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Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Art of Warning—Introduction (e): Remonstrance

[a] Stormy RF
The next few posts will introduce a new series on Round and Square—one that is intimately linked to my large project called "The Emperor's Teacher" (the management book that will change the world. This series focuses intently on the ways in which Sima Guang's great historical work, the Comprehensive Mirror, "works." You've read the Art of War, perhaps. Now get ready for the main course—the Art of Warning. 

Click here for other sections of this introduction to The Art of Warning.
Warning 1          Warning 2          Warning 3          Warning 4          Warning 5          Warning 6

Lesson Three—Remonstrance
[b] Bridges RF
Now we come to the tricky idea that puts it all together. We have learned to understand the nuances within and between our multiple roles, and have come to see the vast managerial landscape as undulating terrain—ever aware of it slopes and curves. To complete the picture, we need to find a way to convey necessary, but unpleasant, information, not unlike what we have already seen in our Comprehensive Mirror examples. In other words, roles and hierarchy must be set in motion. So let’s imagine the following. You know something that your boss needs to know. She made a mistake. If you tell her, she will be irritated at best, and flaming-mad at worst. Here’s the twist—you don’t, exactly, have to be the one who criticizes her. You could just let it go…for now at least. Sure, she’ll keep on making mistakes, and the organization would be better for it, but...

You are the messenger, after all, and no one has ever quite figured out how to make that work.
[c] Motion RF

Remonstrance, in English and Chinese (諫), is the art of warning—the art of the junior member of any unit telling the senior what she needs to hear. Think back to Confucius’s quotation. It is the official critiquing the ruler; the son teaching the father. Sima Guang highlighted remonstrance for a reason. It is this vital shift that puts the other lessons into motion and creates an organization that learns. The Comprehensive Mirror contains ten thousand pages addressed to this very question, and it is never easy. Criticizing your boss is just about as fraught as life gets in relative peacetime. And while bosses surely can teach their employees a good deal, they need information too. People closer to “the ground” are often the best positioned to give it. They know the details, and are in contact with people who put policy into practice (from elementary schools to empires).

If the news is bad, the junior usually just keeps silent.

By contrast, the Comprehensive Mirror is filled with colorful, and sometimes startling, examples of ministers of government staring down emperors and telling them what they need to hear.

          The situ junyi yuan, Dong Xun, sent up a memorial, remonstrating with 
          the emperor: “I have heard that upright gentlemen of antiquity spoke out 
          their minds for the sake of the state, not fearing death and perishment…
          loyal and upright by nature, they went ahead and did not shrink in the face 
          of drawn swords and boiling water; they did so because they loved the 
          empire on behalf of the sovereigns of their time. 

          [A long list of criticisms, from unremitting warfare and lack of perspective 
          to ostentatious imperial extravagance follows]. 

          I am well aware that once my words are out, death will be my certain lot, yet 
          I compare my own person to a single hair of an ox. If living, I serve no 
          purpose, then what loss can there be in my death? With the writing-brush in 
          hand, I weep and take leave of this world. I have eight sons, who will have to 
          be taken care of by Your Majesty after my death. Having washed and purified 
          myself, I submit this memorial, waiting for your command.

          [When the memorial was brought in], the emperor said, “Is Dong Xun not 
          afraid of death?” The official in charge memorialized to have him arrested, 
          but the emperor’s order was to leave him alone.
[d] Emboldened RF

It is difficult to give an adequate sense of this “art of warning” in just these few passages. Lively examples, such as this one, sit side-by-side with less dramatic reminders to the ruler (the boss) that the criticism is not personal. If you recall the language in the passage I just quoted, the subordinate’s loyalty is to the organization and its ideals, not just to the person who happens to be in charge. That is a powerful message that can embolden employees and make bosses shudder.

This is generally a good thing for organizations.

One point is certain, and Sima Guang knew it well. When knowledge moves upward in this manner, organizations prosper. Remonstrance is the dynamic that sets the organization’s “learning structures” spinning. When practiced as an organizational art—the way that Sima Guang articulated throughout the Comprehensive Mirror—it contains the kernels of powerful growth and continual learning for individuals, divisions, and corporations.
[e] Guises RF

The failure to function in this manner has serious consequences. For example, the Financial Times ran a story a while back bemoaning the fact that diversity has not created a greater interplay of ideas in the boardroom. Sima Guang would not have been surprised. Diversity alone does not generate new ideas. Without powerful and empowering “teaching” (“warning,” as it were), organizations will only accomplish an uneasy overlay of unity—head nodding assent in fidgety meetings. A Chinese writer from the Song dynasty (960-1279) said it in a particularly memorable way.

Why would one take water and give it the flavor of water?  Why would someone create a lute with but one note?  There is no harmony in these things. Such is the inadequacy of mere agreement.
[f] Multi-alles RF

Remonstrance, in its many guises, is the multi-flavored, multi-vocal potential lying within the organization—from families to corporations, to the ruling of all under heaven. The Comprehensive Mirror shows the necessity of this feedback loop, and gives thousands of examples of how to move from, as I like to say, remonstrance cooperation to remonstrance coordination. Cooperation can be seen in our quotation above; it means that the boss agrees (gritting teeth, perhaps) to listen to advice; you agree (heart palpitating, perhaps) to tell what you know. It is not an efficient process, but it is still necessary.

Could there be more? Could it work even better than shuddering employees confronting crabby bosses? Yes.

The greater goal, which should be the focus of all twenty-first century organizations, needs to be something else—not mere cooperation, but coordination. Coordination results in this transfer of knowledge as a matter of course, like playing the notes on a scale. This may sound impossible. Sima Guang thought quite otherwise, and I do, too. The details are for another lecture at another time, but we have already seen how the Comprehensive Mirror can teach us to focus on that goal, and to begin working toward it in our own organizations.

Click here for other sections of this introduction to The Art of Warning.
Warning 1          Warning 2          Warning 3          Warning 4          Warning 5          Warning 6
[g] Coordination RF

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