The Allegory of the Shelf
There once was a friendly Bear who purchased a new bookshelf.
“Assembly required,” the box read.
The Bear followed the directions.
Connect Side A to beam C using screw E
The Bear obeyed. He tried to connect the beam, but the screws would not take hold. He examined the holes and found they were too small. He had an idea. Twist the screws into the hole first to make them fit, then unfasten them and tether the beam.
He did so, and it held, but not firmly. He realized the screws were not long enough. Maybe he was using the wrong ones. He opened the package of tools to look for other screws. None found, and no other screws listed on the directions.
“These must be the screws, and they must fit,” he shouted.
Why would they send screws that don’t fit? Rather than return the product, he looked through his old drawer and found some thick nails. He connected Side A to beam C using a thick nail this time. It held. He continued the process until the shelf stood tall.
The Bear was proud of his resourcefulness. He organized the shelf with his books. Inspired to read, he pulled out his favorite story and sat by the fire.
After twenty minutes of silent reading, there was an explosive CRACK. The wooden shelves splintered on all four corners due to the nails’ thickness and the weight of the books; his new bookshelf destroyed. Nothing could fix it now, even if he had the correct screws.
I believe in the concept of hiring slowly and firing quickly. There are people on your team right now whom you have yet to fire despite their inappropriate behavior and poor performance. I’m talking about the managers who bring down the whole team with their negativity. The big egos who like to embarrass their team by putting themselves in the spotlight. The culture crashers who despise core values because they don’t agree with their desire for power.
What Does It All Mean?
You are the Bear. A leader who desperately wants to have an organized culture that functions positively, effectively, and joyfully. The shelf is your company culture, eager to hold the weight of innovation. The short screws are the weak leaders on your team. They fit in some other bookshelf, probably one much smaller, but not yours. And there’s nothing you can do to make them fit. No training program can elongate the screw — no leadership seminar that will motivate it to change.
We like to fool ourselves in believing that all the pieces work together because they came in the same box. That’s when we get desperate and try to convince the screw that it can become a nail. We call this change management. We drive the nail into the wood through fear tactics. Pleased with our efforts of forcing it through the beam, we sit back and await the change that never comes. Why?
Because a nail can never become a screw, your culture only works with the right screws in place.
A nail may hold your shelf together for a short time, but it will inflict lasting damage to your company’s reputation since it never belonged.
The system isn’t rigged against you. You are allowed to return the shelf the moment you see a defect that is impossible to fix.
Fire quickly, before your culture comes crashing down on top of you.