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"The best you can be is a perfect imitation of those who came before you."

Wise Advice From Management Guru Warren Bennis

I was reminded of this cartoon because I wrote a couple of posts today (here and here) about Warren Bennis' writings on leadership versus management. Bennis, a renowned management guru, once gave me some advice that always reminds of this cartoon. I bought the rights to use it in my book Weird Ideas That Work so it is kosher here as well.

I think it does a lovely job of showing how much of what people in organizations do happens because they have always done it. So they don't have to think about it very much -- which is good for efficiency but bad if they are doing the wrong thing. Worse yet, in many places, if they try to do something differently, they will be teased, punished, and often expelled.

I recall, for example, what happened when one of my students who worked as an IBM summer intern many years ago came to the office wearing a yellow tie. Because the "uniform" in those days was a white shirt and red tie, he was teased like crazy by his co-workers. But he didn't realize they were serious until he showed up a second time with the deviant yellow tie, and his boss pulled him aside and give him a stern lecture about evils of wearing the wrong tie. This student concluded that IBM in those days was focused on conformity, not performance, so he went into another line of business and is now CEO of a big company. Note this was before Lou Gerstner took over -- he understood that the IBM unifrom was a symbol of mindless action and being stuck in the past too, which is why he came to work the first day wearing a blue shirt.

Along these lines, the hats cartoon and the old tie story remind me of a conversation I had with guru Bennis when I was on the academic job market for the first time (this was about 1983). He warned me that some of the most prestigious Ivy League schools (where I was interviewing) could be very stifling places, and as the title to this post says, that the "The best you can be is a perfect imitation of those who came before you." I thought that was brilliant line, and also a lovely diagnostic test for an organizational culture.

I was lucky to end-up having a rather strange career at the Stanford Engineering School, where my colleagues and I have been encouraged to do many different and wonderful things -- for example, helping David Kelley to start the Stanford d.school, something that I don't believe would be possible in most other universities.

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