Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Sled dogs

A metaphor took shape for me today as I was composing email to an old friend...

First, a caveat: this isn't a reference to anybody I work with today, who are awesome -- just an overall reflection over almost 20 years of working in various places with different sets of people, often watching from the sidelines as things didn't get done, sometimes being one of the various kinds of sled dogs myself....

A work force is like a team of sled dogs, harnessed together, pulling something that's behind them, so most lose sight of exactly what the objective is -- it's just about running and pulling.

One thing I've seen very clearly, as a guy who's stood on quite a few sleds over the years, is that in any team of 12 sled dogs, only about 2 or 3 of them really do any work. The rest are just running along, or sometimes being pulled along.

It's like when you "help" carrying a couch and you're the third person: you realize you're not really bearing any weight, especially when the couch is headed up- or down-stairs and you're not on the bottom end. You realize, as you call out cautions about the "corner on your right!", that you are basically contributing nothing, and just perhaps, you're actually in the way.

I used to think that every dog knew who was doing the pulling, and that the rest were consciously along for the ride, kind of working the system. I don't believe that any more.

What I think now is that most people really think they are working hard, when in fact they're just barely keeping up with the harness, and are definitely not pulling the sled even a little bit. They just don't realize that some other dog is really straining against the harness, doing their work for them.

So if you're the guy on the sled, what exactly do you do? Do you shoot the dogs who aren't pulling, or just pull them out of the harness, leaving an empty slot? Then you have a harness for 12 but only 3 dogs. That probably is slower than having all 12 dogs. Do you stop, go out and buy a harness for 4, keep 3 good dogs and one marginal dog, and get rid of the other 8? By then, the race is over. And what happens when your 3 star dogs get tired? Is it possible, just possible, that one of the other dogs will one day get it, and become a ferocious puller? These are difficult questions indeed.

So most mushers just leave the status quo, and the hard-working sled dogs pull, and the others run, and the camera crews (on the off chance that there actually are camera crews filming the Iditarod) can't really tell the difference, and most of the dogs can't tell either.

At the end of the race, or at the end of several races, the musher may put the better pieces of food in the right 3 dishes, but the 3 dogs and the musher all know that it's not enough. The 3 dogs run and pull because that's what they do, that's what they're good at, and they don't know any other way. The musher knows that he can change nothing, and it's not worth the risk or controversy to be the only guy out there with a harness for 4 dogs.

And so the world continues. Instead of sled dogs we have people, and instead of harnesses we have phone lines and computers and keyboards, but the game is basically the same.

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