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“Bus” is the Wrong Metaphor for Your Organization

Jim Collins is one of the most widely-read authors on business leadership today, and deservedly so. His books, including Built to Last and From Good to Great, provide great insights for leaders.

Collins’s most frequently repeated metaphor is that to build a great organization you must start by “having the right people on the bus.” This is often modified by people adding the provision that the right people must be on the right seats on the bus.

Taking this metaphor at face value can lead to bad decisions, for several reasons. First of all, unless you are a start-up (and even then there are significant limitations) you cannot just choose who you have on the bus. In one of the most popular Children’s Letters to God, Joyce writes “Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy.”

And you can’t just throw the “wrong” people off the bus. Peter writes to God “Please send Dennis Clark to a different camp this year.” If you have 20 or 200 or 20,000 employees you really don’t have much freedom to throw people off the bus, and only limited freedom to be moving people around the seats.

A bigger problem with the bus metaphor is that, with the exception of the driver, all of the riders are passively along for the ride. There can only be one pair of hands on the steering wheel, only one pair of feet operating the gas and the brake. And no matter how many “wrong” people you replace with “right” people, the bus won’t go any faster.

A much better metaphor for your organization is the galley ship where every single individual makes a contribution (or not) to the progress of the boat. Exchange a weak and disengaged rower for a strong and engaged rower and the boat will go faster. Create the sort of climate where all rowers are inspired to be engaged and the boat will go faster still.

Metaphors are incredibly powerful because, a picture being worth a thousand words, the word pictures we choose – bus or galley ship – can shape our thinking in subtle ways. Thinking of your organization (or your part of the organization) as a galley ship rather than a bus might open new insights into how promoting a stronger culture of ownership can engage every rower to pull on the oars rather than sitting passively in their seat on the bus.

By the way, my recent series of articles on “7 Steps to Building a Culture of Ownership” is now posted on the blog page of the Values Coach website at this link.

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