Thursday, May 27, 2004

Going to Abilene and the Wizard of Oz

"We're off to seethe Wizard! The wonderful Wizard of Oz!"

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most enduring, and endearing, of the modem children's stories. But is it really a children's story? It is, but it's not limited to that function.

I have seen the Wizard of Oz movie on TV more times than I can remember, watching it each year, when it was repeated, with my children. Each time I enjoyed it. And even though my children are now grown, I relish an excuse to watch it again with my grandchildren. Adults are not supposed to enjoy fairy tales like that, you see. So, we need an excuse, like children or grandchildren.

I believe that the Wizard of Oz succeeds because it achieves some things on three levels. First, obviously it is well crafted. The acting, characterization, singing, and dancing are all good. It even makes dramatic use of the then relatively new technology, color, by starting the movie in black and white, then switching to color when Dorothy arrives at Oz.

Characterizations, performance, photography, special effects, and music all come together for an entertainment experience, excellent for its time. And, like all other excellence it transcends time.

On the second level, it's a moral story. Home is really wonderful although the grass looks greener elsewhere. Your problems are at least your problems at home and manageable. You have it within yourself to be happy. It's always there and you hold the key. No one but you has the key or the door. You must open it yourself. Everyone has courage. The only difference is, some have been recognized for their courage. You have a brain. It's just that some have a diploma. Everyone has a heart. All you have to do is care to activate it. In other words, you are what you are.

On the third, and deepest level, it's an allegory about the gold standard for currency. The yellow brick road (gold) leads to the emerald city (paper money) in the land of Oz (ounces). Dorothy comes from Kansas and represents middle America's "everyman." The Strawman who has no brains represents the farmers who in the eyes of the author, Frank Baum, aren't able to analyze the effects of change of the gold standard.

The Tinman who has no heart is American industry which is technology-driven and has no concern for people. The Cowardly Lion is the politicians who talk big but who are afraid to fight. The Wizard of Oz is the person behind the whole facade, who literally is pulling the strings and turning the knobs to control the illusion of stability and power. Drugged by the narcotic of the good life, represented by the poppy field, Dorothy almost doesn't make it to the Emerald City. She and her band are awakened by cold reality, the snow, just in time and successfully complete their journey. The Land of Oz is populated by Munchkins, the little people or the silent majority. The good and wicked witches represent the author's perception of which section of the country is beneficial or harmful.

When the troupe arrives at the Emerald City, they are denied access to the Wizard. They take risks and defeat the wicked witch; only then do they find that the Wizard is a sham. Exposed by the dog, Toto, (a tot?) who child like, not having been trained to be awed by the trappings, gets right to the heart of the matter. Only then do they realize they have had the power within themselves all the time to make change and grow. The Wizard is truly wise, but his image has prohibited him from acting as he was capable. It is the nature of human culture, as we entrust more and more power to a position or individual, to accompany that power with an image and protocol that isolates the person from the people. The more power, the more isolation, and the harder it is to lead.

The Wizard of Oz is not just a simple story, but a complex narrative on three levels. It's the depth of the story with the excellence of its articulation that creates an almost timeless classic. I believe the same is true of all great literature and movies. Look at the latest super popular movies. You'll find that they too operate on several levels. And pleasure results when there is harmony in the communication.

Charles Smiley described a different kind of journey in his story - The Abilene Paradox (Managing Agreement: The Abilene Paradox, Charles W Smiley, Community Development Journal, Vol. 17, #1, 1982).

It was July in Coleman, Texas. The summer heat was brutal, 105 in the shade. The relentless West Texas wind was blowing fine grained topsoil through the air. However, the afternoon was bearable, even potentially enjoyable. The air-conditioning was work-ing. There was cold lemonade and beer, and a baseball game on television. It had the makings of an agreeable day.

Then my father-in-law suddenly said, "Let's get in the car, and go to Abilene. We can have dinner at the new restaurant." My first thought was, "Why? It's over 50 miles to Abilene. It's insane to drive in this dust and heat. His car doesn't have air conditioning."

However, my wife chimed in with, "Great idea. I'd like to go. How about you, Chuck?" Since my own desires were obviously out of step I replied, "Sounds good to me," and then I added, "I hope your mother wants to go." "Of course I want to go," said my mother-in-law. "I haven't been to Abilene in weeks."

We proceeded to get into my father-in-law's car, and drive to Abilene, My first and worst thoughts were confirmed. The heat was death in the afternoon. We were soon covered with a fine layer of dust that was, in turn, covered with a layer of sweat. The food was atrocious and the service terrible.

Four hours later we returned to Coleman; hot, exhausted and miserable. We sat in the front room for a long time in silence. Then, to be sociable, and break the silence, I said, "Great trip, wasn't it?" The three of them stared at me with hostility. Finally, with considerable irritation, my mother-in-law said, "Well, to tell you the truth, I hated the trip. I went along because the three of you. seemed so enthusiastic. I would have stayed home if you hadn't pressured me into going."

My wife looked shocked. "Don't blame me. I went along to be accommodating. We were crazy to leave the house in this heat." My father-in-law entered the conversation abruptly: "Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted you to enjoy yourself. I usually watch the ball game."

After this outburst of honesty and recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four intelligent people, who, by choice, had taken a 100-mile trip across a forsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a second-rate restaurant. None of us had wanted to go. It didn't make any sense.

The Abilene paradox occurs in organizations as well as families. It occurs when organizations take action that is in contradiction to what the individuals in the organization really want collectively to do. This action usually defeats the goals the organization is trying to achieve. The Abilene paradox results from the inability to manage agreement.

Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Tinman, and the Strawman came together for a purpose. There was no paradox here. They all wanted to go to the Wizard of Oz. They each wanted to improve themselves. Banding together with common purpose, they accomplished their objective. They reached the Wizard. However, it was the process of the collaborative, purposeful effort that proved to be enlightening. Through the adventure they learned about themselves. So they accomplished their goals not in the manner they thought but through the process of pursuing a shared vision.

This is a metaphor for organizational progress. Without the shared vision, the common purpose, the organization falters. With it, progress is made. But, progress made is not always by the path envisioned.

As Yogi Berra said, "If you don't know where you're going, you might end up somewhere else." This is true. It is also true that even if you know where you are going, you might end up there by a different route.

Individuals play a vital role in managing agreement. If anyone had had the courage to speak up, Smiley and his family might not have ended up going to Abilene. Let's not go to Abilene! Let's go visit the Emerald City!

And, doesn't that take a road map, maybe an innovation road map...

Paul Schumann