The Cabin Biscuit Way

cabin_biscuitCabin biscuit is a popular biscuit (not cookie and yes there is a difference) found in Nigeria.  Truth be told, I don’t know if its anywhere else in West Africa (or the world for that matter) but I’d presume that it is.

As a child, it was the highlight of every birthday party I can remember attending.  If cabin biscuit wasn’t offered, well, it wasn’t a birthday party.  When I went to visit friends, it was the “kola” along with groundnut (peanuts) and mineral (soda/pop) that was offered.  My parents would buy a pack every so often and then put the biscuit in a large empty powdered milk tin.  (I don’t believe they were alone in this practice).  nido milk

I have to confess that occasionally (or quite often as the case would be), I would sneak into their room and take a biscuit or two or three because they tasted so good to me. Somehow, I convinced myself that (a) it wasn’t stealing and (b) they didn’t know.  Reflecting on this years later, I was probably wrong on both counts.

Here is the thing though, cabin biscuit taste terrible!  It really does.  It’s a low cost, dry, cardboard box tasting biscuit.  The biscuit that led me to covert raids from parent’s bedroom was actually a bottom-of-the-barrel biscuit.  But how could I have known this?  It was the only biscuit I knew.

I really don’t remember when my moment of enlightenment came.  It was probably some point in secondary school (post elementary) that I realized how terrible cabin biscuit actually was.  But I do know that it came after being exposed to better biscuits.  Once I discovered that there were much tastier (albeit more expensive) options, I gave up cabin biscuit.  It was no longer my biscuit of choice.  It was relegated to the bench.  In fact, I became insulted whenever it was offered to me.  No more raids, no more anticipation, no more anything.  I had come to know and desire different.

I’ve seen my professional career traverse a similar arc.  For many years, all I cared about was being the best and being in control.  I developed in the classic hierarchical organizations where power was associated with your title.  Many of the discussions I had with co-workers revolved were centered on how to climb the corporate ladder. The better one performed, the quicker one’s title changed and when one’s title changed, the more muscle one could flex.  Generally, the more muscle-flexing capability one had, the more compensation one received.  I had figured out corporate America and what my work experience needed to be like.  I had discovered the cabin biscuit way – the low quality approach to knowledge work but I didn’t know it.  I thought I was indulging in a high quality biscuit.

Three years ago, as a result of a cabin biscuit career change, I found myself in a difficult (severely understated) environment.  The entire IT team had turned over and hostility/tension between the Operations and IT department was worse than unhealthy, it was borderline deadly.  I thought that acquiring more power would put me in a position to change things.  I quickly realized that this wasn’t the case and deep frustration set in.  It was at this point, that I stumbled on the work of W Edwards Deming and the System of Profound Knowledge.

This led to discovery and reading the works of others such as Ackoff and Drucker.  I suddenly realized that the cabin biscuit way was tasteless, cheap and no longer satisfying.  There were actually more rewarding ways of approaching work and society.  I discovered alternatives that have led me (in no particular order and not limited) to:

  • Desire to experience true fellowship  with co-workers.
  • Desire to establish meaningful connections
  • Focus on trying to understand the needs of others
  • Empathize with others as they face challenges on the job
  • Choose collaboration over control
  • Take a deep interest in psychology
  • Place people at the certain of knowledge work

To be fair, I had always experienced the above in bits and pieces throughout my career.  The difference now is that my career is all about creating and living these experiences.

We don’t have to settle for the cabin biscuit way of interacting with one another.  There are better and more fulfilling ways.  Maybe the cabin biscuit way is all you know?  I then challenge you to try something else.  I have a feeling you’ll be glad you did.

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I Care About Soil, Do You?

Growing up in an agrarian community, I learned at an early age an important lesson regarding soil.  Certain crops will only do well when planted in certain types of soil.  Certain types of soil are best suited for certain types of crops.

We had a piece of farmland that was filled with rocks and the soil was clay-like in nature.  The only crop that could do well when planted on the land was cassava and year after year, that’s what we planted.  cassava  But I remember one year, I was determined to plant something else.  My parents didn’t discourage me, because they saw what I’ve come to understand as a “teachable moment“.  So yours truly, took the time to plant egusi (West African melon).  It’s one of those crops that can be planted alongside with cassava and does withstand difficult conditions.

egusi

At first things looked good, as the melon germinated and produced seedlings.  Everything else was perfect as the necessary rains came and I was optimistic that things would turn out fine.  The seedlings began to grow and produce the vine that I figured would ultimately yield the melon but after weeks of waiting, I began to observe that the melons being produced were few and small in size.  A few weeks later it became clear to me that a rich harvest was not going to happen and I learned the soil (specifically the rocks in the soil) had prevented the egusi from growing as it should have.

Why tell this story many years later?  Well, I’ve come to realize that an organizations culture is just like soil and the behavior of its people are the  crop.  The culture (or mindset or system or environment) plays a large role in determining the behavior of the people in the organization.

At a previous job, leaders would be (or at least acted) surprised to see people behave in certain ways.  But how could they have been?  In an environment where people were blamed consistently, cussed at, shouted at, asked to work ungodly hours, afraid, chosen as favorites (or not) etc etc, why would anyone expect anything else besides gossip, “throwing others under the bus”, territoriality, cliques, political maneuvering and outright sabotage to be the crop that was produced?

As there is no cheap fix for soil, there isn’t for culture/mindset/environment either.  You can’t use rain or pesticides or fertilizer to simply compensate for poor soil.  Even if you( are lucky to?) have short-term success, it never lasts – I’ve seen enough farming cycles to know that for a fact.  In org-speak, the annual company award or quarterly pizza lunch with the CEO may be good things to do (albeit extrinsic motivators that need to be kept in check) but don’t expect them to make a significant impact on your culture and how the people in your organize actually behave.

I’ve personally made a decision to care about soil (in addition to other things) and spend my time working, interacting and learning from people who also care about soil.  I’ll also be sharing my thoughts on this a bit more.   I realize that we may be in the minority but I am not bothered by that as I believe making the world a better place is actually worth it.   I hope you begin to care and join us.