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Will You Bell the Cat?

One of Aesop’s fables tells of a group of mice being terrorized by a mouse-eating cat. Many mice had been killed by the cat, and the rest of the mice were scared to venture out even to grab a morsel of food or a slurp of water. The mice realized they could not survive unless they could somehow neutralize the cat, so they convened a meeting of all the mice. The agenda had a single item--how can we protect ourselves from the cat.

Many ideas were bounced around and the mice were encouraged to think outside the box. (Mice’s meetings use the same jargon as human meetings, it turns out.) Finally, one mouse proposed that if the cat had a bell around its neck, the mice would be warned of the cat’s imminent arrival and scatter to safety. One mouse after another realized the genius of the idea. A belled cat would make them all safe.

The meeting was about to adjourn when one mouse interjected that while the idea was indeed a good one, he had a question, “Who will bell the cat?” The following silence was deafening and not a single mouse volunteered for the job. The cat problem remained intractable.

The prevailing wisdom holds that the major obstacle to solving many business problems is a lack of ideas. To the contrary, often the problem is not the lack of ideas but rather the lack of implementation. A solution that requires more resources--be it money, equipment, time or personnel--than the company has, is no solution at all.

At Duke School, we were looking to get parents to volunteer more. Such engagement would allow us to offer more activities to students and parents, draw closer ties between the volunteers and the school, and lighten the workload of the employees doing those tasks.

We met as a leadership team to discuss how to generate more parent volunteerism. Many ideas were bounced around. Towards the end of the meeting, the group seemed to be coalescing around the idea of convening focus groups for each class. The groups would look to understand why parents were not volunteering and what would be needed to increase their volunteerism. The idea seemed good in the abstract.

This would mean over 26 focus groups. So I chimed in that the idea seemed like a good one, but who was going to bell the cat. Who would organize the focus groups? Who would facilitate them? Who would compile the results? Who would decide what to do with the data compiled?

Unsurprisingly, no-one was eager to volunteer.

In order for a business decision to be effective, the business needs the resources and the motivation to implement it. It is easy to assume that any important decision should be able to garner employee motivation as well as find the resources. However, no decision is made in a vacuum; any decision falls on a continuum with other priorities. Often the other priorities do, and should, take precedence.

While generating increased parent volunteerism was important, the amount of time and resources the focus group plan would take away from other priorities was not worth it. As Duke School’s business manager likes to say, “Is the climb worth the view?” In this case, it was not.


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