Do you have chalk on your beak?
I am currently reading Exiles, Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture by Michael Frost and he relates the following story which I think has an important point for project managers.
In his wonderfully creative book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon Mackenzie discusses the way organizations mesmerize their workers into becoming like zombies, slaves to the corporate ethic, but devoid of their individual, one-of-a-kind energy, the very energy that the corporation needs to reinvent itself. He illustrates this with a delightful story of his father's country vacation on his aunt and uncle's farm in 1904. The aunt and uncle had a son the same age as Mackenzie's father, and when together, the two of them became real troublemakers. One Sunday morning as the family was preparing to drive the horse-drawn carriage to church, the boys feigned stomach cramps and were told to stay home and rest. As soon as the carriage rounded a bend and disappeared from sight, the ten-year-old boys were out of bed, looking for trouble. Mackenzie takes up the story:
Wanting to impress my father, a city boy, the cousin asked, "Do you know how to mesmerize a chicken?"
"Mesmerize? Uh-huh. What's that?"
The cousin led the way to a ramshackle chicken coop out behind the farmhouse. There he selected a fine white hen. He carried her under his arm to the front of the house, produced a piece of chalk and drew a short line on the porch. He stood the creature over the chalk line and held her beak to it. After a moment or so, the boy slowly removed his hands. The chicken stood motionless, beak to the chalk line, hypontised. My father hooted with glee.
"Let's do another one! Let's do another one!" he pleaded.
The two boys ran back to the hen house for another chicken. And another. And another. Before long the hen house was empty, and the front porch was filled with 70 or so dead-silent, stark-still chickens straddling chalk lines, beaks seemingly glued to the porch.
It's a charming story of tomfoolery that gets even funnier when the aunt and uncle return home with the Scottish Presbyterian minister, who thought that the boys had missed church because they were ill. Embarrassed by his son's deception, the father bounded onto the porch and place-kicked chicken after chicken back into consciousness, feathers, clucking, and cursing filling the air. But it's a subversive story because it challenges us to consider the degree to which we too have been mesmerized by the prevailing culture. Mackenzie makes the point:
The same thing that happened to those chickens can happen to you. When you join an organization, you are, without fail, taken by the back of the neck and pushed down adn down until your beak is on a line - not a chalk line, but a company line. And the company line says things like "This is our history. This is our philosophy. These are our procedures. These are our politics. This is simply the way we are."
And each of us, especially as project managers has to ask the questions: Am I reinforcing the chalk line that stiffles creativity? Am I an agent of change for the better or a maintainer of an unhealthy status quo? Is it my role to be the father who kicks the chickens away where I work?