Empty your cup, unlearn before you learn

There is a great story about a zen master (or a buddhist master….or … well a master!) welcoming a new recruit among his rank. The new guy is shy and timidly sits in front of the old master (the latter could not get up anyway). When offered some tea, it took some time for the new guy to realize that he had to serve it both to the master and to himself, starting with the master. A smarter apprentice would also have noticed the look of impatience from the old master but, hey, he was new to this.

He started pouring the master’s tea, waiting to be told when to stop, and the master started talking. The cup was almost filled to the brim and the apprentice slowly reduced the pouring rate, still waiting to be told to stop.

Now, this is tricky. There are tons of rules and procedure when you start lessons with an old master. Some are clear, some are not. The new guy knew about the « clear » ones but was not too sure about the « unclear » rules. He knew about the « do not talk when the master talks » but there was nothing about « stop pouring before the master says so ». So he kept on pouring until the cup was full to the brim …. and continued pouring, albeit in a slower fashion, but the inevitable spill occured nonetheless.

« Master! » he cringed.

The old f…master stopped talking.

« Your cup is full and I must stop pouring unless I create a huge mess! »

« Well… young padawan (ooops wrong story!), ..young apprentice, your learned a few things here. »

« Did I? »

« And you will learn a few more if you do not sharpen up rapidly! » was the prompt reply.

« Will I? »

« What did you learn? » the old master curtly asked in a socratic way, not without a cynical left eyebrow twitch.

The apprentice softly said, looking very humbly at his feet, soaked in warm spilled tea : »I should have stopped earlier. »

« And….? »

 » I should have asked you when to stop…? »continued the apprentice, encouraged by the absence of a derogatory comment.

« Or…? »

« I should have stopped when I judged it was full because after all, it is common sense and, master or not, this decision was in my realm of authority and I could live with the consequence of my decision and my impertinence!  » was the proud and a bit too loud answer from the apprentice.

The old master replied with a twinkle in his eyes : « Indeed, indeed…and what will you get out of this next time? »

« Huh? » expectorated the apprentice, knowing full well that the old master had not perceived the subtle use of the ancient and revered onomatopoeia and that he should have simply said « I do not not have the slight idea » risking being stigmatized for the rest of his sojourn here but insuring a better understanding from his master.

But the wise master was used to these young and ignorant fools and he also knew that their parents paid very well for their education, hence his infinite greed-induced patience.

« Ah, young apprentice, you will also learn that, in the future, you must make sure to empty the cup of the old tea before you put in the fresh hot tea ».

« Now clean up this mess ».


 

I have just finished reading « Beyond budgeting » by J. Hope and R. Fraser. Quite a book about a way to remove the budgeting barriers in our organizations. A very, very sane way to use budgets as a tool to achieve strategy and not the other way around. Budgets are too often used as the end of all things. Strategy is too often used to fulfill the budget, the mission is too often corrupted to « make the numbers », too many initiatives are stifled because the budget does not allow it. How many of your projects were stymied simply because they had not been planned « in the budget »? How many times were you told to wait for the next budget before spending on « this » or « that » , great idea that would have helped your organization but hey… budget constraints…you know…

The book is full of examples of companies that successfully implemented those financial strategies : banks (!), manufacturers, IT etc. So it can be done.

BUT… this is a profound paradigm shift. For executives, managers and employees. We are talking here about a shift in the concepts of authority, responsibility, accountability and empowerment.

And I mean a profound change !

I had the chance to test this recently during a business meeting. One of the managers almost died when he heard about those concepts.

« What kind of nonsense is that ? A business without a budget cannot exist! »

As I pushed further and gave him examples upon examples of companies being hindered by their budgets, of budgeting exercises takings months of inefficient use of resources etc., he kept on insisting that budgets were essential. But he had to agree that they were resource hungry beasts and that most companies hated the whole thing!

I pushed on, providing argument against budgeting and showing how ultimately the collective intelligence of the whole organization could self regulate the budget process into a more fluid and responsive exercise. The poor manager had his eyes bulging out trying to remember to breath. The fact that I was smiling the whole time might not have helped. The point is, he just could not imagine life without a budget.

His cup was already filled to the brim.

How could I hope to pour in new tea ?

But the new tea is here.

Our era of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, the cherished VUCA, will ensure that only the agile organizations, the intelligent organizations will survive. We need to open up to new realities, more flexibility, new tools and plunge into the bottomless pit of resources that is our collective intelligence.

It is here. Now.

But we must first unlearn what we know before we learn the new stuff.

Not easy. Probably painful.

But it is here. Now.

We must first empty our cup of the old tea to put in the novel tea.

But guess what… the new stuff tastes much better!

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