Yang: You See Banana, I See Potassium … Part II

You See Banana, I See Potassium: Whose reality is more real? Part II
By ELENA YANG

We take on many roles simultaneously, and different people see us differently. I am a student of management, a watercolor painter, a gardener, a wife, a mother … I can be simultaneously smart and stupid (don’t say that you have never had such an experience), or I can be both compassionate and stingy. 

You get the drift. Most managers are complex people, yet, often, they are regarded in a unidimensional image. The 20 people under one manager most likely have at least 10 different images for this manager. An open-minded and courageous manager would want to know all the images he is given … or construct a useful image to strive for.

Gareth Morgan challenges some managers with the image of a “strategic termite.” Very few took heart to it right away, or even after explanations. We tend to be stuck with the negative connotations of the termite image. But Morgan has a good point in using termites, at least in the context of Africa. For most of us, we can appreciate from some nature films the image of termite mounds in which some mounds can be as tall as 10+ feet; some look like an arch because different mounds connect at the top. 

The reason for Morgan to propose the “strategic termite” image is that termites, being blind, without any blueprint, somehow build these palatial structures bit by bit, incrementally, opportunistically. And the outcomes are impressive.

In certain type of situations, for humans, mostly when resources are limited, agile maneuvering is critical, culture is entrenched, and planning is futile with time and money wasted, managers need to be opportunists, taking small steps, to try, to nudge, to chip away, to build small mounds. In small experiments, failures are less likely to catch attention, but successes can be built upon. 

There are several cases presented in the book that would warrant some close study (worth a trip to the public library.) One particular HR manager worked for a big retail business organization that is highly decentralized. He had little budget and staff. To attempt any grand training and development programs would either not be granted or would quickly drive to failure. 

So, he paid close attention to some line managers’ operations, and grabbed opportunities when he saw them arise. He offered tailored-made programs for these middle-level managers. As favorable results began to spread, more managers requested his assistance. Whenever budgets became tight, he had no worries since he largely used a small circle of outside consultants and could trim or expand as he saw fit. In this manner, the majority of his operating costs was covered by the requesting managers.

This HR manager did not have a strategic plan (not that he could afford a formal one), but he did have a vision of how he could add value to the organization. Based on his vision, he built his programs incrementally, and gradually earned reputation and respect. He knew his results would be difficult to prove, and so by focusing on small programs, he could avoid the evaluation and metrics-mindset that typically accompany any formal training and development programs, thus further minimizing his operating budget.

The manager himself said it best, “We try something, and if it doesn’t work we bury it. If it does work, we hoist it up the flag pole, and give others a chance to see what can be done…Many senior managers want to see change, but hey don’t know how to drive it, or how to behave…They find it threatening.  But if we do good stuff for them and for the line managers, and people say that it is good (italic original), they support it…If you ask for permission to do something within the context of a formal plan, you find yourself having to go higher and higher in the organization.  But if you can find a line manager who has an interest, and give him a modest proposal, he’ll usually say ‘yes.’”

And no memos, no reports.  Sweet, isn’t?!

In a different example, under the subtitle of “just do the small stuff,” it was about a big government agency undergoing changes.  Really.  The unwritten slogan, from Red Tape to Green Tape, quickly caught on.  People liked the concept, especially the distinction:  “Red tape means you’re telling someone you can’t do that.  That’s what the rules are.  Green tape means helping someone to go forward…here’s how you can interpret the rules to meet our needs.”  Indeed, when we start with a “NO,” we kill all possibilities. 

So, think about “maybe’s” to open up possibilities.  And Happy Mother’s Day. 

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.

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