Of Big Chief and Big Cheese, An Allegory on Agility

Below is the story I told as an introduction to  the session I helped facilitate at TelecomONE… see if you can dot-the-dots and pick out the question in the story…

Once upon a time, in a land far away, lived a little girl. Now the little girl had a name, but names aren’t so important to the message of this story so we’ll just call her Little Girl.

Now Little Girl lived in a small village with few people. It was also a village that was fairly unsuccessful when it comes to procreation and it is for this reason that Little Girl had no friends or playmates close by. This made Little Girl a little sad – sometimes she got a bit bored of playing on her own and she dreamed of having lots of friends to do things with.

Now one day Little Girl had a great idea. She knew that there were other villages close by her own, and that in those villages there must be little girls (and perhaps even little boys) who were in a similar situation to herself and wanted to find other children to play with. So Little Girl decided to do some ideation (little girl had done an online MBA and really knew the right words to describe these things) and thought about a simple place where her and her soon-to-be-found friends could play. A place with some green grass, some wide open places, a few trees, sunshine and light.

Now Little Girl wasn’t a rich little girl – her father worked in the fields of some of the other villagers so she wasn’t in a position to do anything about her dream herself so she went and visited Big Chief, the chief of her village. She explained to Big Chief the vision that she had and entreated him to help her.

Big Chief was excited, “this is everything we’ve been looking for, it’s completely aligned with our strategic objectives as a village” (you see strategic alignment is very important when it comes to the management of villages) “we love the idea as it stands” he said.

“But” he continued “we have a few issues, just around robustness, risk mitigation and process development and application”. You see Big Chief was really worried about risk mitigation. Although Big Chief was Chief of the village – he had line managers to report to, and thereafter he had the Big Council of Chiefs who were watching the actions of both himself and all the other big chiefs.

But Big Chief had an idea, he’d done some public private partnerships with Big Cheese, a big box property development company from another village. “We’ll get Big Cheese in and get them to perform an RFP exercise”. Little Girl was a bit concerned about this – she’d heard about Big Cheese and had seen some of the developments that Big Cheese had created and they all seemed to be a little plastic, a little fake and a little hollow. But Little Girl remembered that both Big Chief and Big Cheese were considered industry leaders and displayed best practice methodologies so she decided to trust them to do the right thing.

So Big Chief and Big Cheese held a design roundtable that they invited Little Girl to. Big Cheese declared his thoughts about the idea. “Well we really like your concept Big Chief, but I gotta tell you we’ve got some concerns around risk mitigation, and we’ve got some information from focus groups that leads us to some conclusions about it. Firstly this grass thing” he continued “we’ve got a lot of studies that show the level of bacterial activity in grass. I think we need to look at sanitised asphalt instead. And this tree thing – well trees are great and all but our focus group analysis has sown that plastic trees are preferred by our core demographic 75% of the time with a high degree of certainty – we’re going to advise a planned space with carefully selected placement of plastic trees.”

At this point Little Girl couldn’t keep quiet any longer “but wait” she said “we just want a simple little play area…”

“Now just shush” countered Big Cheese “you may be an ideas girl Little Girl, but design is our department and I have to say Big Chief, that not listening to our advice could pose a significant risk to this organisation – we’re talking some serious audit and liability issues here.”

Now Big Chief sweated blood about audit and liability – “no you go ahead Big Cheese” he said “we can’t have any A&L issues on this one”

Well you can guess what happened – Big Cheese built the space, of course it cost 15 times as much as Little Girls idea would have, and of course it took three times as long as it needed to. And you know what……. None of the tittle boys and girls from the neighbouring villages came to play, and even Little Girl decided to go back to climbing the solitary (real) tree left over from Big Cheese’s site preparation work.

So the question is….. how can big business stop thinking like Big Chief and acting like Big Cheese. And how can it start to harness the magic of Little Girl?

5 Comments
  • Perfect story Ben!
    Convincing big business (& govt depts!) to do anything different is very very difficult. Risk mitigation is pretty much the whole story, which makes sense to some degree, but… in most cases, the ‘risk’ is not real risk, its ‘what if’ risk. Whats ‘what if’ risk?

    Its like… what if I’m lying in bed and a monster comes in? Or… what if the sun doesnt come up tomorrow? Or what if I make a face and the wind changes?

    Or, what if I make a decision and it goes wrong?

    There seems to be little quantitative assessment of risk likelihood, just a perception of ‘what if’ risk. Its a very sad situation, and one thats likely unsustainable for companies. I hope. Govt depts…? Well, its not their money, so why change?

  • Lorna Sandeman |

    I worked for some years in conservation as a person who assessed requests to use conservation land and resources. In assessing submissions I wanted a ‘yes’ result for the applicant so would work with them to achieve this. As a result I can safely say that 95% of the submissions I sent through for approval got the desired result. So for the communities this meant this; scarcity.

  • Lorna Sandeman |

    So sorry my whole reply has not been displayed as I typed it.
    What’s missing is as follows, to be inserted before the semi colon.
    With approval came, ‘more than’, expansion, networking and opportunities.
    Without it came ‘less than’ ergo scarcity.
    My point is, that a person in the lower echelons, can create an angle to those who are fearful of the risk factors. We can persuade them when they have to approve stuff, that there is no risk.

  • Nice story.

    Risk is a funny word. A lot of people think that if there is risk then it should be avoided at all costs. Most times I have undertaken ‘risk management’ its to convince people that the risks are in fact acceptable and ok.

    Not the point of your story – which is excellent – management should sometimes just stay the hell out of it!

  • Jonathan Morris |

    I find the term ‘vanishingly small risk’ is a great way of ploughing through ‘what if ?’ risks. Have a go at using, its great. You ackowledge that the person is correct ‘yep there is a risk’ but puts them firmly back in their box by pointing out it is ‘vanishingly small’. And if it does occur don’t worry as the 1000000 other vanishingly small risk will not have.

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