Book Review: The Starfish and the Spider

From the publisher:

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless OrganizationsThe Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom

If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies. But if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. Traditional top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world.

What’s the hidden power behind the success of Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Skype? What do eBay and General Electric have in common with the abolitionist and women’s rights movements? What fundamental choice put General Motors and Toyota on vastly different paths? How could winning a Supreme Court case be the biggest mistake MGM could have made?

After five years of ground-breaking research, Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom share some unexpected answers, gripping stories, and a tapestry of unlikely connections. The Starfish and the Spider argues that organizations fall into two categories: traditional “spiders,” which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary “starfish,” which rely on the power of peer relationships. It reveals how established companies and institutions, from IBM to Intuit to the U.S. government, are also learning how to incorporate starfish principles to achieve success.

My review:

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a bit late to this, for The Starfish and the Spider was quite the darling of business book readers when it was published in 2006, and reading it now I can understand why. In the new Epilogue written for this edition, author Ori Brafman talks about “speaking starfish” saying, “it’s been exciting to see Starfish provide a language for people to describe their organizations,” something I can definitely understand and echo, for clear vocabulary and a strong language of intention is key in effectively communicating any business model. Besides the starfish (decentralized organizations) and spider (centralized, more tradition ones with heavy top level power players), Brafman and Beckstrom make the roles of catalyst and champion sound very appealing (in comparison to the CEO) in both types of organizations.

The authors strive to be objective, but I felt they gave short shrift to the downsides of decentralization, other than quick statements such as “decentralization brings out creativity, but it also creates variance.” Another: “Where did this revenue go? The revenues disappeared.” (Admittedly, there is too much champion and too little catalyst in me” so much for my own objectivity!) And perhaps they were doing so purposely, taking their cue from the catalysts they so obviously admire, who they say, have a “tolerance for ambiguity.”

I was relieved that they spoke of ideology as much as they did however, (i.e. and the importance of values), knowing how much this book has resonated in the business community. Their pitch is clear: The more successful organizations today are likely to be those who find their “sweet spot” between starfish and spider behaviors as “hybrid organizations” willing to change as the market demands.

The authors offer several case studies, making Starfish a very quick and interesting read; this book is terrific for a corporate book club when there’s a genuine desire to be open-minded, creative, and more innovative — the book is clearly a great conversation starter, and can inspire change. I can also see how it would foster more reading of related works, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds, and Seth Godin’s Tribes. Much as I love playing in the world of business, the story which appealed to me most however, was about the Apache, and I found myself wanting to hear about more societal starfish movements; I’ll bet this book has a strong following in the Tea Party and newly emerging People’s Party movements.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Why Goodreads? They have become an App Smart choice for me in 2011 for I want to return to more book reading, and have set a goal to read at least 36 books this year (this was book 10 for me). Read more about the Goodreads mission here, and let’s connect there if you decide to try it too! You can also follow them on Twitter.

Above: An exposed fossil slab from the Sahara: Starfish have been around for a very long time. There are a lot of photos taken of starfish, but this one appealed to me as a reminder of how the authors speak of “Circles” as small, non-hierarchical groups which are independent and autonomous.

Archive Aloha: Books Come to You at Least Twice

Additional Book Notes:

The major principles of decentralization, as discussed by the authors: Italics is theirs, verbatim, commentary is mine.

  1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized. Example given: Story of the Apache, and what happened when a centralized body and coercive system (the Spanish) tried to take on an open system (the Apache.) In short, the Spanish lost.
  2. It’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders. Example given: Story of the French needing a President of the Internet (though to me it was more a story about wanting to have, and see a spider despite all the evidence of having a starfish. With this one, the authors suggest we “ask the right questions:”
    1~ Is there a person in charge? (spider)
    2~ Are there headquarters? (spider)
    3~ If you thump it on the head, will it die? (spider)
    4~ Is there a clear division of roles? (spider)
    5~ If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed? (spider)
    6~ Are knowledge and power concentrated (spider) or distributed? (starfish)
    7~ Is the organization flexible (starfish) or rigid? (spider)
    8~ Can you count the employees or participants? (spider)
    9~ Are working groups funded by the organization (spider), or are they self-funding? (starfish)
    10~ Do working groups communicate directly (starfish) or through intermediaries? (spider)
  3. An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system. Culling this intelligence, and giving it the respect it’s due, is to me one of the greatest promises of more decentralization.
  4. Open systems can easily mutate. Example given: The open system of Alcoholics Anonymous, bound only by the ideology of the twelve-step model.
  5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you. Because starfish mutate so quickly, their colonies can also grow with incredible speed; they can take over an entire industry in the blink of an eye.
  6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease. Introduce starfish into the equation and wave goodbye to high profits. Revenue is not a bad thing, and this quandary is what a hybrid organization must reconcile with.
  7. Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute. I found this to be a big assumption, but I like it if the data truly backs it up! Example given here (and it’s a good one) was Wikipedia.
  8. When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized. They hunker down. Example given: Research labs have gone underground to curb attacks by ALF activists (Animal Liberation Front).

“A decentralized organization stands on five legs. As with the starfish, it can lose a leg or two and still survive. But when you have all the legs working together, a decentralized organization can really take off.”

  1. Circles. Today we are seeing how circles of people gain freedom and flexibility when they go virtual, but physical presence is still most powerful.
  2. The Catalyst. A catalyst gets a decentralized organization going, and then cedes control to the members. There is a full chapter dedicated to the catalyst, to outline the tools of their trade:
    1~ Genuine interest in others
    2~ Loose connections, and a lot of them
    3~ Intuition with mapping how others fit into social networks
    4~ Desire to help
    5~ Passion; the catalyst provides the drumbeat for a decentralized organization
    6~ They meet people where they are
    7~ Emotional intelligence
    8~ Trust in people, and the flattened hierarchy which results, knowing you can’t control all outcomes
    9~ Inspiration, inspiring others to work toward a goal which often doesn’t involve personal gain
    10~ Tolerance for ambiguity; they often don’t know the details, leaving them to their champions
    11~ The hands-off approach
    12~ Receding. After catalysts map a network, make connections, build trust, and inspire people to act, they leave.
  3. Ideology. It’s not just about community (lots of organizations offer community), not just about getting stuff for free, not just about freedom and trust. Ideology is the glue that holds decentralized organizations together.
  4. The Preexisting Network. The Quakers would help Granville Sharp combat slavery in Great Britain.
  5. The Champion. A champion is relentless in promoting a new idea. Granville Sharp needed the dedication and tenacity of his champion, Thomas Clarkson. Catalysts are charismatic, but champions take it to the next level; there’s nothing subtle about the champion.

The authors conclude with a set of Rules for the New World:

“Just as the telephone changed communications and technology changed warfare, the forces of decentralization have created a new set of rules… as we looked at these cases [of rapid change] we began seeing new patterns. Some have been surprising, and many have at first seemed counterintuitive.”

  • Rule 1: Diseconomies of Scale: “It can be better to be small.”
  • Rule 2: The Network Effect: “Often without spending a dime, starfish organizations create communities where each new member adds value to the larger network.
  • Rule 3: The Power of Chaos: “Starfish systems are wonderful incubators for creative, destructive, innovative, or crazy ideas. Anything goes. Good ideas will attract more people, and in a circle they’ll execute the plan.”
  • Rule 4: Knowledge at the Edge: “The best knowledge is often at the fringe of an organization.”
  • Rule 5: Everyone Wants to Contribute: “Not only do people have knowledge, they also have a fundamental desire to share it and to contribute.”
  • Rule 6: Beware the Hydra Response: “Take on a starfish and you’ll be in for a surprise… cut off the arm of a starfish, and it will grow a whole new body.”
  • Rule 7: Catalysts Rule: “Not because they run the show. Catalysts are important because they inspire people to action.”
  • Rule 8: The Values ARE the Organization: “Ideology is the fuel that drives the decentralized organization.”
  • Rule 9: Measure, Monitor, and Manage: “We can still measure the ambiguous and chaotic; but when measuring a decentralized network, it’s better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.”
  • Rule 10: Flatten or Be Flattened: “Often, the best hope for survival if we can’t beat them is to join them… increasingly, companies must take the hybrid approach.”

And the final word:

“Yes, decentralized organizations appear at first glance to be messy and chaotic. But when we begin to appreciate their full potential, what initially looked like entropy turns out to be one of the most powerful forces the world has seen.”

Distract, Interrupt, Intercept, Disrupt

Occasionally I’ll imagine being in corporate life again.

It’s usually a fleeting thought, for I quickly switch back to counting present blessings, but it does reoccur, and to be completely truthful, I always imagine being in charge! My wish to take over normally arises when I’m getting frustrated by certain bad work habits I see in the workplaces I visit; simple fixes not taken, and often because no one realizes those habits are so insidious — left unchecked, they can snowball into a dysfunctional work culture.

So I try to be empathetic instead, and I coach more, and gently. I suggest testing the new tools I’ve learned to use since I left that work world, for they’ve been working so wonderfully within our OIB (‘Ohana in Business) work cultures of Managing with Aloha.

Most of the best tools have nothing to do with tweaking new technologies, and they return us to simpler practices. They’re really about the disruption of previous habits.

The Interruption List

One of those tools, learned in the very early days of my starting Say Leadership Coaching, helped me enormously in keeping focused on the right things at the right time, for I built my business at the same time I was writing MWA and figuring out how to get it published as a first-time author. The ‘tool’ was paper and pencil, and learning the simple discipline of keeping track of any and all interruptions on a scratchpad I kept at hand while I was supposed to be working.

SIDEBAR: Credit for the Interruption List goes to Paul and Sarah Edwards, for I discovered their working at home bible, Secrets of Self-Employment; Surviving and thriving on the Ups and Downs of Being Your Own Boss, while trolling the shelves at Borders Bookstore one day. It was one of the first books I’d ever bought to retrain myself with a newer, more entrepreneurial mindset, and it illuminated all the bad habits and traps you can easily fall into while working from home.

The distractions which cause us to stall and procrastinate occur everywhere of course, whether we work in the office, at home, or remotely: What we need to fix, is the shakey hold we have on our own attention.

I was amazed at how long my list could be when the day was over — long, embarrassing, and just plain dumb!

My Interruption List delivered two kinds of aha! magic: It illuminated bad habits which previously were invisible, and it helped me create far better ones. Instead of getting up for a drink of water a zillion times, I began to keep an insulated bottle of iced water at my desk. I turned off my email alert bell, and when that still didn’t work for me I turned off my web access altogether.

My Interruption List has consistently delivered as my work variables changed: I still use it. When I’m working with new people, I log down their questions every time they knock on my door (or ping me on my ‘virtual office hour’ chat), and I’m able to discern why recurring queries continually come up (which are different from good questions). I catch on to why certain interruptions are actually red flags, like when I was the one who forgot to pass on critical information! I stop adding complexity, in favor of replacing.

There are times the stark emptiness of my list is telling too: Time flew by, because I was in the zone, and work was amazing that day! I’ll ask myself why, and if it was a strength on fire, for if so, it’s a time framing I want to duplicate more often, setting myself up for more frequent successes.

Signal or noise?

Interruption used to be a negative word in my vocabulary, but not anymore: It asks, signal or noise?

It might still be the noise of process newness of some kind, but when you track it, and evaluate it, distracting interruption becomes a signal you interpret, and then act on. You intercept bad habits, and cut them off at the pass. You disrupt your automatic pilot, wake up some sacred cows and put them out to pasture.

Try turning your negatives with these words into positives: Distract, Interrupt, Intercept, Disrupt. All it takes is paper and pencil at first, but wow, the signals can wake up your focus and productivity in an amazing way.

Did you catch this on Ho‘ohana Aloha? Breakthrough-your-business Word for the Day: Disrupt.

And we’ve only been talking productivity here (well, mostly)” imagine how these words might alter your radar in managing others when converted to the proactive coaching interruption of a positive expectancy

Archive Aloha ~ a few related postings:

  1. ‘Imi ola ~ Choose Your Change
  2. Learn a 5-Step Weekly Review, and Make it your Habit
  3. When Made to Stick Will
  4. Cultivating a Well-Behaved Mind
  5. A Good Ruthlessness x3

Encore: Learning my 9 Boxes

6th grade was a big year, come to think of it.

After sharing the story about my dad, and how he helped me appreciate my schooling more, I thought you might enjoy some true Sunday Mālama time meeting Mr. Lincoln.

A bit of encore backstory: This post is one I originally wrote for Joyful Jubilant Learning. We were “Learning the Joy of 9” at the time, in a playful month-long exploration of the 09-09-09 palindrome. These were our posting prompts:

What does 9 mean to you?
How can 9 trigger your learning, adding to your learning pleasure in a 9-fold way?
What exploration of 9 will you challenge yourself with in the month to come?

This was one writing assignment I didn’t have to think twice about. So here is Learning my 9 Boxes with a few updates for this new spot on Talking Story.

May there be a Mr. Lincoln in every student’s life.

Shadow stripes
Waikoloa School

Learning My 9 Boxes

Growing up I did well in school; I liked being there, and quickly discovered my joy in learning. It was obvious to me that what I liked was relatively easy (English, History, Social Studies) and what I didn’t like as much would surely prove more difficult (Science and Math) — just like Kirsten says!New Learners for the New Economy So I tried real hard to find some favor in those things I didn’t like.

However all through my lower grades I could not come to grips with numbers. With every advancing grade it seemed to me that math got worse, in blatant, unreasonable defiance of that surely-sacred law that “practice makes perfect.”

Mr. Lincoln

Then by some divine intervention, Mr. Lincoln became our math teacher in the 6th grade, just in time for Algebra. It had to be a miracle of some kind, because I was in Catholic school, and all our other teachers were nuns. I would soon learn that was but one small reason Mr. Lincoln was miraculously different. Very different.

The nuns were specialists. Each grade had a homeroom teacher, but you’d have the same nun for each subject of the curriculum from kindergarten all the way up to the 8th grade, so unless she stopped teaching for some reason, you had to learn to like her too; the subject itself was but the half of it. Well, something happened to Sister Margaret Alice, who’d been our math teacher, during the summer after the 5th grade. Not sure what; when you’re only 10 or 11 years old you aren’t given many reasons for things happening, they just do, and you accept them knowing you don’t have much choice in the matter anyway. So when we walked into our math class at the beginning of my 6th grade school year, there was Mr. Lincoln, a regular man ”“ he wasn’t even a brother or priest! And he was our teacher!

From the very beginning we knew he’d be temporary, only there until they found another nun to replace Sister Margaret Alice, and sure enough, by the 7th grade Mr. Lincoln was gone. But we had our full 6th grade with him, and for me, that was enough: Mr. Lincoln was going to be the one to finally help me learn to love numbers ”“ in Algebra no less.

The Breakthrough

All these years later, Mr. Lincoln has become larger than life in my memories of him. He’s become a math god, commanding all the happy numbers of the universe. I’ve freely given him the credit in silent prayer with every corporate balance sheet or profit & loss statement I have had to reconcile, and every business plan or pro forma I’ve had to write. I’ve blessed his memory each time I’ve managed to get my income tax returns to be at zero (versus paying or getting a refund) because my withholding was right. Whenever I gave a training class in financial literacy to my employees having figured out the best way to present it to them, I’ve imagined Mr. Lincoln playing chess or poker in heaven with Dean Pennington (my high school class advisor, and the one who convinced me to take Business Law in college), again winning both game and debate on why good business strategy should not be overly complicated. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I would not be an entrepreneur and principal of three businesses today if Mr. Lincoln had not been my 6th grade math teacher.

Yes, he was nice. Yes, he was kind. Yes, he was patient. Yes, he was very, very good at explaining the mysteries of Algebra. However my breakthrough came the day that he explained something extraordinary to us. He said that math and numbers are two different things which happen to work together well, and we could use numbers for more than just math. It sounds incredibly obvious, but back then this was like a pronouncement of permission thinking sent straight from heaven.

Mr. Lincoln said something like, “Put aside math for now; don’t even think about it. Let’s figure out how you can learn to like numbers.” It was like reinventing all of numerology all over again, and doing it any way you wanted to. Even as a lowly, do-as-you’re-told, be-seen-and-not-heard 6th grader.

Folding Paper

One of the first things we did in class was fold paper. Mr. Lincoln gave each of us a blank piece of paper and said he wanted us to fold it any way we wanted to: We could make columns, we could make boxes, we could make triangles or a pie —we could even rip a piece off if we wanted it square instead of rectangular.

He then explained that whatever we ended up with would be our template: When we counted up how many spaces our folds had created, we would know what our favorite number was —naturally, because our spirit said so. From then on, every time he gave us a homework assignment, we could apply it first to some patterning or iteration of our favorite number, deciding if we liked our pattern or not, and jogging a happier trail toward the answers he would eventually teach us to find.

Iteration:
“A process of achieving a desired result by repeating a sequence of steps and successively getting closer to that result.”

In other words, we could make our own math rules. Mr. Lincoln was either crazy (and the nuns didn’t know it) or he was brilliant. As you can guess, I think he was brilliant.

The 9 Boxes

As I sat in Mr. Lincoln’s class that day, I folded my paper in 3 equal columns and 3 equal rows, and got 9 boxes. It was the day that I instantly and magically stopped being intimidated by the number 9. I learned to embrace it, and get it to work for me. It’s a template I use even today.

And just as Mr. Lincoln said I could do, I use my 9 boxes for way more than just math. The first homework assignment he gave us was to think about the special things in our lives, and collect them on our templates within the spaces we created so they could be at home with us in math class too. I don’t recall what they were, but I do remember that my 9 boxes each had a single word in them (all in English, no Hawaiian). It remains a way I will teach managers to dream, and drill-down from their most compelling values words to articulating their vision.

As you can see from this picture, I use my 9 boxes every single week to do my Strong Week Planning: The arrows are normally not there, but are drawn in for you to see my process. When I do my Weekly Review I write my project management in each square and pattern my work flow.

The flow arrows were there on the 9 boxes I used to decide what order the 19 values of Managing with Aloha should appear in the chapter progression of my book: The arrows did the double duty of segmenting each box into two, with Aloha naturally starting in the middle as fertile ground and centering. Number 19 is my Epilogue, and as Ka lā hiki ola, the value of hope and promise, it is my “dawning of a new day” (the literal translation of the value) and on a brand new page of 9 boxes as the page title   —the one which would become the 9 Key Concepts of my business model. Yep” The resulting grid morphed my book into a business.

I teach managers the fine points of the Daily 5 Minutes with 9 questions knowing their understanding will be complete once they fill in their own action plans for it in the template: They will move from having 9 questions to 9 incredible answers which value their employees and make them feel exceptionally confident as their manager and partner.

Iteration Drill Down

Best of all, 9 was simply my beginning.

I now LOVE 5. Do these ring any bells?

  1. The Daily 5 Minutes ®. Definition and story, and full category. If you’re not giving your staff the gift of the Daily Five Minutes, you’re not Managing with Aloha „¢
  2. 5 Things Employees Need to Learn—From You. I am fond of saying that we learn from people, for I fervently believe that we do.
  3. Performance Reviews: There’s a much better way. Turn your mandates into a positive and highly useful process in 5 steps.
  4. Getting back our Practical Wisdom. “Change talking” in 5, and the power of our language of intention.
  5. And focus-significant last year: Take 5 in 2010: A Game-Changing Ho‘ohana.

As a writer I’m a fan of the number 3, and I use the Rule of Three in every keynote-length speech I give (Copyblogger explains it well: How to Use the “Rule of Three” to Create Engaging Content):

  1. 3 Ways Managers Create Energetic Workplaces
  2. The 3 Secrets of Being Positive
  3. The 3 Sins of Management

The number 1 makes me focus (though this one is a bit of cheat, for it expands to 3 columns): Improve your Reputation with 1 List.

But for me, learning by numbers all started with the number 9 —and with an incredible teacher named Mr. Lincoln.

Tell me what you love about 9. How you might impulsively use the 9 boxes if faced with a blank template of them? I would love to get more ideas, and have a ream of printer paper just waiting to be folded, so I can continue to learn —from you.

As Brad Shorr shared with the original JJL posting:

Rosa, I wonder where you would be in your career and life without Mr. Lincoln. It’s amazing when we trace back to the roots of what we have become. A while back I had a cartoon strip project (that may be coming back to life!) where we were telling a story in sets of three three-panel cartoons. I found the structure of 9 very conducive to storytelling: a set up, a twist, a result. It was the first time I ever took a mathematical approach to joke writing, and the client and I were both extremely happy with the result.

We can probably all relate to what Cody Robert shared: I love what he says about “math as a language.”

For me Rosa, it was quite the opposite in that I had no trouble learning math in school at all. But, the application is what became vexing. What use were all these rules and theories outside of simple scribbles on paper? In reality, it seemed, all someone had done was make up these systems and rules of “math”.

It wasn’t for many years later until I began understanding the quiet importance of all the math I had learned. How it is a most efficient means of describing what was previously indescribable in our world. It then does me no surprise to hear that you learned its application at such an early age! Math, as a language acts not only to describe what we see around us, but what we envision and plan. Thank you for sharing this sweet revelation with me yet again.

Saturday stillness at the schoolyard swings
Saturday stillness at school

Archive Aloha

  • Numerology for Managers: Great video in this one on the Magic of 9.
  • Leadership Needs a Numbers Breakthrough: We have long given each other such awful, negative connotations to numbers in business. On the one hand, numbers are revered as supreme; they are the measurement metrics of our universal business language. They are pragmatic. (Hear the sighs of all your CFOs and CPAs?) However let it be known (or surmised) that you are at all “bottom-line driven” and you strike fear in the hearts of all your employees and their families. Shifting context can help.
  • The 30-70 Rule in Leading and Managing: A manager will both manage and lead. They will be most effective at achieving results which matter when 30% of their time is dedicated to leading, and 70% of their time is devoted to managing.

Manager as Teacher; Learning to Learn

Preface: This posting was triggered by a video I saw on the CBS Evening News called “Preventing future college dropouts” (see footnote). The first section, Learning to Learn, is part of a speech I often give in schools, to help teachers inspire their students to connect the way they learn with their Ho‘ohana. It’s a true story, and I’d like to share it with you too.

My message for students is that unless you are extremely lucky in a first job, in that you have an Alaka‘i Manager for a boss, ‘working with intention,’ the definition of Ho‘ohana, is something you will have to learn for yourself when school is over. Ho‘ohana is important within the bigger lifestyle goal of ‘Imi ola; actively creating your best possible life with healthy work, for work is a fact of life. So the best way you prepare for your future, is in your grasp right now: Learn how to learn for you. Not for your teacher, not for your parents, not because the law says you have to come to school and you have no choice” learn how to learn for you.

I wrote Business Thinking with Aloha as an ebook with a similar message for college undergraduates and all young adults, using my then-26yo daughter, 23yo son and a group of their friends as my editorial advisory committee. The message there is, Use your starter jobs to your best learning benefit, and Aloha value-mapping is the skill set presented. Faithful Talking Story readers will remember I was passionately lamenting our Lost Generation at the time (still am.)

If there are teachers reading:
I am a big fan of flipping the old model most of us grew up with. The flip: old-style homework is actually done in the classroom, with you there to help students work through it, for you can do so much better than their parents can: We love our kids, and ache when we see them struggle, but we don’t have your teaching skills.

With all the digital possibilities, and techno-habits kids prefer anyways, give them the lecture online for home viewing. Turn them onto resources like the Khan Academy (TED video). Have reading and other without-you-there assignments be the homework which is actually prework. I would imagine that this will give you less papers to grade as your solitary homework too!

Learning to Learn

Pretty sure I was in the 6th grade, maybe still the 5th, when I figured out why we go to school.

I liked school up to then, and did well, but the 6th grade was when the homework I’d bring home began to feel overwhelming. It would cut into the free time I’d taken for granted up to then, for the rule in our house was that you did your homework first, chores second, and then could head outside for what was left of the weekday. We lived on a dead-end street that was neighborhood central for most of the ballgames we’d play, and you could hear the noise level outside rise to a crescendo as the afternoon wore on. Seemed all our parents levied the same rules.

So as the amount of my homework grew, so did my frustration. This was long before there was any such thing as a personal computer or ipods for mood music, and we all sat around the kitchen table doing our homework quietly, with pencils scratching on paper the only sounds made. Our screened windows let in Hawai‘i’s natural island air-conditioning, and I could hear all my friends outside. I’d imagine it was every one of them in the neighborhood except me, sure I could pick out their voices in the laughter, and my younger brothers didn’t miss their chance to taunt me as they slammed their books shut and headed out too: By the time I got outside teams were picked, games were in full swing, and all I could do was sit on the curb and watch.

There were more and more days that I’d still be sitting at that table when my dad came home from work, and that was signal that I’d have to help with dinner soon; there’d be no outside play at all that day. My dad would always come over and hug my shoulders when he came in, and say something like, “that’s my girl, your schoolwork is important, you know” or some similar encouragement, and most times I’d just nod, bite my tongue and pout. But one day I couldn’t hold it in, and I blurted out, “I hate my teachers! How can they be so mean? I mean really Dad, who cares about most of this stuff they want us to learn?”

The moment the words slipped out I started to cringe and shrink a little, for talking back to my dad was something we never, ever did, and to say something that in response to one of his hugs and encouragements” what was I thinking? No; I’d stopped thinking, period. That had to be the only explanation.

However my dad didn’t seem surprised. He pulled out the chair next to me and swivelled it to sit facing me, hunched toward me eagerly, as if he knew my outburst would come one day, and had been waiting for his chance to catch it. I’m paraphrasing of course, not remembering his exact words, but they were something like this:

“Rosa, do you know why kids go to school? It’s not so you memorize the order of the American Presidents, or will always remember which countries are in Europe and not Asia, or even those rules in punctuating sentences. Everything you need to know can be looked up, or you can ask someone. You go to school to listen to people teach, so you figure out what’s the best way you learn, your way; that’s what you’re supposed to take away with you by the time you graduate.”

“You see school is this place where you get to try out a whole parade of different teachers. They change with every grade, and then every class, because they all teach different things important to them in different ways. Some of them are going to connect with you, and some aren’t. All of them, but especially the ones who do, are just using the stuff in your homework to get you to continue learning without them around because you’ve found a good way, for you. If you’re getting more homework, it’s because they know you can handle more, but you have to stop fighting it first.”

“You’re in school to learn how to learn, but there isn’t just one way, not even for you. So your time in school is all this experimentation, and this practice, for when school will be over. Because then, you’ll have to learn for yourself for the rest of your life. So use your homework to do that; use it as the stuff exploring the way you’ll learn best of all.”

Back then, I thought my dad gave my teachers way too much credit, for I didn’t feel the passion in all of them when they taught; if they really thought that stuff was important, they didn’t show it all that well. But he was so sincere in explaining this to me that the message did get through: I was in school to learn how to learn, and to shape my way of doing it, honing my methods into a tool I’d forever use.

Manager as Teacher

The conversation wasn’t quite over though. My dad got a bit pensive, and I realized he wasn’t waiting for me to answer him, he was still thinking about something. So I said, “I understand dad, and I’ll try to look at it that way from now on.” and then I asked him, “Is there something else?”

He answered, “Well, I just want you to know how important learning is. There will be times in your life it seems like being able to learn something is everything. Like when you have to go to work: If you’re lucky, you’ll have a boss willing to be a teacher for you too, but most of the time you’ll be on your own.”

“Have you had a boss like that Dad?”

My dad just looked at me for what seemed like a very long pause, but then he seemed to decide that honesty was best, and he simply said, “No, I haven’t. But I’m lucky, I like learning, and so I want you to learn to like it too.”

And with that, he got up from the table and pushed his chair back in, saying, “Now why don’t you get back to it, for I know you can do this.”

After that, my dad’s encouragements got a little different each day he’d come home and find me still sitting at the kitchen table. He’d say, “How’s the learning going?” and he’d expect me to answer in that way, about the learning itself. Whatever I said, he’d respond with, “That’s my girl, I’ve always known you’re a learner.”

My dad was successful: Even if I wasn’t yet a learner back then, he turned me into one, so much so that I’ve become a studying nerd, for I love to study things deeply, beyond the surface of just knowing about them. As the years went by, we’d have more conversations about learning at work too, and those have been the ones figuring strongly into my Managing with Aloha business model, and into my belief that great Alaka‘i Managers are the ones who are willing to take over wherever our teachers may have left off, teaching, coaching, and mentoring their people.

The subject matter has gotten much more important at work, and hopefully, it’s gotten much more interesting. It certainly has for me! … Learning Managing with Aloha: 9 Key Concepts.

Learning is essential in business, just as it is essential in an ‘Imi ola life. When you love it, learning is easy and it becomes self-perpetuating. When you struggle with learning, other difficulties seem to abound, and we often miss understanding that our poor learning skills are the root cause of those difficulties, and not the task itself.

My dream, is that all managers become the teaching boss my dad never had.

Here is what I have discovered in mentoring within the workplace: Learning can get overwhelming, even though people will universally agree that learning is a good thing. Managers-as-teachers find out how their partners (what we call employees in MWA) approach learning individually first; this diagnostics is job one before suggesting new learning. Said another way, they will teach from the place their students already learn, and help them develop learning skills from there.

You start by simply asking people, “How do you learn best?” Then listen for these cues:

  • Some people approach learning as a value. A manager helps, by taking their cues from ‘Ike loa in MWA, teaching in a value-based way, for learning is connected to that person’s beliefs and convictions. So how do you make business value human too? Start here: Wealth is a value.
  • Others approach learning as a skill connected to strength activities. A manager helps, by taking their cues from Key 7 in MWA, strengths management. Here is a good post to read: Feeling Good Isn’t the Same as Feeling Strong.
  • Those who call themselves ‘lifelong learners’ usually do both things: Learning is pervasive for them, and factors into nearly everything. This isn’t necessarily easier: The manager needs to help them focus so they use learning in a practical way at work instead of incessantly dabbling in a little bit of everything, and not finishing any of it.

Then keep the conversation fresh: If your partners aren’t prepared with an agenda of their own to talk about in a Daily Five Minutes, ask the learning question: “How about telling me about your discoveries or experiments? Have you learned anything new lately?”

Connect their learning to the right work projects, and learning becomes practical and mega-useful: MWA3P: Productivity and Projects.

Two related postings from the archives:

1. Alaka‘i Managers Coach, and they Facilitate

Some of the best management advice I got over the years came from my dad. When he heard my news of an early-in-my-career promotion, one of the things he said to me was, “Now you can find your decisions instead of making them all by yourself.”

2. Helping Without Hurting

We need to stop giving when we make it way too easy, and those we give to lose their own natural hunger. They don’t try hard enough, nor reach far enough, because we’ve robbed them of the experience of striving, and wanting more badly than they do.

We intended to help, and to love, but we’ve hurt them because we’ve robbed them of the joy which can come from expended effort. We’ve prolonged their path to achieving their self-reliance (if they ever do).

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Footnote: Video link for “Preventing future college dropouts”: College officials across the nation are attempting to address the issue of alarmingly high college dropout rates among undergrads. Michelle Miller reports for the CBS Evening News.

The quote which got to me was said by Sandra McGuire, Vice Chancellor of Academics at LSU, who feels “the bigger problem” is that “They don’t have study skills or learning strategies typically, so unfortunately they give up when they encounter difficulty.”

There was absolutely no way my dad would allow me, my brothers or sister to give up.