Squeezing Wisdom Out of a Mouse and a Louse

Image of a person holding a collection of poetry by Robert Burns

Planning is a big part of every executive’s business life, but reading Robert Burns isn’t. And that’s a shame because if planning has a poet laureate, Scotland’s famous bard is it.

Executives, for example, can gain a great return on time invested sitting down with To a Mouse. Formally entitled To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, the 48-line poem published in 1785 offers pure business wisdom. Whether or not you should enjoy it with a wee dram of whisky and some haggis is open to debate. But the fact that it offers great management lessons based on Burns’s experience as a farmer is not.

In the fall of 1785, Burns was ploughing a field, probably with a horse-drawn, hand-held plough. As the story goes, he mistakenly ran over a mouse’s nest, leaving the rodent in question homeless for the winter. As an ardent animal lover (read On Seeing a Wounded Hare Limp by Me, Which a Fellow Had Just Shot At), he was so distraught by this sad turn of events that he composed his famous poem about it on the spot.

After profusely apologizing to the mouse in Stanza Two and acknowledging in Stanza Four that it was too late in the season to rebuild, Burns gets to the point on planning in Stanza Seven that executives should heed:

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be in vain:
The best laid schemes (plans) of mice and men
Go often askew.
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy.

Stanza Eight closes with the observation that the mouse is lucky in only being concerned with the here and now, while humans are always looking backwards and forwards, adding to their stress and anxiety. This, of course, offered no comfort to the mouse facing winter with no shelter.

“Anyone who can squeeze wisdom out of a mouse and a louse is going to be educational, interesting, and entertaining.”

Burns’s mouse poem inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, which also offers a business lesson with its discouraging Great Depression theme that suggests individual effort and motivation may be a waste of time when failure seems a certainty because the system is so biased against you. That’s tough reading, but it can be good for executives needing perspective on the effects of some of their decisions on individuals, families, and communities.

That schemes or plans can go askew should not be news to anyone in management. Acquisitions unexpectedly falter all the time. Products get rejected by markets every day. New hires frequently fail to live up to expectations. Creditors unexpectedly call in loans. Customers change suppliers without warning. Bear markets never actually roar before killing new stock issues. Emerging nations rarely give warning when nationalizing foreign assets. As you read this, business plans around the world are being disrupted by the digital wave.

When plans go askew, the answer is as clear as it is paradoxical: plan some more. Even more bizarre: the response to plans that work is also more planning. As former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower—who led the D-Day invasion in 1944—brilliantly explained:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything…. the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore, it is not going to happen the way you are planning. So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven’t been planning you can’t start to work, intelligently at least. That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourself steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve—or to help to solve.

One does not normally expect executive insight from someone known as “The Baddest Man on the Planet,” but undisputed former heavyweight boxing champion Iron Mike Tyson further nails planning with a colourful twist on Eisenhower: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In other words, the fight never goes as expected, which is why relentless planning is more valuable than any plan.

Simply put, the key to winning market fights is being the best improviser, and planning is the path to effective improvisation. Indeed, only through institutionalized and disciplined planning do organizations get the adaptability, agility, and mobility so necessary for prospering in a rapidly changing world full of capable and ruthless competitors. So, plan what to do while being ready to make abrupt and dramatic shifts as soon as you do it via continual scenario-building. Effective managers constantly play “what if” by conceptually and analytically testing out possible future twists and turns in the business environment.

Okay, back to Burns, who offers more good executive advice (which is worth framing for display) in To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church. In this 1786 poem, he writes:

Oh, would some power give us the gift,
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us.
And even devotion!

Things often go poorly in organizations because executives fail to even remotely understand how others see them. If you see yourself as humble, caring, transparent, inclusive, and accountable, you might very well be seen as an arrogant, self-absorbed, unforthcoming, divisive, and buck-passing executive. It is not for naught that the Hans Christian Andersen story about the Emperor and his new clothes, which were no clothes at all, has endured since 1837.

That said, while you think about getting a new mirror, I urge you to sit down for a mentorship session with Robert Burns. Anyone who can squeeze wisdom out of a mouse and a louse is going to be educational, interesting, and entertaining.

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact John.McCallum@umanitoba.ca.

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