Why Flogging Dead Horses Stinks
Flogging a dead horse is a commonly used idiom here in the UK. If someone is trying to convince someone else to do or feel something without any hope of succeeding, we say they’re flogging a dead horse. This is used when someone is trying to raise interest in an issue that no-one supports anymore; beating a dead horse will not make it do any more work. 1. Similarly, the tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from generation to generation, says that, “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.” Rather than seeing a situation for what it is far too many individuals, businesses, public service and government organisations prefer to live in denial rather than accept the wisdom of the Dakota Indians. Instead, it seems people just love to develop alternative strategies for flogging dead horses. Taken from various articles and blogs currently on the Internet here are just a few suggestions:
• The horse isn’t really dead, we just need a better whip
• It’s not the horse it’s the rider that’s at fault
• If you don’t get up you’re sacked, Silver!
• Commission a study of how other companies ride their dead horses
• Lower the horse’s productivity standards
• Reclassify the dead horse as ‘life challenged’
• Hire a top management consultancy to tell you that the horse is dead without telling you where to buy a new one or how much it might cost
• Improve pay, conditions and training to increase your dead horse’s performance
• Produce a report that highlights the fact that dead horses incur fewer costs
• Rewrite the expected performance requirements for all life challenged equines
• Promote the dead horse to boardroom level or put it out to pasture while paying it a huge golden hoof-shake – sorry, that’s just horse manure.
Strangely enough, those people who believe that the past is an accurate barometer of future events are the very same people who possess an alarming tendency towards flogging dead horses. If it worked yesterday and it works today then it’ll surely work tomorrow. It’s this sort of linear thinking that gets horses killed in the first place. These equine assassins tend to view the future as a predetermined event, waiting just over the horizon to happen. Of course, the truth is very different.
For one thing, while most people would accept that we share a common reality, such as general social norms of behaviour, essentially we all see the world slightly differently. My view of the world is coloured, filtered and distorted by my own personal experiences to a greater or lesser extent. For example, while a furniture manufacturer regards trees as a raw material and resource, the environmentalist treasures them as the “lungs of the planet” to be protected at all costs. Each sees a valid aspect of a much bigger, more complex system at work in the world.
And so it’s easy to see how problems and misunderstandings can occur when one vision of the world clashes with another. This is bad enough when just confined to the realm of our personal relationships, but can be absolutely disastrous in terms of business, religion and politics. Taking the narrow or institutional view of the world rather than learning to appreciate the bigger picture always limits the options available, and blinds people to both hazards and solutions.
Not convinced? Still think it’s better to flog a dead horse than dismount? Okay, how about this for a bit of disastrous institutional thinking: 2. In September 1944, at the battle to capture the Arnhem bridge over the river Rhine (the last phase of operation Market-Garden), the British First Airborne Division landed with the wrong radio crystals. This technical oversight meant the Paras at Arnhem couldn’t communicate with the outside world, or their relief column, XXX Corp, just a few miles away at Nijmegen. As anyone who has seen the movie “A Bridge Too Far” will know the Paras were isolated, heavily engaged in bitter fighting against superior numbers, had limited resources, and were surprised to find that many of them had been dropped in the wrong place to start with.
Lack of communication between the scattered elements of the First Airborne and XXX Corp proved critical in the battle’s decision. However, while the battle raged, members of the Dutch resistance in Arnhem routinely talked with their counterparts in Nijmegen. The civil telephone system remained intact. The Germans didn’t think to cut the telephone lines while the British paratroopers never thought to simply knock on someone’s door, ask if the telephones were working and make a call to Nijmegen.
To the rigid corporate mind of the British and German armies the battlefield had been defined outside the civilian infrastructure. The Dutch underground assumed the paratroopers were talking to each other and Nijmegan by radio, and so didn’t think to mention the telephone system was operational. At Nijmegan, Dutch intelligence about the unfolding disaster at Arnhem was largely ignored or discredited as unreliable, as no-one at XXX Corp realised the Dutch possessed an open channel of communication. Instead of ending the war by Christmas of 1944, the Allies suffered a humiliating defeat and the war went on until the following May – and all for the want of a horse-shoe nail.
The ability to deny what is glaringly obvious, and do nothing, or support a position against all evidence to the contrary is a common human failing. However, thankfully, learning organisations are springing up everywhere; challenging the status quo; adapting to rather than denying or avoiding critical situations and issues. 3. A learning organisation is one that learns and encourages learning among its people. It promotes a continual exchange of information between employees hence creating a more knowledgeable workforce. This produces a very flexible organisation where people will accept and adapt to new ideas and changes through a shared vision. Perhaps, eventually, we’ll all learn that when we discover we’re riding a dead horse, the best strategy really is to dismount.
1. www.stuartbruce.biz 2. www.marketgarden.com 3. www.infed.org
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