Monday, June 19, 2006

A Management Parable

There was once a ship sailing across the ocean. The captain was diligent and the crew loyal and dutiful. Officers and crew stood watch in shifts to make sure that the ship stayed on course and was able to avoid hazards. The officer of the watch had a set of binoculars. These allowed the officer to see further than with naked eyes so that they had more warning of hazards and could see the safe course for the ship.

One day a new captain took over the ship and when it was his turn on watch a crewman handed him the binoculars. The lenses had been cleaned and the lens caps placed back on to protect them until the captain was ready to use them.

The captain lifted the binoculars to his eyes, but because the lens caps were on he could see nothing. Angrily he turned to the crewman nearest him. “Take these to engineering, have them strip the binoculars and report back to me what is wrong with them.”

“but sir,” said the crewman, “if you’ll just take the…”

“Do as I instruct” growled the captain.

The binoculars were duly stripped by engineering who reported to the captain that there was nothing wrong with them.

As they binoculars had not worked when the captain tried them he decided that they were unreliable and should be scrapped. They weren’t needed to steer the ship, or monitor the engines or manage the crew and he could see perfectly well for himself what was around the ship.

“Binoculars distract for the core business of running the ship” he declared. “From now on there will be no binoculars.”

Of course this was his prerogative as captain, and to be sure, binoculars were not very useful in managing the crew, maintaining the engines, swabbing the decks, painting the rails or even in turning the rudder.

The crew however were worried, they knew that keeping watch was an important part of their duties and that using the right tools to keep watch gave them better information and more importantly gave them time to provide advice so that the captain could make a decision.

One by one they either spoke up and were dismissed or toed the line and were promoted. They all knew however, that just because the captain didn’t value binoculars that they were any less vital to the safety of the ship and they also knew that if the captain was going to discover how vital they were only when he ran the ship aground on the shoal that he would have seen if only he could have seen far enough.

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