Saturday, February 09, 2008

Aesop’s Foibles #7 Belling the cat

Aesop’s fable about mice and their nemesis, a terrorizing cat, is one of my favorites. They were at constant discussions on how to neutralize this threat and have had several meetings to come up with a plan to achieve this. It is something I can relate to because the situation is similar to what one encounters in corporate life. Having been a corporate person in most of my working years the fable brings back memories of endless brainstorming sessions and committee meetings that I have organized or have been a part of in the varied posts in my career.

The fable is about a discussion of the elders in a mouse community on how to nullify the threat of a ferocious cat who was menacing their daily lives.

The cat was an extraordinarily stealthy one and in not so few instances have their furry fellowmice been caught in pantry raids. Their cheese reserves were at their lowest level and would not last a week. Faced with the dire prospect of starvation they convened the best and most experienced minds in their midst to form a committee to address the problem.

They were hellbent on producing the best laid plans of mice and... Plan after plan were broached and strategies were tossed around and bruited about. They reviewed Tom and Jerry situations, formulated feline repellant chemicals, designed doomsday machines and one even suggested forming a delegation to convince Mighty Mouse, to pick up their cause. None of these ideas seemed worthwhile besides Mighty Mouse lived in another country and the time and expense necessary to send emissaries was beyond their means.

Near exhaustion from days of incessant and raucuous debates the enthusiasm of the committee was beginning to wane and the conference room was shrouded with an ominous quiet, with not a creature was stirring except for one fidgety mouse who seemed at the verge of an eruption. “Eureka!” he shouted, “I have finally come up with the answer to all our woes”.

The idea was a marvel of simplicity. “Let’s bell the cat!” he said, and one mouse recognizing the genius of the plan stood up and repeated “Let’s bell the cat!” then another followed suit…”Let’s bell the cat!” and soon the room echoed with the phrase “Let’s bell the cat!” There was exultation all around, then from the corner of the room a sqeaky voice rang loudlly “Who will put the bell on the cat? he asked.

The fable ends here with the moral lesson “It is one thing to suggest and another thing to do. It is easy to propose impossible remedies.”

In present day corporate situations a big boss may come up with the big idea along the mold suggested by a very popular management book, Built To Last, by Porras and Collins. The authors refer to it as BHAG or big, hairy, audacious goals. Similarly, Chris Lowny in his management book Heroic Leadership refers to as heroic goals from the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises (magis) which endeavors to achieve even greater achievements "for His greater glory" majorem Dei gloriam.

  A great idea, a BHAG, a magis... but difficult to implement. Being the boss nobody dared question the wisdom of the proposed plan. He delegates this to his subalterns who do not seem to have any choice but to make good the plan. When queried about the difficulty of the plan the boss rages and tells them “I can’t do everything here. I gave you a big idea now go ahead and make it work!” Afraid for their careers they make a go of it and succeeds. This really happens in the board rooms of large corporations where a seemingly despotic CEO challenges his vice presidents and operations heads to achieve impossible goals unquestioningly and resolutely. In most business successes dogged determination is key.

This changes the moral lesson somewhat to “if there’s a will there’s a way” or “to reap success you have to think the unthinkable”.

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