Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stock Pot of Water

I’ve been thinking of a leadership metaphor; it involves a stock pot and a wooden spoon. The steel pot is filled with water. It needs to be emptied. And the only tool we have is the wooden spoon.

I’m a simple guy with a bias toward action, so my inclination is to grab the spoon and get to work, one spoonful at a time, scooping the water out of the pot. It will take some effort, won’t be particularly spectacular, but the job seems clear, the resources limited, and we’re wasting time as long as we aren’t draining the pot. As long as we stick with it, the job will be completed.

While this all seems so very simple, there are alternative leadership approaches.

Study It
There are those that would want to do some figurin’ before getting underway. Even though the work seems simple, they want to know more before getting underway. Determine that each spoonful, adjusting for spillage, averages to be about 94% of a tablespoon… determine that there is 2.7 liters of water in the stock pot… do the math… adjust for evaporation… factor in breaks… you get the picture.

Document It
A slight twist on the “study it” approach is the “document it” approach by which you simply write up the findings of the “study it” approach and put it on your shelf, bound nicely in a three-ring binder. The satisfaction of filing the report replaces the satisfaction of finishing the job.

Rationalize It
If this really needs to be done then there ought to be a better way. Don’t they know that we need more resources than this wooden spoon? If they were serious about getting this work done, they would have given me better tools and more staff. I’m not doing anything until they make this easier.

Boil It
I have a better idea… a more spectacular idea… an idea that will be far less work and will be seen by all as brilliant. All I need to do is light the wooden spoon on fire, set up the stock pot over the fire, and the water will boil, turn to steam, and “presto.” Of course the fire from the spoon barely warmed the water, let alone brought it to a boil. The fire was spectacular, and it was an amusing idea, but we still have a pot full of water and now we don’t even have the spoon.

Can you think of others?


Amy said...

Let it Evaporate
Over the course of time, if just left as it always has been, it will evaporate. It will take months and even years while we sit on our spoon. Inch by inch the water line will go down, at which point we can say- “See, we are making progress! Remember how full it was? This is nothing compared to that!” As other look at us with impatience or disdain, we will sit on our spoon suffering for the cause, wondering why people are suggesting new ladles or drainhoses…it has always been this way, why change it? The important thing is we have this spoon, we have a pot, why isn’t that enough for them? At some point we forget what the spoon was even for, now that is more of a pain in our backside that anything else.

Anonymous said...

This is like a Microsoft interview question :) I suppose that if the pot was big enough you could bend down and drink most of the water, but at a certain point, you'd have to revert to your spoon to finish the job. The metaphor..?...Um, how about something along the lines of leaders using their mouths (speaking) to accomplish tasks? That's sort of a stretch I guess. Anyway, good question.


Jon said...

As a leader I'd judge how important the task is and how likely it was to recur, based on that judgement I'd put the most relevant and suitable problem solvers on the task. My guess is we would be making a new tool to fix the problem, probably a hinge to tilt the stockpot past 90degrees but whose to say what other solutions they would present to me?