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Business Metaphor Teaching Story

 The Boat

by Silvia Hartmann

Good Evening all, a business story I have to tell, a metaphor that is most useful, and it might even be of use in other contexts, not just that of business, but finely did it work for me today!

I don't know quite how it came to be, but I got talking to a person overwhelmed within a situation, with guilt over mistakes made and messy chaos created; and I remembered a story about a boat.

Now here is a submarine in the 2nd World war, silent running beneath the waves, and a big destroyer up above, listening out for the boat below. The engines are off and everyone is whispering, everyone is in fear of their lives - and then someone drops a large metal spanner on the metal decking grid, and the boat rings like a bell.

There is no sound beneath the waves like that, and in an instant, the destroyer has located the boat and drops its lethal depth charges.

They explode and well targeted, they wound the boat; the engines are no longer working, electricity is out and the boat begins to take on water, sink deeper and deeper, way past its safe depth, down, lower and lower and it cannot stop.

The pressure is causing the hull plates to buckle and rivets come loose, shooting like the most damaging of missiles randomly across and through the crew; there is water everywhere and soon, all will be lost.

Lying helplessly at a depth a thousand feet of water, is this the end?

Now let us stop and consider what not to do.

And what we don't want to be doing in this circumstance is to start a court martial for the man who dropped the spanner.

This is not the time, nor is it the place.

Neither can we afford to start an investigation as to how it could have happened that a well trained marine would drop a heavy spanner when a destroyer was right above - listen!

The hull plates are buckling and groaning. Men are down everywhere, injured, screaming. The engineering crew is going crazy, trying to stem the water pouring in from more than a dozen separate hull breaches. The machinists are struggling through the water in gas masks to try and get at least one engine back on line so there will be lift. Every able bodied man, including officers, are pumping water out against the immeasurable pressure.

What of the man who dropped the spanner?

Should he be beating his breast or crying in a corner? Weeping over one of the comrades who were maimed or died during the disaster for which he alone was responsible?

Indeed not. Each and every man is needed desperately if there is any hope for any of them at all; and he further cannot now redeem himself by silly overly heroic actions.

He must give his best now, as they all do, no more, and no less.

And so the men achieve the miracle - after four days and four nights, the boat's engines begin to hum and it lifts off the seabed, makes its way towards the surface, towards having survived.

What of the man who dropped the spanner?

He was court-martialled indeed, but the officers who sat in judgement of him all well knew that this was a human thing, something that could happen to any sailor, any time, and that sometimes such things do happen, and it could have been just any one of them there sitting in the chair of the accused instead. His frank and honest admission of guilt, as well as his exemplary conduct during the crisis all spoke in his favour and showed him to be of good character.

They give him a requisite warning and then they let him go.

In the extreme of these events there lies a lesson for business, cleanly and sharply defined because of the very extremity of such a situation.

When a crisis is at hand, no matter how small or how large, whether it is a question of loss of earnings, loss of limbs and life or simply loss of face, that is not the time to seek to apportion blame or find someone to start a court martial.

When a crisis is at hand, we ask not who caused it, but we set about alleviating it as quickly and as most profoundly as we can; when all has been repaired and set to rights, then we may look to causes and effects and perhaps learn from the events which happened.

This is a principle that can indeed, save lives if it is understood; it can and does help businesses survive a self made cataclysm and if a person is just one who is the captain and the crew, court martial judges and the spanner dropper all the same, it can make all the difference to an incarnation.

© Silvia Hartmann 2004

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