Some thoughts on being a plank
The Ship of Theseus is an artefact in a museum. Over time, its planks of wood rot and are replaced with new planks. When no original plank remains, is it still the Ship of Theseus? Secondly, if those removed planks are restored and reassembled, free of the rot, is that the Ship of Theseus? Neither is the true ship. Both are the true ship.
Anyone who has watched the series will likely recognise the above thought experiment from “the field of identity metaphysics” as introduced in the final episode of Disney/Marvel’s WandaVision. Don’t worry, this is where the references to Marvel stop, so I don’t plan any spoilers or need for you to have any further background knowledge of the superhero universe.
However, the thought experiment presented did strike a chord with me, one that took a few days to put straight in my own head. Consider we belong to a company that is the ship in the experiment. What are the parts that comprise our company? Is it the offices, the desks, the facilities? Our experience through COVID-19 over the last 18 months has clearly indicated that, no, this is not the case — the company exists independent of the physical office space. I believe it is the individuals, the people, that make our company what it is today. Fitting then that we often hear “our people are our greatest asset”. That’s all well and good, but what does this have to do with the Ship of Theseus?
Consider individuals who leave our company. I’ll refrain to refer to them as rotten planks for sure, but for one reason or another they are no longer part of the ship. Often, they go to become part of the core frame of new ships, and that’s something we should be proud of. As they leave, we replace those planks with new ones. We have a continual intake of new individuals, new planks, who become part of the ship, replacing in some manner those parts that have gone. Therefore, at some point in time, does the company cease to be the same entity and turn into something different? I don’t believe so. I think there’s something that happens, or rather that needs to happen, for these new planks to become a true part of the whole.
First up, embracing our values. If we can stretch the ship metaphor a little, imagine our ship is painted grey. I like grey, great colour. But a new plank gets added, and it is a different colour — it’s orange. Ugh, orange. Nothing rhymes with orange. Anyone who looks at our ship now can instantly point to that plank and state “that one is not a part of the ship”. It’s distinctly different. I want to be very careful here — diversity is a very important part of our company and our culture and should be celebrated, but I feel we do need to share a common set of values — those guiding principles that direct how we act and behave towards each other. If we do not share a common set of values, it is like our company exhibits multiple personalities. Your experience with one team could be in stark contrast to your experience with another team, to the point where one might think “these teams are so dissimilar, they must belong to different companies”.
Secondly, embracing our strategic direction. Half the ship cannot sail in one direction, while the other half sails in another. It will rip itself apart. It is the same with our company — we must be moving in a common direction if we want to be effective. We hear many people ask, “what direction is our company going?”. I’m interested to turn the question around — what direction are you going? Your team? Your unit? Since we collectively are the pieces that comprise the company, whatever direction we are going is the direction the company is going. I feel the more important question we should ask is “am I going in the same direction as everyone else?” Luckily, there are certain planks on our ship who serve the purpose of steering us in a direction, acting as our rudder. However, unlike the ship, in our company we need to be listening to those individuals (appropriately called the Steering Team) and making sure that message filters down through all the layers so that each of the individuals who form our company can align on our direction of motion. I encourage you to understand the strategic direction of your company and see how it aligns to your day-to-day activity. If you cannot make that connection, talk to your immediate leadership. Can they clearly show how the activities of your team or unit reflect on the company strategic direction? If not, you may need to question if you are moving as part of the ship or trying to pull against the direction of motion.
I’ve been part of my particular ship for many years now. It’s been an interesting journey, watching as we adjust our course and continue to venture into new waters. What I find myself increasingly challenged with is that as I progress through the company, there are more people who are looking to me for direction, and I need to be increasingly conscious of my responsibility to them. As a leader, I’m not here just to facilitate day-to-day delivery among our teams, but also to exhibit our values as part of how I work and continually look for the course adjustments our teams need to make to stay true to our strategic direction.
I’ve enjoyed playing this thought experiment out in my head, and hopefully you find it thought provoking too. It’s also been a fun metaphor to explore — not often you get to call your executive team a bunch of planks! My parting thought: are you part of the ship contributing to the common direction and values, are you an orange plank or a segment trying to resist the flow, or are you simply a passenger being carried onboard without belonging or exerting any influence?