I recent heard a story which caused me to reflect on what Join and I often see as to the way in which many proposal groups function. I don’t know if this story is an urban myth but even if it is, the moral remains the same and, for me at least, delivers an important reminder as to how and why processes are developed and followed.
A newly married couple was hosting a family gathering and they were serving a ham. While they were preparing the ham, the husband informed his wife that his mother had always cut off the two ends of the ham. When asked why the ends were cut off, he said he didn’t know but that both his mother and grandmother always served it that way.
When the grandmother arrived, the group asked her about the family tradition of cutting off the ends of the ham. In response, looking a bit puzzled she stated, “I don’t know anything about a family tradition but I do know I always had to cut off the ends of a large ham in order for it to fit in my oven as it was very small.”
I’ve no doubt that how this relates to a process that might be in place and being followed, even if the reasons for doing so aren’t obvious and no one is sure why or if the process is necessary.
Another piece that delivers a similar message is “How Destructive Cultures Develop” by Tommy Wiseman (which I came across in the book Strategy Bites Back by Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, Joseph Lampel – published by Prentice Hall). Wiseman writes:
“Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result, all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.
Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all the monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he learns that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.
Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. By this point, all the monkeys that are beating the newcomer have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.
After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the bananas.
Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done around here. And that, my friends, is how company policy begins.”
…and, I suspect, this is also how many proposal processes begin!