Management lessons can be found in many places, not just business schools. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri begins with Dante's trek through Hell, where he meets a whole range of characters. One of the most interesting is Guido da Montefeltro, trapped inside a column of flame in the circle of the evil counsellors. Guido was a warlord and politician. He had been asked by Pope Boniface to advise on subduing the rebellious city of Penestrina. “Your advice can be as evil as you wish,” Boniface tells him, “I grant you absolution in advance for anything you do.” “In that case, it's very simple.” says Guido. “Promise them a truce, then break the promise.”
Guido dies, comfortable in the thought that the Pope has given him a free pass to Heaven. But instead a demon comes for him. “Sorry,” says the demon, “but preemptive absolution just doesn't work. It is a logical contradiction. You can't be absolved until you have repented, and you can't repent until you have committed the deed.” The demon drags him off to Hell, with a cheerful cry of “Perhaps you never knew, I practise logic too!” The world is full of Guidos today. His mistake was to become trapped inside his own logical frame. The Pope had absolved him, so he was safe. He forgot that there was a higher power than the Pope, namely logic.
Some years ago, Dell began outsourcing manufacturing to a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, ASUSTek. The outsourcing started with simple circuit boards, then the motherboard, then the assembly of the computer, then the management of the supply chain and finally the design of the entire computer. Using IRR [internal rate of return] and ROA [return on assets] analyses, this sequence supposedly “made sense” because Dell's revenues were unaffected and its profits improved significantly. The end result? ASUSTeK became Dell's formidable competitor, while Dell itself, apart from its brand, was hardly more than a shell, without any real expertise to run or grow its business.
Commenting on it the author, Professor Clayton Christensen, wrote “There's no stupidity in the story.” But there is huge stupidity. You can't argue that simply following a rule like “maximize return on assets” absolves you from any charge of stupidity even when the predictable consequences of doing so are dire, any more than you can rely on a preemptive absolution (even from such an eminent authority as a Pope) when there is an obvious logical flaw in the procedure.
The world is full of people who have become very skilled at navigating within their own local logical frameworks, but have in fact become trapped in a fantasy world. In Dante's day you could go to a university school of theology and debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Today, there are plenty of business schools where we could go to have a really sophisticated, intricate discussion of the best way to measure return on assets, without ever asking the question of when improving return on assets might be the last thing we want to do.
Think also of Facebook, and its recent experiments on emotionally manipulating its users. I am sure that the experiment was statistically very cleverly designed, and technically very cleverly executed. And I am sure that some very clever lawyers spent some time ensuring that the experiment was within the terms of the consent that the users gave when they signed up - “Scientists and other critics claim Facebook is guilty of an ethical breach. But Facebook claims users consent to such experiments when they join, even though most people don't read the lengthy terms of service”.
But what about the larger logic? What about a principle that says “treat users with respect. Don't do things that creep them out?” Whether the issue is ethical or commercial, let's remember that rules, procedures and metrics are only guides to help us respect the larger principle. Mostly they point us in the right direction, but occasionally they don't. And those occasional cases are the ones that really matter.
A story may be an interesting and funny way of describing management lessons.
1) A man is getting into the shower just as his wife is finishing up her shower, when the doorbell rings. The wife quickly wraps herself in a towel and runs downstairs. When she opens the door, there stands Bob, the next-door neighbor. Before she says a word, Bob says, 'I'll give you $800 to drop that towel.' After thinking for a moment, the woman drops her towel and stands naked in front of Bob, after a few seconds, Bob hands her $800 and leaves. The woman wraps back up in the towel and goes back upstairs. When she gets to the bathroom, her husband asks, 'Who was that?' 'It was Bob the next door neighbor,' she replies. 'Great,' the husband says, 'did he say anything about the $800 he owes me?'
2) A priest offered a Nun a lift. She got in and crossed her legs, forcing her gown to reveal a leg. The priest nearly had an accident. After controlling the car, he stealthily slid his hand up her leg. The nun said, 'Father, remember Psalm 129?' The priest removed his hand. But, changing gears, he let his hand slide up her leg again. The nun once again said, 'Father, remember Psalm 129?' The priest apologized 'Sorry sister but the flesh is weak.' Arriving at the convent, the nun sighed heavily and went on her way. On his arrival at the church, the priest rushed to look up Psalm 129. It said, 'Go forth and seek, further up, you will find glory.
3) A sales rep, an administration clerk, and the manager are walking to lunch when they find an antique oil lamp. They rub it and a Genie comes out. The Genie says, 'I'll give each of you just one wish.' 'Me first! Me first!' says the admin clerk. 'I want to be in the Bahamas , driving a speedboat, without a care in the world.' Puff! She's gone. 'Me next! Me next!' says the sales rep. 'I want to be in Hawaii , relaxing on the beach with my personal masseuse, an endless supply of Pina Coladas and the love of my life.' Puff! He's gone. 'OK, you're up,' the Genie says to the manager. The manager says, 'I want those two back in the office after lunch.
4) An eagle was sitting on a tree resting, doing nothing. A small rabbit saw the eagle and asked him, 'Can I also sit like you and do nothing?' The eagle answered: 'Sure, why not.' So, the rabbit sat on the ground below the eagle and rested. All of a sudden, a fox appeared, jumped on the rabbit and ate it.
5) A turkey was chatting with a bull. 'I would love to be able to get to the top of that tree' sighed the turkey, 'but I haven't got the energy.' 'Well, why don't you nibble on some of my droppings?' replied the bull. They're packed with nutrients.' The turkey pecked at a lump of dung, and found it actually gave him enough strength to reach the lowest branch of the tree. The next day, after eating some more dung, he reached the second branch. Finally after a fourth night, the turkey was proudly perched at the top of the tree. He was promptly spotted by a farmer, who shot him out of the tree.
6) A little bird was flying south for the winter. It was so cold the bird froze and fell to the ground into a large field. While he was lying there, a cow came by and dropped some dung on him. As the frozen bird lay there in the pile of cow dung, he began to realize how warm he was. The dung was actually thawing him out! He lay there all warm and happy, and soon began to sing for joy. A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate. Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung, and promptly dug him out and ate him.
Management Lesson: You don't need brains to be a Boss – any asshole will do.
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