The Dull Saw

December 5, 2007

There’s a guy who stumbled into a lumberjack in the mountains. The man stops to observe the lumberjack, watching him feverishly sawing at this very large tree. He noticed that the lumberjack was working up a sweat, sawing and sawing, yet going nowhere. The bystander noticed that the saw the lumberjack was using was about as sharp as a butter knife. So, he says to the lumberjack, “Excuse me Mr. Lumberjack, but I couldn’t help noticing how hard you are working on that tree, but going nowhere.” The lumberjack replies with sweat dripping off of his brow, “Yes…I know. This tree seems to be giving me some trouble.” The bystander replies and says, “But Mr. Lumberjack, your saw is so dull that it couldn’t possibly cut through anything.” “I know”, says the lumberjack, “but I am too busy sawing to take time to sharpen my saw.”

-Retold by Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

There is no time to improve in this environment, unless one steals it.

I liken this situation to a couple in crisis saying they can’t attend marriage counseling because they are too busy… arguing.

I have pushed myself hard enough throughout my life to be able to listen to my mind and body. Other weight lifters will attest, it’s possible to know what kind of nutrient one is hungry for, it’s possible to have a keen and nuanced sense of thirst, it’s possible to know how hard one should or should not push one’s self.

Similarly, I have studied enough to know when I’m burning out. I can appraise a set of information and I’ll know about how long I’ll need to absorb it and what the most effective method for me is. I also know that if I try to absorb it a different way, or I expend too much energy on it, I’ll be less effective. It’s not just a matter of diminishing returns: I’m talking about negative returns.

So the question is: How can we develop this sense of limits within a culture, instead of just within a person?

A person develops this intuition of limits by:

  1. Hitting them and suffering the consequences
  2. Caring enough to pay attention
  3. Changing behavior as a result

I think the unfocused, “good enough” mentality of mediocre organizations ensures that the limits are hit, but prevents attention from being paid, and therefore from changes being made. Typically, a person never gets to witness the results of their failings because they don’t have a mental model of what success would look like. Take Jim for example:

Jim is a nice guy. He is of relatively high intelligence, and wants to live a productive life. He walks into his first job interview out of college, and here’s where the story diverges:


Jim wows the interviewer. He’s sharp, he smiles, he maintains eye contact, he’s well-groomed. He gets the job with ease, and continues to impress people as his career progresses. Jim isn’t a prodigy, but he’s a hard worker, and knows how to relate to people and get things done. He eventually retires to the Bahamas, and is widely considered to have been successful

…Or Maybe Not

Jim says good things in that interview… but his body language is all wrong. He accidentally signals uncertainty by slouching, and failing to maintain eye contact. He touches his face a lot unconsciously — the interviewer thinks he’s dishonest. He is nervous and forgets to smile, making him seem boring and sullen. He doesn’t get that job. Eventually, though, he lands an okay job. He works hard — maybe he gets laid off a time or two, but he’s a good worker so he he’s never without employment too long, but he never seems to break the ranks of middle management. Eventually he retires, living in the home he bought decades ago, and then fades into oblivion.

Jim-with-bad-body-language was never able to reflect back and say “Damn, I didn’t end up in the Bahamas because I didn’t pay attention to my body language” — he never knew the difference. He didn’t realize how important it is, so he never had a model of what his life would be like if he did know how important it is. There is no ironic scene in the movie to let the audience know what he sacrificed — that possible future of success faded quietly into oblivion with him.

My point is that mediocre organizations don’t have a “mental model” of excellence, so they are prevented from reflecting on their mediocrity. They can’t imagine that hiring the right people and letting them do the right things might change the organization in fundamentally revolutionary ways that would ensure its place in history.

Maybe a person inside the organization could plant the seeds for that “model of excellence” through story-telling. One might imagine aloud a future that seems radical but possible. Getting the people who are in control, and who generally disseminate the culture of the organization to buy into a vision of the future that is more grand than this quarter’s half percent increase in stock price.

What would such a story sound like? How might it be delivered?