Dave Snowden has reminded us that the English word “manage” is derived from manège (French: “the handling or training of a horse…”) and, ultimately, maneggiare: (Italian: “to handle”). The ways in which we work with those around us can be compared with different approaches to equine training.

Horses are, by nature, herd animals. Despite their suitability for the roles we have historically imposed on them — beasts of burden, carriage or draft — they do not take to those roles naturally or, sometimes, easily. They need to be accustomed to the harness, to the weight of a rider or pack, and to following instructions given by weight, pressure, whip, heel, hand or stick. That process of accustomisation is traditionally known as horse breaking.

Horse breaking can be a process by which the animal’s spirit is literally broken: it is driven to submission to the human’s need for a servant animal by being worn down and forced to comply. An alternative approach, exemplified by Monty Roberts’s techniques, is to work with the horse’s herd instincts. This effectively encourages the horse to think itself as part of the human’s herd. It can produce incredible results — trust, willingness, and human-equine communication.

I was reminded of this by Jack Vinson’s blogpost, “Messing the managers,” which concludes:

Management needs to “get out of the way,” but there is still plenty of facilitation and direction to be provided.  Having a completely open field can be just as problematic as attempting to put everyone on the same single-track path.

I think one key to effective facilitation and direction is to approach management in a similar way to horse breaking. A forceful approach is just going to rub people up the wrong way in the end, but if you find ways to work with people’s natural instincts it is more likely that everyone will trust you to find the right direction for the herd.

A key feature of the Monty Roberts approach is that the horse is encouraged to see the human as a fellow member of the herd. Traditional horse breaking depends on a relationship of inequality — the human and the horse occupy different places in the “system” — there is no herd. Jay Cross takes a similar view in his critique of the traditional approach to organisational learning.

In a knowledge society, learning is the work, and the work is learning. There is no separate reality in a classroom outside of the workplace. It’s time for less push and more pull, less topdown and more bottom-up, less going through the motions and more creating.

Being told to take a training course is like driving on a road with signs, stripes and bumps. If workers take a training course but don’t learn, what’s their reaction “The training wasn’t any good.”

Cross’s article compares this approach to learning with the work of the late Hans Monderman in the field of traffic engineering. Monderman’s basic rule was that streets are shared space for the use of all — pedestrians, cyclists, cars, lorries, old and young — all equally. The Wired article illustrates the result brilliantly.

Riding in his green Saab, we glide into Drachten, a 17th-century village that has grown into a bustling town of more than 40,000. We pass by the performing arts center, and suddenly, there it is: the Intersection. It’s the confluence of two busy two-lane roads that handle 20,000 cars a day, plus thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians. Several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behavior – traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings – and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn’t contain: signs or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk, so it’s unclear exactly where the car zone ends and the pedestrian zone begins. To an approaching driver, the intersection is utterly ambiguous – and that’s the point.

Monderman and I stand in silence by the side of the road a few minutes, watching the stream of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians make their way through the circle, a giant concrete mixing bowl of transport. Somehow it all works. The drivers slow to gauge the intentions of crossing bicyclists and walkers. Negotiations over right-of-way are made through fleeting eye contact. Remarkably, traffic moves smoothly around the circle with hardly a brake screeching, horn honking, or obscene gesture. “I love it!” Monderman says at last. “Pedestrians and cyclists used to avoid this place, but now, as you see, the cars look out for the cyclists, the cyclists look out for the pedestrians, and everyone looks out for each other. You can’t expect traffic signs and street markings to encourage that sort of behavior. You have to build it into the design of the road.”

There is a trend here — the equestrian world is turning its back on the more barbaric approaches to horse-training; traffic engineering is starting to recognise that a less controlling, more equal, approach to road use reaps real rewards in terms of accidents and injuries; organisational learning is starting to take notice of the need to treat people as adults — able to control their own learning experience. As Lee Bryant noted in his short presentation this week at Lift09, the need for control was an aberration of the 20th century, and led to the most appalling consequences. We need to use all the means at our disposal to reverse the trend and return to a more natural approach — based on basic human instincts like trust and empathy.

4 thoughts on “People-whispering”

  1. A wonderful post, found by chance researching to see if anyone else had ever pondering a comparison between Monderman’s work and the learning & development industry. And a great blog – we’ve taken the liberty ofn adding you to our blog roll and hope that may, in time, find you more readers. In the meantime, please keep writing so inspiringly.

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