Taking Care of Horses

The original meaning of the word “management” is taking care of horses.

I think some teams are like race horses, bred and nurtured to win the races. Maybe some teams are sturdy horses, pulling carts full of veggies, or tourists. And perhaps other teams are more like my little pony. Or pink fluffy unicorns.

The unmanaged self-organizing team would be like a wild horse. Of course, such teams exist. (We usually call them start-ups.) But they usually don’t exist as part of an organization. Hoping that such a team delivers results beneficial to the organization would be the same as sitting on a wild horse, slapping its behind, and saying “YEEHAAA!!” And then praying the horse will run in the right direction, and won’t throw you off…

Good management means grooming, brushing, feeding, saddling, leading, exercising, riding, rinsing, nurturing, and loving the horse. If you do this well, it could win a race for you. Or a beauty contest. Or a fight with an evil wizard.


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  • http://profile.typepad.com/skirk Skirk

    Nice analogy, though maybe tainted by the sight of Jockeys through the ages whipping seven bells out of their horses in order to win the race…

  • http://blog.coachcamp.org Mike Leber

    Regarding startups I’d rather go with Eric Ries’ observation, namely that running startups is a lot of tough management and effort into this direction. While the outside only sees the cool photomontage.
    Our latest observations with startups in different countries underpin this. They are interested in ‘leadership’ practices.
    Hypothesis: If startups only focus on their product, they will fail to sustain it. Only breakthrough technologies can convince venture capitalists, while the organisation tends to be unorganized. On the other hand, if startups go for the usual roles of managers, they will sooner than useful fall into the trap of bureaucracy or egomania, finally ending in a sort of innovators dilemma.
    Wise startups will manage, but won’t engage managers on a broad scale. They won’t go for religious methodologies, but pick useful practices.
    Having that said I wouldn’t claim google or facebook were not wise, looking at their balance sheet. But obviously they were also not just ‘wild horses’, otherwise they would still ride somewhere alone through the prairie.

  • http://castletonconsulting.co.uk Jon Kendall

    Reminds me of this, I think it might be from “Zen to go”,
    On the art of management
    Horses have hooves to carry them over frost and snow, and hair to protect them from wind and cold. They feed on grass and drink water, and fling up their tails and gallop. Such is the real nature of horses. They have no use for ceremonial halls and big dwellings.
    One day Polo (famous horse trainer) appeared, saying, “I am good at managing horses.” So he burned their hair and clipped them, and pared their hooves and branded them. He put halters round their necks and shackles around their legs and numbered them according to their stables. The result was that two or three in every ten died. Then he kept them hungry and thirsty, trotting them and galloping them, and taught them to run in formation, with the misery of the tasselled bridle in front of them and the fear of the knotted whip behind, until more than half of them died.
    The potter says, “I am good at managing clay. If I want it round, I use compasses; if rectangular, a square.” The carpenter says, “I am good at managing wood. If I want it curved, I use an arc; if straight, a line.” But on what grounds can we think that the nature of clay and wood desire this application of compasses and square, and arc and line? Nevertheless, every age extols Polo for his skill in training horses, and potters and carpenters for their skill with clay and wood. Those who manage (govern) the affairs of the empire make the same mistake.
    I think one who knows how to govern the empire should not do so. For the people have certain natural instincts – to weave and clothe themselves, to till the fields and feed themselves. This is their common character, in which all share. Such instincts may be called “Heaven-born.” So in the days of perfect nature, men were quiet in their movements and serene in their looks. At the time there were no paths over mountains, no boats or bridges over water. All things were produced, each in its natural district. Birds and bees multiplied; trees and shrubs survived. Thus it was that birds and beasts could be led by the hand, and one could climb up and peep into the magpies nest. For in the days of perfect nature, man lived together with birds and beasts, and there was no distinction of kind. Who could know of the distinctions between gentlemen and common people? Being all equally without knowledge, their character could not go astray. Being all equally without desires, they were in a state of natural integrity. In this state of natural integrity, the people did not lose their (original) nature.

  • http://lifeascode.com Bogdan

    Jurgen, a horse will undoubtedly run even if he is unmanaged and on occasion wild horses will outrun and outmatch the best-of-breed managed horses, because it is in their nature to do so. The analogy becomes evident only when the “good management” practices are considered.
    Jon, thank you for that snippet. It was a wonderful read.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    From my own book, Management 3.0:
    “Do you think horses are successful? My daughter probably does, but she wouldn’t have found the late and great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould on her side. Several times in his works, Gould pointed out that almost all species of wild horses (of the Equus ferus family tree) have vanished from the earth. Only Equus ferus caballus (the domesticated horses) can be considered successful in the sense that they have adapted and allowed Homo sapiens to sit on them, which is likely to have prevented their extinction.”

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    That’s not my point. The wild horse will NEVER win a race. It will run, maybe very fast, in the wrong direction.

  • http://lifeascode.com Bogdan

    Point taken 🙂

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