This week I have had several interesting conversations about agile employee survey processes and benchmarking and it put me in mind of the old Chinese fable about the three monks and their sticks. It goes something like this.
There was once a set of small but ancient monasteries built on sacred sites, set along a stretch of a temperamental river which was liable to flood every monsoon season. Within each of those monasteries sat a ‘lamp of eternal light’, which had all been burning continuously for several hundred years. In order to keep the lights aflame, individual monks were assigned to each monastery to protect them from the river which every year was likely to deluge the small monasteries and extinguish the flame.
In order to measure the depth of the river and so predict when the monsoon flood waters would arrive, the monks were given their own measuring stick. On dipping the stick into the river, once the river water hit a key marker, the monks knew the flood waters were on their way and so they could to move the lamp to safer, higher ground.
One particular year, approaching the monsoon season, a new monk arrived at one of the monasteries to tend his lamp. Feeling cold on his first night he lit a small fire outside the monastery to warm himself. The night was chilly and he burned through his small woodpile quickly, and absent-mindedly reached for the last stick and threw it onto the fading embers. He realised too late he had burned his only measuring stick and was now without a way to predict when the flood waters would come.
“No matter” thought the monk to himself, “I will borrow a measuring stick from the next monk up the river”. He walked several miles that cold night until he came to the next monastery. Here the river was darker and deeper but he was pleased to be allowed to borrow an older stick. Given the depth of the river there, the stick was much longer and a weight to carry. However, the monk was pleased he had a stick at all. After all, how much different could it be, it was still a stick, from a monk, by the side of the river, with the same goals as him. As benchmarks go that was pretty close.
And so, the monk diligently measured the river depth every day with that new longer stick. The river water never hit the warning benchmark, until one day, the monk, the monastery and the lamp of eternal light were washed down river and never seen again.
“Oh dear” thought the monk as the river water hit, “perhaps comparing to someone else’s benchmark as my only measure wasn’t the smartest thing to do. If I ever get a job as an engagement and culture consultant I will definitely remember that, glug, glug, gurgle gurgle…”
Once the monastery had been rebuilt and the lamp of eternal light relit, another monk came with a re-calibrated stick to tend the flame. He was young and clever and had new ideas about efficiency. He decided on a more agile approach to river measurement. Instead of wading out into the middle of the river for a depth sounding every day (and getting wet in the process) he decided to measure more often. He wanted to keep dry however, so thought he would take a dipcheck every hour just at the river bank where the water was much shallower and he only got his sandals wet. “I’ll measure every hour” he thought, I’ll have lots more data and won’t need to put in all that hard work of wading out to the middle of the river”. As the small waves of the river lapped at the river bank, he got some odd readings throughout the next few weeks, sometimes the river looked dangerous, and sometimes calm, but it never followed a reliable pattern.
“Oh dear” thought the monk as the river water hit, “perhaps measuring more frequently but in the wrong place was not the right thing to do. If I ever get a job as an engagement and culture consultant I will definitely remember that, glug, glug, gurgle gurgle…”
The next year, a third and wiser monk then took over proceedings. He knew that using the right measuring stick was vital and continued to take meaningful depth soundings that could predict the river’s intentions. He knew that didn’t need to be a burdensome process however, and so he embedded the stick in the riverbed so could glance at the river level whenever he liked. His approach was an ‘always on’ one, agile, yet grounded in reliable science.
That year the flame kept burning and the monk was promoted to Chief HR Officer for his efforts. “If I ever get a job as an engagement and culture consultant I will certainly remember this story” he thought “someday it could be useful”. And he did.