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

Friday, May 21, 2004

Blinded by Our Expertise

A wonderful bird is a pelican

His bill will hold more than his belican.

Dixon Lanier Merritt

Gliding only inches above the water, a group of pelicans sped past me as I walked the beach. It was near sunrise. Three layers of clouds provided the color for the sunrise over the ocean. The high clouds were already white with the full rays of the sun. The middle clouds were turning pink and orange, catching the first rays over their horizon. The lower clouds were still dark and ominous since they were not yet illuminated. Like the past, present, and future, the clouds provided a changing perspective of the sunrise. The past brightly lit for anyone to see. The present is rapidly changing. And, the future only poorly outlined. As if to amplify on this observation, the waves breaking along the shore, due to the tide, broke behind me first, alongside me next, and in front of me last. A cascade of sound coupled with the visual image.

The sun emerged over the clear ocean horizon. It was as though a ball of fire was plucked from a fiery cauldron of liquid. It seemed to emerge, change shape, and drip some of its fire back into the ocean. As the last edge of the sun cleared the horizon, an elongated drop seemed to form, due no doubt to reflection and refraction, adding to the effect of a cauldron source. It's no wonder that myths started the way they did. Our world is marvelous and not easily explainable if we only observe it, really see it, and not let symbols get in our way.

The pelicans rode what looked like a "ground effect," a compression of the air between the wings and the surface of the water. Without beating their wings, they sailed along in the troughs of the waves for long periods. Then they seemed to ride up the face of a wave, giving them a push higher into the air where they flapped their wings a few times and resumed gliding, skimming the surface of the water. What a marvel of perfection! The pelicans were exercising the skills that they had been given. Highly specialized and adapted to their environment, they seemed to revel in their abilities.

The brown pelican that inhabits the Florida coast where I observed them is a very large bird. It can have wingspans of up to 7.5 feet and flies with long wing strokes, alternating with glides. It commutes to work. Because of its flying skills, it has been known to fly for hundreds of kilometers between its nesting area and feeding area. I observed them every morning going to fish and every evening returning. The pelican prefers to nest in areas that are undisturbed. As a result of this and because of its susceptibility to DDT (making its eggshells too thin), it is becoming a rare bird. The pelican has been known to exhibit altruistic behavior, caring for its disabled. Groups have been known to provide food for a blind member no longer able to fish. In Europe, the pelican has been used as a symbol for man's altruistic activities.

The brown pelicans' manner of fishing is extraordinary.

They fly at heights up to 70 feet and with very specialized vision spot a fish swimming in the water below. The pelican sets its body into a dive, folds its wings, and plummets headfirst into the water, scooping up the fish in its bill. They are spectacular to watch: a marvel of skill and specialization carried out to perfection.

A common disability among the brown pelicans is blindness. Repeated diving with the tremendous impacts on the head damages the eyes and blindness results. The very practice of the skill so carefully perfected damages the pelican's vision, one of its highly developed abilities, necessary for the use of its other skills.

This is also what happens to people. We become so highly specialized and efficient at the practice of a skill that its repeated use blinds us to change and opportunity.

The development of a paradigm both enables progress to be made and hinders change - a paradox.

History has recorded many cases of experts making bad predictions. They were not sensitive to events occurring around them. They were not able to see what was really happening:

"For a century, as you know, steam has been the principal railroad motive power. It still is and, in my view, will continue to be."W.C. Dickerman, President American Locomotive Co.

"The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it today. `Knife' and `pain' are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient. To this compulsory exacerbation we shall have to adjust ourselves."Dr. Alfred Velpeau (l839)

"Nothing has come along that can beat the horse and buggy."Chauncey Depew, U. S. businessman

"I cannot imagine any condition which could cause this ship to flounder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modem shipbuilding has gone beyond that."E. J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic

"The bow is a simple weapon, firearms an very complicated things which get out of order in many ways, a very heavy weapon tires out soldiers on the march. Whereas a bowman can left off six armed shots a minute, a musketeer can discharge but one it two minutes."Colonel Sir John Smythe (1591)

"That is the biggest fool thing we have eve r done. The [atomic] bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives."Admiral William D. Leahy (1945)

I continued my walk along the beach, watching several more groups of pelicans play with the air and the water. There was no one else in sight but there were numerous footprints in the loose sand piled high by tides and the actions of the waves. It was just past high ride and the water had receded somewhat. Walking was tough in the trek over the sand. I moved down closer to the water's edge where there were no footprints. The walking was easier, but I had to keep my eyes open to avoid getting my feet wet by an occasional high-performer wave.

Walking over other people's tracks is always difficult and uninteresting. For a team of horses pulling a wagon, the scenery only changes for the lead horse. In addition, it's easier to get confused by other people's tracks. In Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, Pooh goes hunting for a Woozle. Joined by Piglet, they continue their search, following a set of tracks. As they walk, the number of tracks increases. They become frightened by the alarming number of Woozles that they are following and quit. Only then do they find that they have walked in circles and followed their own footprints.

When you walk along the water's edge on sand recently uncovered by a receding tide, you explore new areas not seen before. Your footprints clearly mark your path and will last until another tide washes them away.

There are cycles in innovation. There are time periods when bursts of innovative activity occur. We are in one of those time periods now.

Those who wish to make technological progress will dance with the tides of change, using multiple expert skills. Those who dare to deviate from the paths of others, who risk getting their feet wet, will develop innovations, like footprints, that will last until the tide returns 50 to 60 years from now.

Don't be blinded by your specialization. Don't be frightened by all the tracks in front of you. Many of them are yours. Move away from the footprints of the others and dance with the tides of change.

Paul Schumann

Monday, May 17, 2004

Complexity, Stress and Strategy

I have been told that Australian Aborigines hunt kangaroo in a manner that has lessons for the modem workplace. The Aborigines know that they are not as fast as the kangaroo. If they try to outrun it, the kangaroo will leave hem in the dust. Even if they try outlasting the kangaroo, they can't. The kangaroo, ideally suited for the outback, can both outrun and outlast the Aborigine. So, over the years, the Aborigines have developed a method, which is perhaps intuitive, whereby they use patience and knowledge of stress to hunt the kangaroo.

When the Aborigines hunt kangaroo and spot a likely candidate, they start on a course of relentless pursuit. They run after the kangaroo at a pace that they can sustain for long periods of time. The kangaroo, frightened by the humans, runs away at a high speed. When the kangaroo feels that it is far enough away, it stops to rest. Soon the Aborigines catch up, and once again, the frightened kangaroo runs away at a high speed. Again, the kangaroo rests, and again the Aborigines catch up.

This scenario is repeated over and over again. The result is that the kangaroo begins to experience great stress from running, resting, and then running again. The Aborigines study the kangaroo very carefully. When it appears that the kangaroo has been stressed enough, they move closer, but not close enough to frighten the kangaroo. Then they stop.

The kangaroo relaxes, thinking that it is safe. It may even go to sleep. Then the Aborigines attack. The kangaroo, relaxed and secure, cannot respond in time and is killed.

Is this not a metaphor for the stress of the work world? We constantly are being pursued by our competitors, by our co-workers, or by ourselves. We are called upon time and time again to respond with bursts of adrenaline, to respond quickly, and to move ahead. Because we experience stress in our work lives, as well as in our increasingly complex personal lives, we become harried like the kangaroo. And we become vulnerable.

The Japanese Samurai have understood since the 16th century how to cope with stress. Miyamoto Musashi, one of Japan's greatest Samurai, wrote about this in his book, The Book of Five Rings. One of Musashi's teachings was the strategy of Releasing Four Hands. When you and your opponent are locked in a struggle, and no one can seem to gain an advantage, learn to release the four hands - to break off the combat cleanly by releasing both of your lands and those of the opponent. Then you can try a different approach that is strategically to your advantage. The one who breaks off the combat for an instant clearly has the advantage of having thought ahead as to what he was going to do. He can then take a positive action to gain an advantage. Many believe that Japanese businesses still have the roots of their strategies in these lessons from the Samurai.

Like the Samurai, the Aborigines break off the contest for a while. The kangaroo, which relaxes and thus gives away its advantage, suffers the consequences.

We live in an age of constant complexity, in which change is endemic and chaos is commonplace. Constant innovation is necessary for survival. A commitment to constant personal renewal is essential if we are to stay ahead of the changes. How can we do it all?

Remembering the strategies practiced by the Aborigines and the Samurai, we find two things that we can do. We have to be able to think ahead and be better strategic thinkers. We must be aware of the total environment within which we work and live and be able to read the signals of impending change long before they affect us. And we must be able to integrate many signals of change to reach a basic understanding of the driving forces behind the changes. We can also pace ourselves better. Instead of having to exert a burst of energy, in a panic mode, to get ahead, with resulting stress on our minds and bodies, we can pace ourselves. With the knowledge of where our opponents are headed, we can run at an even pace to stay ahead.

We must be able to live creatively productive lives. In order to do this we have to understand, among many other things, the nature of stress on our body, the effects of what we eat and drink, and those things that are effective to each of us individually to manage stress.

Armed with the knowledge of the driving forces, what strategies our opponents are using, we will know when we can relax, and when we must he alert. We can then integrate stress management practices into our lives, to allow us to reach baseline often. This will fuel us with the almost boundless energy that is natural to us, and enable us to face these times of chaos, complexity, and change each day without tearing ourselves down.

Paul Schumann