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The Mainstrean (A Fable)

 

Roger Kaufman wrote this Fable back in 1991, as part of his book Strategic Planning Plus. I asked him for his permission to republish it in this Review, because I think it summarizes in a poignant and literary way the choices we can make in our professional direction.

 

Kaufman was for long off the "mainstream" of management thinking. His insistance in aligning business with social impact and in sustaining that doing well cannot hold for long without doing good to customers and stakeholders was often looked down as naive.

 

It was 1969 when Roger first introduced the idea of Megaplanning, basically that all true strategy must have a measurable positive social impact on clients and stakeholders, included our shared world. As it happened with other "out of the mainstream" concepts -from the roundness of Earth to the advent of a knowledge-based economy- , Roger's ideas are now self-evident and embraced -althouth not alwats fully applied- by all leading companies and almost all new startups.

 

I think that this small fable explains the difference quite well to those seeking for "making something that matters" -to quote the title of TOMS shoes' founder book.

 

I leave you in good reading company.

 

Mariano Bernardez, PhD., CPT

 

 

The Mainstream (A Fable)

 

By Roger Kaufman

 

Ever since he was spawned, Sylvester seemed diffcrcnt. He didn't even care for his name—he thought it sounded more devious than smart. Although he was a fairly good student in school (he was often in school, for that's how fish tend to live) Sylvester was always thinking, questioning, and seeking alternatives.

 

The teachers, it seemed to him, were preparing everyone for life in the Mainstream. There were courses in water temperature, bottom characteristics, velocity, sociology of fish, turbulence, plankton, predators, and cooperative swimming. They were told it was their destiny to learn their lessons, grow up, and take their preordained place in the Mainstream.

 

Sylvester wasn't completely convinced. He continued to think, puzzle, and question. Why were all of these courses being taught? What was the Mainstream? Where was it going? Why should he want to go where it was headed? His teachers were amused and patronizing. They told him that such foolish questions would pass. "Just study your lessons," they advised.

 

But as Sylvester got older (he developed a fine set of gills that were the envy of many of his classmates) his questions were still unanswered. Typical of his inconsistent high school career, he didn't make the high school swimming team. He even tried, unsuccessfully, to institute a swimmingup-stream event.

 

Going To College

 

Sylvester graduated from high school with grades good enough to get into a decent college—Aquarian University, right in his home creek.

 

The courses were all about living, and "making it" in the Mainstream. Fish who were experienced in the "real world" came to class and lectured on life there. Still Sylvester asked "Isn't it easier to find the Mainstream than to know where it is going? Are there any alternatives?" The professors at Aquarian were less amused than his high school teachers. They told him that to get along, he had to go along. Business, they said, was like politics : "it was the art of the possible."

 

They advised him to think about change—if he had to be concerned about it all—as incremental. "Take small, deft slithers lest you displease the bosses or even your associates." "Be 'practical!' " Sylvester grappled quietly, studied and passed. Still he thought about purpose, destination, rationality, and goal-setting, not just goal-seeking.

 

He devoured the literature on planning and management, and most of it, regardless of the rhetoric, sounded, well, basically "Mainstream." The "in" books had a few punchy phrases and were occasionally peppered with some innovative-sounding words. But at closer examination they were simply suggesting more efficient ways to swim in the Mainstream.

 

On To Work In The Real World

 

After graduating, Sylvester took a job in a large and prestigious Mainstream company. The pay was good (with lots of extra plankton as bonuses). One of his co-workers, Fred, was more conventional, and thought that planning was best done through building on what was known and accepted. Fred and Sylvester argued, and their mutual boss decided that research should resolve the conflict: both of them were to pursue a major project, each following his method of planning.

 

There was to be a competition based upon results, not upon talk!

 

Sylvester's boss was astute. She allowed him to pursue his "curious" type of strategic planning. (He called it "Megaplanning" because it took a much more wide-angle view than the conventional methods.) It was time to go from theory to results.

 

A Different Perspective

 

While most fish just worked on improving their technique, swam in circles, drifted in the current, and headed downstream in unquestioning unison, Sylvester wanted to find out where the Mainstream was heading and what was there. His approach depended upon finding the gaps between the payoffs waiting at the end of the Mainstream and what would be good for fishdom. He wanted to identify the current results and contrast those to the best possible payoffs before selecting solutions.

 

Onc day, while doing research at the edge of the Mainstream, Sylvester camc upon a variety of fish he had never sccn. (He thought it might bc something called a salmon, but he was too discreet to ask.) The stranger told him about a new (for Sylvester) technique that would allow a fish to swim both up and downstream, to venture to the side and to go into new waters. Sylvester picked this "radical" method which would allow him to venture all the way downstream and to come back! With this technique, hc could find out the real consequences of following the Mainstream. Fred, on the other fin, selected the traditional tail extenders to accelerate his trip downstream, noting that his approach was "practical" and "real world."

 

Finding The Real "Real World"

 

Fred and Sylvester set out at the same time, with many supporters cheering for Fred and a very few wishing Sylvester well. Fred was a bit smug as he glided in the Mainstream, for he had called together all of his colleagues and got their concurrence on his means and methods. Sylvester was less self-assured, but he told himself that reason was on his side—didn 't it make sense to know where you want to go before swimming there? He believed that everyone was so busy doing what fish had been doing for centuries that they didn't realize that they just might be swimming in a river of no-return!

 

Once downstream, Sylvester found to his horror that the revered Mainstream lead over a waterfall and into a shark pool where all of the Mainstreamers wcrc becoming food! He watched helplessly as Fred, tail extenders and all, swept to his gastronomic fate.

 

Sylvester, seeing the impact of simply following the "tried-and-true" Mainstream, quickly diverted into a different river, there to find a huge, fish-friendly lake, with ample food and opportunity. It was a different destination than the one gained by following the traditional current, but it offered much, much more. Using his newly-acquired technique, he rushed back (upstream, of course) and tried to change the conventional wisdom about swimming in the Mainstream! He told of his experience, the shark pool, the new lake, and pointed out that Fred wasn't back—and wouldn 't be.

 

It wasn't easy to convince others. It was establishcd fish-wisdom that swimming in that Mainstream was destiny. They said that the Big Fish knew what they were doing, and other small-fry should just follow their direction. Sylvester tried to change their minds. He attempted, for example, to get alternative planning courses in the schools, but the tenured fish resisted.

 

The Payoffs

 

Fortunately, Sylvester's company was innovative and concerned about both fish and business. They encouraged Sylvester's "big-picture" approach to planning, and used it to plan a new subsidiary, which prospered. Sylvester now is President of the offshoot (called FishFutures), which is making a major contribution from working on the new lake he discovered. Also, his employees are setting up even more new businesses in previously unfamiliar rivers and tributarics; business areas that never would have been thought of without Sylvester's new technique.

 

But to make sure his approach and objectives weren't flashes in the pan (or bait on a hook), Sylvestcr has just hired another "questioner" to head up FishFutures' planning department. She will make certain that any new "mainstreams" that they select will not turn out as poorly as did the old, traditional one.

 

Moral: The Mainstream has a lot of momentum, but you might not want to end up where it is going.

 

This article is an excerpt from Strategic Planning Plus by Roger Kaufman. 

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