On the Nature of Human Endeavor

November 15, 2019 in  Talent Management
Avatar by Shawn Davis

Horatio Jackson: Ah, the officer who risked his life by singlehandedly destroying ...

Functionary (whispering in his ear): Six.

Horatio Jackson: Six enemy cannon and rescuing...

Functionary: Ten.

Horatio Jackson: Ten of our men held captive by The Turk.

Heroic Officer: Yes, sir.

Horatio Jackson: The officer about whom we've heard so much.

Heroic Officer: I suppose so, sir.

Horatio Jackson: Always taking risks far beyond the call of duty.

Heroic Officer: I only did my best, sir.

Horatio Jackson: Have him executed at once.

Soldier: Yes, sir. Come along.

Horatio Jackson: This sort of behavior is demoralizing for the ordinary soldiers and citizens who are trying to lead normal, simple, unexceptional lives. I think things are difficult enough as it is without these emotional people rocking the boat.

-- Scene from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Revisiting the Superchicken Model

We can learn a lot about ourselves from observing nature and animals. Cool persistence wears down barriers, just like water in a rock canyon. And one I learned in South American: You don't have to be big to have a significant impact -- just like a single mosquito in a dark room.

A Scene from The Adventures of Barron Munchausen

We have Pottenger's cats and Muir's superflock.

Muir wanted to know if a group of highly productive chickens would produce more eggs than a group of average, but generally productive chickens. He would pull out the most productive chickens to create a "superflock".

At the end of the experiment, he found that the regular flock was healthy and productive, while the superflock had only three chickens left -- the rest had pecked each other to death. What he found was that the

If you haven't watched Margaret Heffernan's TED talk, I suggest you do, but here are some take-aways.


Organizations Don't Have Ideas

People are the source of ideas, not organizations. Now before we go all Marxist, capital (in money or time, which is still money) is almost certainly required to execute the idea. Organizations have the capital, the people have the ideas, the relationship is symbiotic. Or it should be.

This is where advancement systems like the professional ladder come in handy.

Emphasis on Super-Stars

There is a natural tendency for managers to over-utilize those folks that get things done, especially when they don't openly complain about it. It's the path of least resistance in work load.

But this leads to overwhelm and burnout for the super-star, and resentment from those that are never given a chance to do something more. Teamwork is compromised and culture deteriorates.

It would be better to develop a team of peers who are accomplishing great things together rather than relying on one or two super-stars to pull your goose out of the fire every time a big project or issue boils to the surface.

What Makes a Successful Team?

Team dynamics is a large subject, but here are a few interesting points in no certain order:

  • High degrees of social sensitivity -- empathy among team members.
  • Giving each other (roughly) equal time. No one person is "too busy" to help another.
  • A culture of helpfulness, which "routinely outperforms productivity".
  • People need a bond -- "what matters is the mortar, not just the bricks."


We began with a humorous quote from a movie where heroism is discouraged. At the first level of the CMMI matuirty model, individual heroes are needed to get anything done. The Super Chicken model creates an environment where work life is pecked to death. We want high performance, but not at the cost of a toxic work environment and high employee turn-over.

About the Author
Avatar For 20 years, Shawn has lived, breathed, and sometimes coughed up information technology, and is a master of both planning and process. He's also supervised the production of control boards for missiles and torpedoes, worked as a private investigator, managed a textbook warehouse, and lived in South America. His varied experience and wider view of the world brings a decidedly different perspective to problem solving, and his mission is to both encourage and assist individuals and organizations in rising to the challenges of our day.