Seed potatoes … lessons in gratitude

Listen the the story as you read along …

They would spend the winter in my grandparent’s root cellar and in my parent’s dirt floor basement.  They were the fall harvest of potatoes.

You could always find two distinct piles of potatoes.  The larger pile was for the winter’s eating.  The smaller pile would be the seed potatoes, held in trust down there until the warm breeze of spring and the new planting.

Generally, it was a fine workable, closed loop process but one factor could throw it off and create big problems.

 Hard times …

When times get tough, it required some rigorous discipline to watch that pile of tasty feed potatoes disappear and hold back the temptation to start eating the next year’s seed potatoes.

A bad choice to eat today what we should plant tomorrow.

This may be an interesting metaphor for how we tend to handle hard times in our organizations.  I knew some hard times.  I was “let go” three times, laid off twice and surplused at last count, three times.

Not so bad.

My business for the most part was to get out of business … do myself out of a job, so to speak.  My job in my work with First Nations, was to build capacity for them to own the work and get me out the door.  I was the edible potato and my job was to grow and leave the seed potatoes.

We are in hard times and I wonder if we have the wisdom and imagination to keep our seed potatoes. Most working people know how to scramble in hard times … organizations not so much.  While people struggle to re-learn, tighten up and re-load, organizations often hunker down, pass blame and unload.

Many organizations continue to measure busyness instead of effectiveness.  We stick our fingers down our throats and purge great numbers of people every few years instead of trimming down and keeping fit every year.

People are often seen as the problem instead of the solution and we sure did not fully engage them very often.  They were expendable not core.

I often tell the story of the Intensive Care nurse who at three o’clock on a horrible morning asked me what I did for a living.

As I stumbled an uncertain reply, she snapped back … “I know what you do.  You are one of those outside experts who come and sit with our managers, with your flipcharts and such and then come up with a master plan to fix this place.”

I stumbled again for a reply, but she was soon on a roll.

“Why don’t you people ever ask me”, she snapped. “If you took a minute and asked me, I could tell you where we are screwing up, wasting time and money and generally losing ground.”

I will never forget her for that moment and the gift she gave me.

She gave me the perfect plain language vision statement for my life’s work.

“Why don’t you ever ask me?”

So why don’t we ever ask those front-line workers how we can be more effective, lose some weight and find our way back.

I would honestly say that, in forty-five years of going through hard times, I cannot recall ever being asked to help figure out where we could truly do some good instead of just, once more, downsizing and reorganizing the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Many seed potatoes were sent out the door.

So, as I write these words today, I see the thousands of front-line people getting the pink slip and especially our youth, born in the shadow of 911 and now coming of age in a Pandemic, wondering if that negative crunch, crunch they are hearing all the time might just be the sound of us eating our own seed potatoes.

What I have learned …

For most of my career, the primary mental model for an employee was “you are what you do.”

Think about how many conversations start off with that old line …”and what do you do Bob?”

Our importance in the conversation, the room, the organization and the world most often start from what you do … not who you are.

This is a very tiny box.

It very seldom leads to  …

What do you care about?

What do you know?

What do you want to know?

What do you think?

What can you contribute?

Today, these things would be my first priority.

In a knowledge economy, what you do is a very long way down the list from what you know and what you are learning … even further down from what you care about and what you think.

The old cliché, we are human beings, not human doings, comes to mind.

I have learned that until we respect the file clerk for what he or she knows, cares about and thinks, we will never engage him or her in a respectful, fruitful and productive conversation. 

More to the point, unless we engage him and her much more fully in the whole, not just the job, we are in imminent danger of eating those important seed potatoes …

Gratitude is having the potatoes, and intelligence is in keeping them.