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Thursday, March 15, 2012

The gift of positive thinking

There is a story of two shoe factory representatives, George and Jake, who had to do market research in a remote African village. Georges report was succinct: "There is no potential in this village. Nobody has shoes!" Jake's report was also succinct:" There is enormous potential in this village. Nobody has shoes! "This story shows how two people can look at the same situation and draw totally different conclusions. The world has an abundance of Georges and a shortage of Jakes. And this is where I would like to start my real point.

I believe you can provoke major changes by starting small: with one person at a time. The way I try to contribute to a positive change is through education and writing. I share my ideas with small and sometimes larger groups in hopes that at least some members of these groups will actually be touched. Some people are natural Jakes, so they need little encouragement to create positive change to work. Most, however, are Georges: they see a problem in every opportunity, and refuse to change the current situation regardless how much they suffer from it! It takes a lot of courage - and often work - to bring about positive change. Oftentimes, you will find yourself chastised if you even dare to suggest something different!

Yet, it all starts with changing yourself, because the best example is set by your own life, right? George Bernard Shaw, a famous Irish writer, once said: "The best reformers our world has ever known are those which commence themselves." There's a funny note about Gandhi that proofs this: a woman asked Gandhi to tell her son not to eat sweets anymore. Gandhi suggested the woman come back in two weeks. When she returned Gandhi said to her son: "Boy, you should not eat sweets. It is not healthy." The woman asked Gandhi why they had to wait two weeks to hear this and Gandhi said:" Because I was eating sweets myself two weeks ago!"

Now, to continue about change: if you are bold enough to try for a change you should be prepared to get vilified. Think of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and many others now widely honored, but all of which were murdered. Today the ideologies of these history-transformers have many followers.

Unfortunately, the bulk of these followers make exactly the same mistake as the murderers of their role models: they refuse to hear about anything else! Why? Because the world has more Georges than Jakes! I notice it every day in my work. As a management professor, I am convinced that I teach the most important thing, because management is not just about our work: it pertains to our entire life! Yet, as in almost anything else, there is also apathy in management. Think of your own work: You probably have a supervisor (or are one yourself), and a department head, followed by a vice president and a CEO. This construct was built on a system that thrived over 100 years ago when people were mainly engaging in assembly-line work, which required constant supervision to ensure that everything happened as effectively as possible.

Today, we have machines to do the repetitive work, while human beings engage more in the intellectual tasks. The problems workers face today are quite different from those of a century ago: instead of recurring issues we now solve ambiguous problems. The logical result should be that the way we lead others should shift from controlling to motivating. However, applying this change takes courage, so I keep talking, writing, and acting, hoping to help awaken the Jakes, so they can say, "Nobody has shoes? What an opportunity! What an opportunity!"

Monday, March 5, 2012

The gift of renewing our perspectives

Just the other day I came across an article about underground banking. You may wonder why I would be interested in this topic, but it may soon become clear. First a quick explanation: underground banking is a form of service that falls outside the formal financial system. Oftentimes it involves the transfer of funds to other countries with as one of its most important objectives: tax evasion. Underground banking is considered part of the informal sphere of service, because governments have not figured out a way yet to tax it.

In the past few months I became fascinated with this whole "formal" versus "informal" economy thing. Sounds stuffy and boring? I thought so too in the beginning, but as I looked into it some more, I began to realize how much it means to our overall human wellbeing. My interest in the formal and informal economy got awakened when I had to develop proposals for presenting at a conference later this year. The topic was – you guessed it – the formal vs. informal economy! At first I thought, "Okay, this is not for me, because the subject is far from my bed!", but as I thought about it I began to see how much it concerns us all. So I gave it a shot, developed some proposals, and lo and behold: they got accepted!

Now, I will not bore you with details, but just share with you the dominant theme of my proposal. It's actually a question: can we still draw a clear line between formal and informal spheres? Our world has changed so much over the past decades: actions that used to be in the "informal" sphere are considered "formal" today, vice versa. A simple example of informal and formal spheres is a producer of homemade cookies or fruit juices. In the past everybody could prepare these things and take them to the neighborhood Mom-and-Pop store to have them on display there. Today you need to go through several motions: you need a license and formal visits from government bodies who will determine whether you have what it takes to engage in this small trade.

So, an "informal" sphere has been dragged into the "formal" arena, and can now be monitored," but most of all: it can be taxed! Then there are other economic activities that used in the formal atmosphere which are now well on their way to the Stone Age. Think of travel agencies and postal services. The Internet has made much of these activities obsolete. I now book my flights through Priceline or Hotwire, and rarely send a letter by "snail mail" anymore. For packages I (and millions of others with me) frequently use the privately coordinated mailing services of FedEx and UPS, so the formal postal service is fading. And yet, jobs in the formal
sphere are, on average, regarded higher than those in the informal sphere, because the informal sphere is usually born out of necessity: it shrinks when the economy blooms, and flares up when the economy is on the down.

The reasons why formal spheres are praised - often undeserved, by the way – has, in my opinion, much to do with control. Governments want to "monitor" activities, so they can demand taxes, and that is just easier in the "formal" sphere. Unfortunately, many people earn much less in the formal sphere than those that work in the informal sphere. As you may have gathered by now, the "spheres" are a product of our civilization. Truth of the matter is that many services in the formal sphere should undergo a serious, critical, conscious re-evaluation, because what is so respectable about producing weapons or cigarettes, which cause death and destruction? And what is so inferior about homemade crafts, or even prostitution, if they or responsibly executed (as in some countries), provide income, and reduce crime? The world is changing, and we can no longer cling to dusty, obsolete mindsets.

In my opinion there are no formal (white) or informal (black) spheres anymore today; just different shades of gray. What do you think?