Three management lessons (that will make you smile and cringe simultaneously)

A long long time ago in a land far away (New Jersey to be specific), I went to a training class – back in the days when companies really invested in the people, not simply the discrete tasks they would perform. I learned a few of the most valuable lessons I would ever have.

A recent unfortunate encounter reminded me of why I value them so much.  I share them with you in hopes they bring you tremendous value,  a willingness to overlook some small accidental injustice or simply remember that we make our days better.  (God, I sound like a Hallmark card, someone douse me with cold water and make me deal with economists for a whole day…)

“Win as Much as You Can.” – The most visceral collaboration exercise in which I ever participated.  When you ask a lot of questions about the rules in WAMAYC, they simply repeat the name of the game and refer you back to the rule sheet.  It’s not a hard game:  divide up into teams of 8, two people per subteam.  Each subteam has the opportunity to take one of three actions:  Act altruistically (in other words, run the very likely risk of screwing yourself), Go for a small win (in other words play the no, guts, no glory card) or Act as a cut throat (the one that makes sense based on the game and business).  Here’s what they don’t tell you.  In 3 of the 16 rounds, you will have to look your own colleagues (in my case, my production planner) in the face and say you will do something. Then, most likely, not do it.  In such close quarters it makes you queasy, your palms clammy.  And all to win a little game with the potential of a $100 or so in payout.  Hmmm…

As I watch client meetings where it looks like a lot of special interests all jockeying for their own approach, I am reminded that in WAMAYC, in the end, when they ADD the score of the 8 together, those who played as a team of 8 win.  There is a difference between optimal (effective) success and individual (efficient) success.

The Ultimatum Game – I first came across this in Clay Shirky’s books.  The game is simple, let’s say someone gives me $20, and tells me to share any amount I wish with another designated person.  However if he refuses my offer, no one gets to keep anything.  Principle would hold that any amount of additional money is more than you had a minute ago, so truly any offer should work, according to the economists. (And we know my opinion on economists, right?)  We tend to apply a doctrine of fairness.  In other words, if I split the reward with him roughly equally, 50-50, 60-40, we both win.  However, when I stray into that land of 70-30 or less, it defies fairness and we both lose.  Even when any part of $20 is better than none of it, punishing someone for not playing fairly is about the fact that we want – in fact yearn – for relationships built on fairness.

Monkey See, Monkey Do – I will let Freek Vermeulen start it off for you: ( a prof at the London Business School, should tell the beginning, since he does it quite finely)

The experiment involved 5 monkeys, a cage, a banana, a ladder and, crucially, a water hose.  The 5 monkeys would be locked in a cage, after which a banana was hung from the ceiling with, fortunately for the monkeys (or so it seemed…), a ladder placed right underneath it.
Of course, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, intending to climb it and grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the sadist (euphemistically called “scientist”) would spray the monkey with ice-cold water. In addition, however, he would also spray the other four monkeys…When a second monkey was about to climb the ladder, the sadist would, again, spray the monkey with ice-cold water, and apply the same treatment to its four fellow inmates; likewise for the third climber and, if they were particularly persistent (or dumb), the fourth one. Then they would have learned their lesson: they were not going to climb the ladder again – banana or no banana.

In order to gain further pleasure or, I guess, prolong the experiment, the sadist outside the cage would then replace one of the monkeys with a new one. As can be expected, the new guy would spot the banana, think “why don’t these idiots go get it?!” and start climbing the ladder. Then, however, it got interesting: the other four monkeys, familiar with the cold-water treatment, would run towards the new guy – and beat him up. The new guy, blissfully unaware of the cold-water history, would get the message: no climbing up the ladder in this cage – banana or no banana.

Simply put, eventually, one by one, the monkeys are replaced in the cage, until none of the original monkeys is there.  And yet, they still beat up the new guy, even when all the memory of the water torture is gone – all the monkeys are new.  So, that nasty, conformist behavior exists even when no one knows why – and no one knew the pre-existing condition.  “It’s how we do it,” is not an answer when so many things can change so rapidly in today’s business environment.  Don’t beat the snot out of someone for proposing or trying something new – because that which keeps anyone from moving forward may keep everyone from moving forward.  What parts of our behavior have been let sink in that would be better cast off?  Where have we beat up the person who was trying something new?

It’s still early in 2011 – maybe it’s not too late for us all to make another, more practical resolution to let go of some of our old perceptions and biases?  -c-


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