Sustainability and the Duck


I’m sure that you are thinking I am loosing my mind when my post has a title like Sustainability and the Duck, but I have a reason for sharing this with you. In my time working with people and organizations, I have had the opportunity to observe a lot of their characteristics. It is because of this experience that I write about and promote Individual Sustainability. A system that is not operating in a sustainable way cannot be predicted. It cannot be measured. Because it cannot be measured or predicted, it cannot be improved. Until the system is stabilized and operating in a way that can be repeated indefinitely, the system will never improve. I see lots of people and organizations trying to normalize their systems while everyone within the system is being the Duck. You know this one. A person is like a duck when they are placid on the surface and yet underneath the surface their paddles are going ninety miles an hour. The funny fact about this anecdote is that it can be both a compliment and an insult. The way I want to look at it however is through a lens of sustainability, because not even the duck sustains that kind of effort indefinitely.

So, what does it mean to be like a duck, in this context? Let’s start with transparency. If you are like a duck, you are not showing or sharing what is really going on. In many organizations, this is the encouraged state. In fact, we often like to describe our leaders this way. We like for our leaders to be “In Control”. Leaders who are in control don’t show emotion. Good leaders shield us from conflict and problems. At the same time, we complain when information is not shared from the top down. We hate surprises that come from leadership. Yet, we want our leaders to be like ducks. We cannot have transparent organizations where decisions are shared when everyone is like the duck, maintaining an even strain, so to speak.

Beneath that calm exterior, the duck is working really hard. Often times, individuals described this way are considered heroes. They always seem to get so much done without involving or interrupting others. Because they are working so hard and not involving others, they may be solving problems no one knows exists. They may even be solving problems that don’t need to be solved.
Both of these characteristics have some impacts on our environment and our Individual Sustainability.

We seem to think the best state for people at work is an absence of emotion. I will admit, I have seen situations where emotion in the work place has been destructive. Equally however, I have observed the situation where trying to eliminate emotion at work is debilitating and destructive. The reality is that we need working environments where each person feels that their emotions and how the current situation makes them feel is considered and respected. If we create places where vulnerability is embraced and people can be honest about their opinions and feelings, we can actually eliminate the negatives caused by both ends of the spectrum. A team must have the psychological safety (trust) that allows them to share their opinions without fear of suffering. This  creates the space where they can be successful. This looks different for every team and within every organization.

Hidden information in a team and in an organization has very negative effects. Every time I talk about transparency, I have someone tell me how some things can’t be shared in an organization. I always ask them why. Often I get the trade secret and financial security answer, and I sometimes get the chance, if they are in the right place, to ask what does this say about trust within the organization. I know, where I live there are unicorns too, but I do think organizations need to share more internally. I know that teams need transparency to be successful and that includes transparency within the team, outside to others, and from others (including leaders). Simply put, lack of transparency stops others from knowing something is wrong. By keeping these secrets we are actively stopping people from helping when there is something wrong. To be a sustainable organization, which makes it possible to improve, we need to maximize the appropriate (sustainable) utilization of every person and resource (yes, they are two different things). Keeping responsibility, difficulty, and challenge hidden, we limit what options exist to only what those “in the know” can do. Because the duck-like individual has only themselves to count on, they must put in more effort to solve the problems. Many backs make for easy lifting. By sharing the problems with others, the solution can be shared across multiple people. One person, keeping everything on their back is not sustainable.  

Working quietly in the shadows and solving problems without help or transparency makes the time required to complete the solution invisible. We often do this because it makes us look like miracle workers. We like to look like miracle workers, it feeds our reward center in our brain. However, this also has a negative outcome. If the work required to complete a task is obscured, the perception of the work starts to lose value. This is a common problem today. People (you and me) are so used to just walking up and purchasing completed goods with no real understanding of the work required to make them. We are so separated from the manufacturing process that is seems like it just happens and as such it should be cheap to buy. Artisans who hand make products struggle with this perception because the perceived effort is not matched with the real effort. It has little value.

When I learned to facilitate team discovery and problem solving using LEGO Serious Play(R), we actually introduce a different duck metaphor. Initially it is to help create a no-judgment space where every model is accepted because it tells the individual’s story. To show that there are lots of different ways to make ducks we give each person the exact same set of bricks and ask them to make a duck. You would be surprised at the outcome. Once we have these ducks, we use another discovery exercise to start digging into the transparency of the team and creating honest sharing (vulnerability). We ask each person to place their duck on a map of a pond that has been divided into four quadrants

  • The Beach Party - I love my job
  • The Shallow Water - I have time and could do more
  • The Deep Water - I am overwhelmed and may sink
  • The Swamp - here be alligators, I don’t feel safe

Each person must decide which quadrant they are in on this team and place their duck in that quadrant. This early ice-breaker exercise can be very enlightening. When the team is honest, and they often are because of the way the session is built, team members can start to see places where they can help one another. The team members who are in the shallow water can help those in the deep water. Everyone can find ways to help the swamp dwellers get to a safe place. By being honest with each other and not hiding the fact that we are paddling furiously and fixing unseen problems, everyone starts to see opportunities to make their organization more sustainable.

If we are being secretive and keeping information from those we work with, we are not working in a sustainable way. We are stopping our organization from being a sustainable organization. If a person or an organization are not working in a sustainable way, they will not be able to improve, because they cannot yet measure their real productivity. Rather than being the placid hero duck, I would prefer that we all be the vulnerable ducks who share where we are in the pond so we can start to get to sustainable individuals and ultimately sustainable organizations.

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