Team Management Systems

Aesops Management Fables

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Aesop's Management Fables

Authors: Dick McCann and Jan Stewart
Butterworth Heinemann
ISBN: 0-7506-3341-7
(151 pages, paperback)




Copyright © Dick McCann and Jan Stewart 1997

Animals' behavior can so often mirror that of humans. Our realization that we could use these behaviors for management stories was serendipitous.

We wrote a frog story for a particular segment of a management development workshop to blend in with some creative visualization based on the sounds of a bull frog. This story, which is included in the book, was very effective in highlighting a major problem that many action-oriented managers have. It prompted us to write many more animal stories which have become this collection of 'management fables'.

We chose animals from all over the world to illustrate management problems: the kookaburra and wombat from Australia; the elephant, chameleon and weaverbird from Africa; the hedgehog and squirrel from the UK; and huskies, beavers and stagecoach horses from North America.

In formulating each chapter we decided to follow a teaching format that has been very successful for us. The first section contains an animal story, the second contains an equivalent management case study and the third draws out the major learning points.

In researching the fable genre we came across many examples of the way stories are used for teaching. We have summarized many of theses and their principles in Part One of the book. After reading Part One, you may read the rest of the chapters in any order. Pick any animal that interests you and discover the application to the world of management.

C.S. Lewis said that "we read to know we are not alone". How true this is! Perhaps when reading through this book you will recognize managers you have worked with and maybe even yourself! For example, the wombat was written to illustrate one of our own management styles. (No prizes are offered for guessing who!) It is a favorite animal of ours and often misunderstood.

The original Aesop's fables were a collection of stories attributed to the Greek slave Aesop who lived around 600BC. Most of the characters are animals that talk and act like human beings and illustrate the failings and virtues of human nature in a simple, often humorous way. Perhaps the best known of Aesop's fables is 'The tortoise and the hare'. Similarly we have described the failings of managers we have met or worked with, by associating their behavior with an appropriate animal.

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Tired of erudite management books, which offer advice, that can only be understood by rocket scientists and are guaranteed to cure insomnia? Then Aesop's is the book for you!

The authors have drawn on their experience in working with managers all over the world. Equating their management styles to the lifestyles of the animal kingdom gives this book a unique angle. These stories, which equate everyday work behavior with endearing (and not so endearing) animal characteristics, accompanied with a case study and sensible solutions, are a valuable resource for all.

Many of these stories were used on the authors' workshops with great success before being compiled into a book. They are written in two genres. The fable genre for the people who enjoy the internal visual experience of the story or the case study genre for the participants who prefer the realities of life and down-to-earth facts.

You may recognize your own behavior as that of the Kookaburra manager. Won't that make it easier to get off the roller coaster and direct your energies more constructively?

Whatever you use the book for - whether it is for self-development or part of a training workshop, you will find something to appeal to everyone. Everyone loves a story, so spoil yourself to over 40 of them in one book. All the stories are there for a good reason. Check them out for yourself.

Author Interview


An interview with Aesop's Management Fables coauthor, Dick McCann

What gave you the idea for the book?

Jan and I had been using stories on workshops for ages and we got so many inquiries about our story collection that we decided to put them together in a book.

Why do you use stories on workshops?

We found that discussions started much more openly and easily when we used stories to introduce management problems. Participants then found it easy to relate these stories to their work situation. We also found that they would recall the story long afterwards and the learning from the workshop was well entrenched.

Where did the stories come from?

Everywhere you can think of! We spent hours in bookstores over a period of about 4 years, looking for interesting stories in all types of books, from religious stories written by the Sufis to anthropological studies. What we tried to do was offer as many different genres of stories as possible so as to appeal to a wide audience.

We wrote all the fables and case studies over a two year period concentrating on the most common team and leadership problems that we had encountered in our work. We had already written a few fables before we decided to collect them in a book. Creating the stories ourselves was a challenge but in many ways was easier than finding specific stories that contained the exact message we wanted to impart. We still write and collect stories, wherever we go.

What type of workshops benefit from using stories?

All types really. What is important is that you know the type of people on the workshop and choose the story accordingly. It should contain the message or topic you want to convey in an acceptable format. Just take for instance the Beaver story and its accompanying case study. This story looks at the way teams in organizations tend to concentrate on their own tasks and ignore other teams, which can have a profound negative effect over a period of time.

We found this story was particularly effective in encouraging teams to examine their own external interfacing process, by first identifying where the beavers went wrong and translating it back into their own teamwork. This story opens the discussions much more easily than beginning with a diagrammatic analysis of their external links!

You wrote the TMS books with Charles Margerison, How to Influence Others at Work by yourself and 'Aesop's Management Fables' with Jan Stewart. What's next?

Well, I have just finished another book coauthored with Jan called The Half Empty Chalice which is a workshop text for a series of new workshops I am conducting in July around Australia and in October/November in the UK. This book is a little different. It is in two parts – a novella which illustrates the concepts in story form and a text book which gives the background and research to the concepts in the story.

After that who knows? I am always researching and whether my present project will end in a book, it is too soon to tell.



Copyright © Dick McCann and Jan Stewart 1997

Part Two
Animal Stories

This section of the book deals with individual managers and their behavior. Each chapter is split into three parts.

The first part is an animal story. The animals chosen were those with characteristics similar to the manager being portrayed. The second part is a case study based on real-life problems that many managers face in their day-to-day tasks. The third part discusses guidelines that might be employed to overcome the managerial deficiencies described in the first two parts..

The two stories portray the same problems in different ways. The animal story uses a fantasy scenario with descriptive language designed to aid internal visualization. The management story is more of the 'case study' genre and has been written in a factual and credible manner suitable for practical teaching. The messages in each story are similar but the two different formats will ensure that the underlying meaning will be interpreted by most audiences. When using the stories in a workshop situation, a mixture of the two types can be used to ensure maximum impact.

The third part of each story makes the underlying principles explicit. For individual readers, our comments will enable you to reflect on your own management style. For workshop facilitators, the guidelines will help you lead group discussions for initiating behavioral change in managers.

Chapter Two
The Frog

Life had been peaceful in the billabong. Everyone got on with their own lives. All were happy to believe that the world stopped at the edge of the water. Only the frogs came and went. Everyone else stayed happily in the warm, calm water. Occasionally, a new fish or insect would be washed into the little billabong from the small creek that kept the water fresh and moving, but little else disturbed their tranquil existence.

There were many families of frogs who lived in and around the billabong. They used the pond as a nursery for their eggs. The young tadpoles had a safe home in which to mature.

It was springtime. The tadpoles were sprouting legs and learning to leave the water for short spells. It seemed no time at all before they were perfect little frogs.

One of the young frogs was a lively, inquisitive green frog with the biggest eyes you can imagine. Now he was old enough, he spent his days jumping around the billabong, discovering all the interesting nooks and crannies. Their occupants were not at all pleased to see him, but he didn't worry about that. He was having fun. He liked to see where they lived and was quite unaware that his continual visits and interruptions were spoiling their once halcyon days in the billabong.

As he matured, he went on forays up and down the creek, poking his nose into everyone's business and making it difficult for others to get on with their daily lives.

One day he found this wonderful new billabong, where there was no-one else living. It was surrounded by large trees which let their branches dip into the water. He was enchanted. It was perfect for him and his young frog friends. They could set up a new home here without the interference of any of the older frogs.

He was so excited he could hardly wait to get back and gather his friends together. He hopped off home, his heart pounding with the great news.

On his return, he told all the young frogs what he had seen. He described this new paradise in glowing terms and persuaded them all that it could be their new home. They would have tremendous fun and he listed all the thrilling things they could accomplish if they were on their own. Convinced he was right and this wonderful place must exist, the young frogs followed their new leader to the bounteous billabong at the other side of the forest.

They arrived and were delighted to find that the place of their dreams did exist. It was a truly awesome abode for the young frogs. Without hesitation, they jumped into the water and investigated all the banks looking for comfortable places where they could live.

Within twelve hours they were all asleep, never to awaken again. No one had thought to ask why the pond was uninhabitated. Effluent from the chemical factory further up the creek contained poisonous chemicals which had polluted the pond, killing all the previous inhabitants. Had the young frog and his friends investigated further, they would have seen that the trees were dying and their branches were dipping into the pond as they wilted. The water was a mysterious deep blue.

Look before you leap

Robert Bentley was a tall, angular man with a large nose and a keen stare. He was promoted to the position of operations manager and took with him a reputation for great organizing skills. Robert was a very structured person who could organize a project and set it in motion in the shortest possible time. In previous positions within the company, he had earned the reputation of being a good leader and systems expert.

As operations manager, he had to not only organize the project, but also assess its viability and see it through to the final stage. Each tender the company submitted was Robert's responsibility. He had two other managers who would liaise with him on the tender, but the final decisions were left with him.

His fist tender was for the restoration of a bridge in a rural village. The bridge was built in the 1960s and needed painting and resurfacing. Robert and his colleagues met to discuss the tender. Despite objections from the other managers, Robert decided that there was no need for a survey, as the bridge was of minimal length and the majority of the data was on the old sketches.

The tender was submitted to the local council and approved. Robert was delighted. Now he could do the part of his job which he preferred. He put the task into action, organizing the latest state-of-the-art metal paint for the bridge structure, as well as the work teams to paint and resurface the bridge.

It wasn't until the teams arrived on site that the situation was realized. The bridge, although mainly metal, had at least 40 per cent of its structure composed of large wooden beams, to which the metal paint would not adhere. In addition, the surface was part cement, not completely Tarmacadam, as Robert had assumed. Robert's tender was much lower than the others and had been automatically accepted, as the company had an excellent reputation for superior work.

Robert was shocked that the bridge was not of the construction usual for that period. had he listened to his colleagues and surveyed the bridge before making a tender, he would have prevented the extra costs incurred by the company. Robert was able to rectify all the problems that had arisen and quickly organized alternative materials to complete the contract within the tender period. His excellent organizing skills helped him pull the company out of the predicament without damaging their reputation.

The company, however, made a loss on the project. Robert retained his job but was careful from that point on. In future, he always made sure that he had all the necessary data before making decisions.

Frog Managers

Many managers like Robert Bentley have frog-like tendencies. They forget the age-old advice to 'look before you leap'. Under the pressures of modern business where competition is keen, they have to make quick decisions. This need for quick decisions develops into an action-oriented style of management.

However, unless the correct information is gathered, then decisions will be made on incorrect data. Making assumptions based on minimum information, maximizes the probability of errors. It is important to spend time making sure that all the data has been gathered and that any assumptions are based on facts. Time spent in gathering information at an early stage is often repaid many times over by a reduction in the number of poor decisions.

To do a job effectively, a manager must have access to all the relevant information associated with the work of the team. This means reading reports, books, journals and newspapers, as well as attending conferences and seminars to ensure that the team is up-to-date with the latest information.

Information can also be gathered through networking, where regular meetings are held with people from other organizations. This is why many people regard membership of clubs, professional societies, and business organizations as an important part of their job.

Gathering information can be very time consuming, which is why it is sometimes ignored by frog managers. However the information technology revolution is changing all this and the explosion that is taking place through the establishment of such computer networks as the Internet. Learning how to use these systems will save managers time and give access to current information worldwide.

Tips for Frog Managers
In the short term

Use the 5WH technique (5'W' questions and one 'H' (how) question) when faced with a decision:

  • What information do you need?
  • Why do you need it?
  • Where will you get it from?
  • Who will get it?
  • When do you need it?
  • How will you get it?

In the longer term

Get into the habit of:

  • Setting aside time to read, research and be aware of the latest developments in your field
  • Allocating time to meet with others to learn what they are thinking and planning
  • Considering what information you should share with others to foster a good information flow
  • Consulting key stakeholders on any projects to ensure that their concerns and ideas are taken into account before any decisions are made.

Thought for the Frog Manager

Prevention rather than cure
     Reduces the stress you need endure.

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