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A Different Analogy

April 5, 2012

Recently, several people have suggested to me that the relationship between managers, employee representatives and an agency’s governing body is like a three-legged stool. All three legs must be equal and sturdy to support the weight of the organization.

I find this analogy flawed for several reasons. Just for starters, the reason for making a stool with three legs instead of four is so it can function effectively on an uneven surface. This does not require all three legs to be of equal length provided the stool is properly positioned. Beyond a certain point, it doesn’t matter whether all the legs are equally sturdy provided they are each strong enough to support their share of the weight.

As I have reflected on my qualms about the three-legged stool, it occurred to me that a ladder presents a far more useful metaphor of organizational form and function. At a minimum, a ladder serves as a means of getting somewhere, whether its out of a hole or reaching new heights.

Stools are much better suited to sitting than standing or climbing upon. A stool is not meant to advance one’s reach. Indeed, it often does just the opposite. Clearly, using even a very sturdy and stable stool for reaching objects at height is risky.

In contrast, a ladder is purpose-built for climbing. The parallel and hinged side rails stand upon sturdy braces at the bottom to prevent them from sinking or slipping. The rails also provide a stable grip for advancing from one rung to the next. Braces support the rungs. And the spreader and locks secure the rails and prevent the ladder from collapsing. Under certain circumstances a ladder can also be used as a bridge.

The elements of a typical ladder have been honed to perform specific functions. The side rails of a ladder could be said to represent the governing body and its executive team. The braces supporting the rails’ base are the organization’s strategic plan and budget. The braces supporting each rung represent procedures and practices that guide individual decisions and actions. The surface supporting the ladder is the agency’s public mandate and its slope and firmness reflect the degree of public confidence and trust it enjoys in the community. The rungs are the various resources needed to advance the organization’s efforts to serve the community, including financial, human and physical capital. The spreader and locks are the collective bargaining agreement and policies adopted to manage the agency’s activities and business processes.

Most organizations these days need a ladder much more urgently than they need a stool. Given a stool, most of us are all too likely to sit around and think or talk ourselves into bigger, albeit different, problems than we have now. Given a ladder we can climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves by minding our particular roles and doing them well. With proper placement and use, we can use the ladder to overcome obstacles or scale new heights.

A good tradesperson understands the importance of maintaining and inspecting a ladder regularly if we want to ensure it will do its job for us properly. Using a ladder properly requires more training and discipline than using a stool. Both pieces of equipment serve a purpose, but only one of them can help us reach new heights safely.

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