I am indebted to my colleague Professor Michael Preston-Shoot for the following story. Michael is Dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences at the University of Bedfordshire. He was invited to deliver a paper at a prestigious conference on Social Care in Adelaide. Because of the difficulty of knowing exactly who owns the land in Australia the conference was officially opened by a leader of the local aboriginal tribe. This distinguished gentleman duly welcomed all the delegates but then said that he was amazed that they had all come such huge distances to discuss such important issues and would return to their native countries after just three days. In his culture if the elders identified an important issue they would assemble and then spend whatever time was necessary to solve it even if that meant it took two moons!
I am not sure if this is really cultural as the founding fathers of the United States of America spent long periods of time wrestling with their competing ideas of independence until it was finally resolved and the original constitution drafted. The Philadelphia or Federal Convention which led to the United States Constitution lasted from May 25 to September 17, 1787 or four moons!
It seems that that lesson has been forgotten and as 60 world leaders descend on Copenhagen to solve the most important crisis facing the human race in its history it is likely that most of them will allocate no more time than the social care academics that went to Adelaide.
In business many companies have adopted the habit of taking groups of senior managers on so-called Away Days. These are generally no more than a day away from the office with the intention of trying to solve some serious problems or perhaps agree the basis of strategic planning. The idea is that by breaking the usual routine, the constant interruptions, the trilling of mobile phones, the chatter of email, that teams will be strengthened by some quality time together. Sometimes these extend further into two or even three days with team building exercises ranging from a round of golf to tree hugging. Facilitators might be brought in to help the process allowing the boss to participate fully in the discussion, break out session etc.
I have participated in numerous such affairs and run many of them. In general I believe in them and find them a useful way of getting consensus on a new course of action. But I would also have to agree with the pointed comments of our aboriginal elder that it is unlikely that much will be achieved in so short a time.
Of course in our highly pressured busy lives it is probably unrealistic to take senior people away from their daily task for much more than a couple of days without disruption. We also don’t want to be seen by subordinate staff to be going away on a jolly leaving them to do all the hard work.
But hang about. We all take holidays, don’t we? The philosopher Bertrand Russell said “One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important, and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster.”
And it is increasingly seen as good practice for managers to take clean breaks from their business so that frauds can be both prevented and discovered. Why not take a good period, if not a “moon” then at least a week? You would get to know your colleagues much better. You would have the opportunity to really open up issues. Ventilate the business. Give it a thorough spring clean. Develop some exciting ideas. Work through possible solutions to major problems. Consider alternative scenarios.
You would also assist the process of succession, because the more you trust your staff that you can leave them alone for a few days the more you find out and they find out their real capabilities. I remember soon after I joined Pedigree Petfoods as a young sales manager, way back in 1976, the company was part of a referral to the Monopolies Commission. The Commission took several months to investigate the industry and finally gave it a completely clean bill of health noting that not only did Pedigree Petfoods not abuse its market dominance by raising prices, but the reverse was true. Its competitors reported that they would have raised their prices had it not been for Pedigree Petfoods’ competitive position! This excellent result was partly due to the decision of Walter Dickson, the Managing Director, that he would personally commit his full time to the defence. This allowed his senior reports to deputise and so on down the line. Thus, when a few years later Walter moved on to another position within the corporation, the family had quite a lot of evidence to make their decision about his successor.
Copyright David C Pearson 2009 All rights reserved