Back To Off The Grid Again

This is the next in the ever lengthening series on Management-ism.

Jerry Weinberg used to tell a story about one of his daughters who managed to get five Fs and a D one quarter in junior high school. Jerry's ex-wife asked him to speak with his daughter, so he did, asking her how come she didn't get straight Fs. Well, she explained, the D was in Arts and Crafts, and in that class, she gets a D no matter what she does. Well, apply yourself next quarter, he counseled, go for straight Fs.

The next quarter she received five As and a D, again in Arts and Crafts. Shortly thereafter, she wrangled herself into a junior college program that took her out of regular school. A year later, she ran away and joined a circus.

Later, she owned a successful arts and crafts company before opening a successful antiques business in Greenwich Village.

Jerry's point in telling the story was to highlight the fact that what gets taught in public school is not so much knowledge or life skills, but acculturation. How to fit into a culture. Not the universal American culture, but how to get along in a large company. Again and again, government statistics show that most of the jobs created in this country are created by small, tiny companies, not the huge industrial powerhouses. Yet our schooling, from No Child Left Behind to Almost Every Child Left Behind trains us for roles most of us will never actually fulfill.

The number of trade schools, you know, that low-rent alternative to "real schooling", has fallen as the number of students who never satisfy high school graduation requirements continues to climb. What's that about?

Again and again in companies, I see people trained in perspectives orthogonal to their job's demands struggling to fix their stupid jobs. From managers who try to lead by the book to executives inspired by something they imprinted on in grad school, the one skill that seems to be missing is the skill to learn from the present context. We judge ourselves and our companies against those people and organizations who manage to get press coverage. We rarely hear what real people are doing.

Ever seen a case study for an organization that refuses to participate in case studies? (Hint: That would be the vast majority of organizations.)

I read the organizational self-help books and learn that I'm supposed to have a marketing strategy, branding, customer satisfaction surveys, a whole raft of stuff that I've never had and probably never will have. Just because Nike or Intel or some big 'N' consulting operation has those doesn't mean anyone working off the grid should. The economy, business, works mostly off the grid, but you'd never know it by reading the popular press. Because the popular press reports on the grig doings.

Truth told, I've always felt a bit inadequate when interacting with the gridders. As if my little operation was somehow less professional, less real than theirs. But I do real work. No, I do not have a quarterly marketing budget or a five year sales projection. I live hand to mouth, sometimes hand to forehead. Ours is not an industrial organization, but more hunter-gatherer. The industrialists have always complained about those lazy hunter-gatherers, even the hunter-gatherers manage to sustain themselves with a fraction of the effort any industrial firm requires.

I was counting on my fingers the number of organizations I've personally visited that seemed to be trying to reform themselves away from their hunter-gatherer roots toward more industrial modes. I ran out of fingers. The number truly benefiting from such reformation probably tracks closely to the ratio of the population working for large industrial firms.

God love the industrialists. Somebody has to. Those of us not operating on an industrial scale are worthy of more than a little admiration, too. The industrial, management-ist mindset sometimes seems dead set to discount our presence, like when a Wal-Mart moves in to undercut the old, oil-stain floored hardware store. We can choose to continue to frequent the good old hardware store where they remember your name and have human-scale answers to your questions. Where you can buy a penny's-worth of ten penny nails if you want, instead of a handy (for someone) pre-packaged five pound box.

Today, I celebrate the corner grocery, the backyard bike shop, the two person consulting firm, and the people over at the ranch supply. We will never see any of them on the cover of Fortune, but they keep the world spinning. Do not judge them (us) by the industrial yardstick, we work closer to home. We trade not in tons of product but ounces of relationship. We do not serve with a painted-on smile. You can see us sweat. We don't show so well in the board room. Few do. We show where some small something really matters. We have not gone on retreat to plot our sales strategy, we open the door, sweep the floor, and let the word of mouth remind folks that we're here, open for a human-scaled kind of business. (One they forgot to mention in B-school.)

The management-ist might be suffering from a severe case of industrial pollution, mimicking a dance that looked really good at the conference and could never shake anyone's booty back home. Hoorah and hooray. There and then encounters here, today.

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