which I am familiar is the antithesis of such pursuits.  I imagine asking the top managers in this organization to provide an actual list, with evidence, of things they use or do to nourish their staff.  This is the organization where people seem to spend more than 50% of their precious time and brain power on compliance, 20-30% on preparation for actual work, proposals, documents, planning meetings, etc., and then whatever is left on the actual science.  As an outside observer, I want to scream.  For the people working inside, what’s their recourse?

I plan to write about this fairly famous organization in the near future.

I suspect one of the main forces that motivate managers/decision-makers to keep focusing on enforcement/compliance (certainly true in our local organization) is the prison wall they create for themselves.  Once they latch onto an agenda – which might have been a necessary cause at one point – that becomes their main focus, and what their jobs are all about.  Combining that with a sense of power and the need for control, creativity and innovation get pushed aside, and short-term gains, especially financial, represent one more feather in the power cap.  For not-for-profit organizations, while they don’t aim for financial gain, the process of acquiring financial backing often becomes constraining (or constricting?).

boundary, yes; constriction, no.

Managers need to have some type of brakes in the system to signal them to go back to the basics:  What do people on the jobs need?  What do customers want? And more importantly, what is the organization good for?

Do you know what these brakes may look like and how to construct them?  I welcome your input.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

M&A

That’s “mergers & acquisitions,” my least favorite topic when I was in graduate school.  I can understand the buzz enjoyed by the people who do the negotiations, but the usual and high rate of failures (70%) after the deals are sealed leave a bad taste in my mouth.  More so for those whose lives got messed up as a result of M&A!

Robert Townsend had some choice words for M&A as well, such as, “someone always ends up being screwed.”  In principle, Townsend was very much against the whole practice.  (see his “Up the Organization”)

Recently, I came across an interesting article on Gizmodo, titled “How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet.”   The key points the article makes are:  1.  Yahoo wasn’t and still isn’t a great innovator in internet technology.  It basically sets itself up as a directory of links, and sells spaces for ads.  What’s the core of the business?  2.  After acquiring Flickr, the corporate development favored integration over innovation.  What are the old and new cultures?  3.  Yahoo never really understood the customers’ needs and what’s behind a website’s, any site’s, community.  Who are your customers?  It’s always “customers first, stupid!” 

The author put the failure of the Flickr acquisition squarely and totally on Yahoo’s shoulders.  I have one reservation:  Why did Flickr owners agree to the deal?  They thought they’d be a better fit with Yahoo than the other potential partner, Google.  So, at that stage of courtship, I’d put the responsibility on both sides.   But once acquired, it is Yahoo’s responsibility to find ways to help nurture Flickr to expand, and it should allow Flickr to be the driver on that front.  Instead, Yahoo forced Flickr’s users to have to deal with one extra layer, Yahoo.  For instance, when a Flickr’s user opened her file, she’d be immediately bounced to the Yahoo homepage for sign-in.  If she didn’t have a Yahoo account, she had to sign up with Yahoo first.  After the Flickr’s old community revolted, loudly, Yahoo had to change back to Flickr’s old ways.

While Yahoo pressured Flickr to work with Yahoo’s corporate development, meaning finding ways to be integrated into the Yahoo services, Flickr missed many opportunities to potentially lead some of the nascent online services and cultures.  Before the acquisition, Flickr could have advanced its service to become the new (and perhaps better) “Facebook;” after all, its photo sharing was a huge component of social networking.  Or, it might have grasped the emerging smartphone culture and assumed the “Instagram” role.  It might also have the potential to do video sharing as well.  Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve…

As for “integration vs. innovation” in an M&A case, I feel ambivalent about it.  A significant portion of M&A failure is rooted in botched integration, a task that’s just so much less sexy and more onerous to execute than the high-rolling negotiation.  However, when an organization has made an acquisition and then has to choose between the two goals, given limited resources, I personally would always go for innovation, particularly where technology is concerned.

I think the bottom line is that when businesses put the bottom line as their major focus, they lose in the long run.  A business, any business, is built upon a product or a service, paid for by customers.  Back to Townsend’s simple assertion:  Focus on what your business is about, and do the best for the customers.  How complicated is that?!  Of course, the details in the operations are always far more complicated than first realized.  But that’s why it’s all the more important to focus on the fundamental what and for whom.

Welcome, June…  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

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.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

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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