A sample from the book, ‘Management Fable’ by Dean Shanson
Own Your Burrow And Build Your Mound
Rob and Allie are both senior managers at medium-sized companies. Each year, they attend a managerial conference to learn new ways to organize their workforce and motivate their employees. On the last day of the most recent conference, they met in the hotel bar to discuss the ideas they had heard. Neither of them was very impressed.
“It was just the same old stuff as last year, wasn’t it?” complained Allie.
“Yes, lots of talk and nothing very practical. I didn’t hear anything at this conference that I can actually take back to my company and use to motivate my workers,” agreed Rob.
“Which, of course, is exactly what we need,” continued Allie. “All these bright ideas are fine, but ultimately, I want to be sure that when I hand out a task it gets done exactly the way I want. I want to be able to forget about it and trust my employees to find their way to the goal. Let’s face it, I want them to think and function like me. If someone would just tell me how to do that, then I’d be happy.”
“You know, some of my employees do think like me,” said Rob. “Some of them are great. I can give them a task and leave them to it. I know that whatever happens, they’ll find a way to get the job done. And they won’t just do what I tell them either; they’ll actually think about why they’re doing it and make sure it happens. If they meet a problem, they’ll think of a way around it. I totally rely on those people. In fact, they’re one of the main sources of new ideas in my company.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Allie. “I’ve got employees like that too. But I’ve also got lots of the other kind: the kind that don’t do anything unless you draw it out for them, and even then you have to watch them like a hawk. If they meet a problem, they just stand around like lemons until someone tells them what to do. And as soon as you’ve finished training them, they up and leave!”
“Right!” exclaimed Rob. “I swear those employees are more trouble than they’re worth. The damage they do costs more than the revenue they bring in.”
“Yes,” agreed Allie. “It’s like there are two different kinds of employees: great ones and terrible ones. The great ones just need nurturing and I’ve got no idea what to do with the terrible ones.”
As they were talking, they noticed a man sitting at the corner of the bar listening to their conversation. He appeared very interested in what Rob and Allie were saying and when they paused, he leaned forward and spoke to them.
“I’m sorry,” he began. “But I couldn’t help but overhear what you were saying. I know exactly what you mean. I used to be in exactly the same situation as you guys: some of my employees were truly fantastic. Others were truly hopeless.”
“Really?” asked Rob. “So what turned it around?”
“Well, I started thinking of my employees as tenants in a neighborhood,” the man replied. “In any neighborhood, you have owners and you have renters. Homeowners always look after their properties as best they can. Even the areas around their houses look great because they genuinely care about their environment. They feel they’ve made an investment and that they’re going to stay for a long time so they don’t need be told that their street has to be kept tidy or that the drains have to be fixed. They just do it because it’s theirs. They’re like those great employees: they take responsibility and show initiative.”
“And the renters?” asked Allie.
“Well, you know what renters are like,” explained the man. “No one expects to stay in a rented property for long so because they’ve always got one foot out of the door, renters don’t really care about the property. If something’s wrong with their apartment, they won’t fix it; they’ll live with it or call the landlord. They certainly won’t initiate any improvements by themselves.”
“That certainly sounds familiar,” laughed Rob. “It always amazes me how my bad employees can see a problem and do nothing about it.”
“So how are else are employees like homeowners or renters?” asked Allie.
“Well,” said the man. “What got me thinking like this was a story I heard. It explains precisely how workers can be divided into owners and renters, and what a manager can do to encourage renters to ‘buy’ their job. If you like, I could tell you how that story goes.”
“I’m sure we’d love to hear it,” said Allie, and Rob nodded his agreement.
“So it goes like this…,” said the man.
The island of Compton isn’t the kind of place you’re likely to find on a map. In fact, it’s not the kind of place you’re likely to find at all. It’s a small, isolated island that floats somewhere in the sea, but nobody’s quite sure which one. It has clear, water-filled pools, fine, sandy beaches and … tall, earthen mounds.
In fact, the entire surface of Compton is covered with mounds. Some of the mounds are small. Some of the mounds are big. And some of the mounds are very big indeed. But all of the mounds contain burrows.
The burrows run throughout the mounds and can number from just one or two for the very small mounds, to many hundreds or even thousands for the biggest ones. And just as there are many different types of mound, so there are many different kinds of burrow.
Some burrows are long and deep with lots of rooms and wonderful riches. Others are short and narrow, and contain little more than cracks and worms. Most of the burrows though, are medium-sized and pleasant places to live.
And that’s lucky, because inside each burrow lives a Comptonian—the proud residents of the island.
Comptonians are very, very small; they have to be small to fit inside the mounds. Even the tallest residents of the island are just a few inches from head to toe. (Any taller and they start banging their heads on the roofs of their burrows.) But while all Comptonians come in various shades of small, they also come in many different shapes: they can be round and fat, or long and thin, and lots of other forms besides.
Despite their differences, the Comptonians are, for the most part, a friendly bunch and they all get along very well with each other. Apart from the odd shout from a tall Comptonian standing up too quickly in his burrow, Compton has always been a fairly quiet place.
There is however, quite a lot of competition between the mounds, and sometimes that competition can be very fierce indeed.
Comptonians all know that a mound that isn’t well looked after can soon find itself in trouble. It can be buried under the earth thrown out from the other mounds. It will certainly have difficulty attracting other Comptonians to fill its burrows. And in the very worst cases, when winter comes, small mounds can even find themselves washed out by the dreadful floods that occasionally strike the island. When that happens, all the inhabitants of the mound’s burrows have to leave and find other mounds with empty burrows to live in.
To preserve their burrows then, the Comptonians in each mound must work hard on their own burrows, adding earth and helping the mound-manager to keep the mound safe and secure.
All day long, Compton resounds to the happy hum of Comptonians working in their burrows.
Now, one day, three Comptonians decided to move into a mound together. Their names were Match, Patch and Botch.
Match was a very serious kind of Comptonian. He had broad, stable feet, a long, narrow head, and big, round eyes. He was a smart fellow and whatever he did he gave it his all. Whether it was studying mound engineering, practicing his hobby of mound climbing, or bungee jumping from the top of the tallest mounds, he didn’t stop until he’d learned or achieved everything he could. Only then did he move onto a different challenge.
Patch and Botch were often quite similar, but secretly, Patch wanted to be more like Match. Although she was usually determined to see a project through to the end, she was easily distracted and often preferred to give up on a problem, ignore it or go somewhere else rather than tackle it. Each time she threw in the towel and moved on to a new challenge though, she hoped that this time, she’d see it through to the end.
If Match was serious and committed, Botch believed in enjoying himself now. He was small and thin with short feet, and a face that was almost hidden under his long, untidy hair. He also had little, beady eyes that were fixed so that he had to turn his whole head to look in a different direction, and when he did turn his head, his legs, which were fidgety things, were often quick to follow. As soon as Botch wasn’t having fun, he simply looked and went elsewhere.
Match, Patch and Botch were best friends. When the time came for them to leave their parents’ burrows and find mounds of their own, they all began looking together.
After a while, they found a decent, medium-sized mound in the middle of the island and went to see the manager, Spur.
Botch took one, quick look at the mound. He had a short chat with Spur and decided he wanted to move in. He barely even looked at the burrow, but figured that if he did discover any problems, he could live with them until he left. He didn’t think it would be long before he got bored, so he expected that he would be moving on fairly soon anyway. He prepared to hand over his first rental check.
Patch studied the mound a little more closely. She examined the burrow and checked out the view. She felt the place looked good, but wasn’t completely certain. Eventually, she decided to give it a try for a while. If she found she didn’t like it, or if she found something better, she could always move out, she thought. She too prepared her rental check.
Match and Spur had a very long chat. Match asked Spur about the neighboring mounds, and the size of the burrows. He looked to see if there was any room to expand his burrow if he wanted to, and he talked to the other inhabitants of the mound. He decided that the mound looked very good indeed and that he would want to stay in it for the foreseeable future. So he scraped together his savings, and offered to buy his burrow outright.
Now, after their long talk, Spur realized that he liked Match and was happy to sell Match a burrow. He realized that if Match wanted to buy a burrow, he would certainly look after it, and contribute to the safety and security of the mound. When Match came to him with his deposit, Spur even gave him a discount and offered him the best burrow he had available.
Spur was a little concerned about having Patch as a tenant, but just as Patch was prepared to give his mound a chance, he was equally prepared to give Patch a chance. He let her rent a burrow, but secretly hoped that like Match, she too would one day choose to buy it and stay permanently in the mound.
Botch, on the other hand, he didn’t like at all. He was worried that Botch might damage his burrow or even the mound itself. When Botch came to pay his security deposit, Spur told him that he was very sorry but he didn’t think his mound would be suitable for him.
Match and Patch were a little upset about this, but Botch simply shrugged his shoulders.
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” he told his friends. “I wasn’t going to stay here for long anyway.”
He walked out of the mound and began looking for a new mound to move into. It didn’t take him long before he found a small run-down mound not far from Match and Patch.
Tite, the owner of Botch’s mound was very different to Spur. He was short and fat with a huge mouth and very small ears. He barely talked to Botch, and certainly didn’t listen to him (not that Botch had much to say). As far as Tite was concerned, he had an empty burrow and Botch was looking for one. It looked—for both of them—like a match made in heaven. They signed the deal.
When the day came to move in, Spur popped down to see Match and Patch as they unloaded their things. He asked them how they were doing, and if they had any questions about the mound.
“What sort of rules do you have for living here?” asked Patch.
“Well obviously, you have to make sure that your burrow remains clean, well-built and secure,” replied Spur. “But I don’t think you need to be told that. Otherwise, you’re fairly free to do as you wish. If you want to do anything that affects the mound as a whole though, you must come to speak to me about it first. If it’s good for the mound, we’ll try to do it. If it’s not good for the mound, we won’t. In general though, I’d say we don’t really have rules so much as principles,” he continued.
“Principles?” asked Match. “What sort of principles?”
“You’ll see,” said Spur. “Once you’ve been here for a while, the principles that I use to keep the mound safe and the residents happy should be pretty clear. If you’re really interested though, come up and see me after you’ve finished unpacking and I’ll explain my principles to you one by one. Pretty soon, you’ll see how they work.”
Tite too, came down to see Botch on the day that he moved in. But Botch didn’t have to ask Tite about rules (not that Tite was likely to have listened to him anyway). Tite was carrying a long list of rules in his hand, and while Botch unpacked his rucksack, he nailed the rules to the back of the door.
As soon as Tite had left, Botch approached the door to examine the rules.
The rules went on and on, and there was a second page of rules beneath the first, and a third page beneath the second. Botch read all the rules and felt very happy. Now he knew exactly where he stood. He knew what he could expect from his mound-manager, and he knew what his mound-manager expected from him. Everything was clear.
When Match had finished unpacking and his burrow was beginning to look nice and homely, he decided to take Spur up on his offer. He climbed up to Spur’s burrow on top of the mound and found that the door to his burrow was open. Match liked that. It was nice to know that Spur was always available if he had ideas about ways to improve their mound.
He knocked on the open door.
“Come in Match,” said Spur, looking up from his paperwork. “Take a seat. What can I do for you?”
“Well,” began Match, sitting in the comfortable chair in front of Spur. “I was hoping you could explain your principles to me a little.”
“Ah, no problem,” said Spur, rising from his chair and sitting on the edge of the table. “Let’s take each principle one at a time. Here…”
Spur reached behind him and pulled out a blank sheet of paper. At the top of the paper he wrote:
PRINCIPLES FOR A GOOD MOUND
Beneath that he wrote the first principle:
- OWNERS INCREASE THE VALUE OF THE MOUND
RENTERS REDUCE THE VALUE OF THE MOUND
He gave the sheet to Match who looked at it and thought for a moment.
“’Owners increase the value of the mound,’” he wondered. “What does that mean?”
“Well…,” began Spur, “it’s… well, it’s a little like…. It’s a little hard to explain.” He paused for a moment. “You know something, why don’t you take it down to your burrow, put it on your wall, and over the next few weeks, see if it doesn’t become clear.”