On Managing Column, Library
Administration & Management,
Volume 18 no. 1
September 3, 2003
Teams intrigue me. As readers know from a previous column, I have worked with many teams and have discovered that truly effective teams (ones that change things for the better) are rare. When that rare event occurs, there is a combined energy among the participants that exceeds that of individual team members. And, there is a collective joy in the doing.
I’ve been part of accidentally effective teams that got the job done - we clicked. That success proved elusive when we formed other teams – even when we kept on most of the members from a successful project. I’ve come to realize a team’s success is more than personalities, more than the right blend of talents, more than the resources or support available to the team – it is a complex recipe. And, sometimes, when everything is how and where it should be, the cake still falls flat.
This story takes place about the time my own library was nearing the conclusion of an experiment with self-managing teams. Since I was leading the initiative, I was puzzling a lot about the dynamics required for effective teams. Our experiment was a full faith top down effort, but, frankly, we had little return to show for the investment: a few qualified successes but many of our so-called teams acted like the departments and committees of old. Not exactly failures but they were hardly the creative and energetic groups we desperately needed in the run up to the Internet era. So, during one Easter Week in Guatemala in the mid 90s when I saw teams that supported each other, that beamed with the glory of what they were doing, that made steady progress toward an ethereal goal, I was profoundly impressed.
I was in the city of Quetzaltenango (the busses tag it Xela - pronounced "shay-la"). On the Pan American highway, at 7700 feet, its proximity to the Mexican border and to ancient, still active, trade routes keep it an important provincial city, the second most populous in Guatemala. There’s a lingering architectural grandeur from its 1900s coffee-boom era, buildings still grand, if cracked from earthquakes and a wartime economy. And, adding an exotic appeal for many gringos like me is that Xela has always been a place of opportunity for the Maya, both sustaining the individual culture and blending the Mayan and Spanish heritages.
Xela sits in a vast valley. From the steps of the elevated Civic Theater the bronze busts of noted Quetzaltecos gaze across an urban mélange of squat fortified offices and stores. Beyond, looms the Santa Maria volcano, puffing steam clouds into an icy blue sky.
Tour books recommend Xela as a day trip base to indigenous villages for shopping for weavings and for exploring things Mayan. A jarring bus ride away is Momostenango (just about 100% indigenous) with its prayer hills and a much-rumored school for shamans. In another direction, lies the mist-laden Laguna Chicabal, a Mayan sacred lake in an extinct volcano’s cone rimmed with offerings of living wooden crosses entwined with fresh calla lilies.
Easter week (Semana Santa) had complicated my travel to Xela – most of the country shuts down for the week. I knew about the weeklong celebrations in Antigua and Guatemala City, ones that date back to the 1600s and are televised throughout Latin America, but since I am serendipitous in travel, I did not know what to expect in a provincial capital.
It turned out there were to be multiple sumptuous processions from the seven principal churches, interspersed with a number of unheralded and humbler processions, including some from brotherhoods (Mayan cofradias). The latter are less imposing, with music blaring from a boom box, and a modest float (anda), shouldered by a half dozen people. At night, a car battery pushed alongside on a U-haul cart pragmatically lights the light bulbs strung above. It seemed every group in the community was to be there – an ex-pat American staying at my hotel averred how the town’s prostitutes have a procession dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. It was late in the afternoon when I saw the first of the processions around the central square (the Parque Centro America). Amidst the quietly observing crowds, I heard and saw the swaying approach of the massive wooden platforms. Each side of the anda rests on the shoulders of the people underneath. Often dressed in purple cap and gown, each follower bears his share of the burden in step to the doleful music from the trailing band. Slowly, ever so slowly, the andas make their way around the park and down the side streets, back to their sponsoring church. The procession’s ceremony, its solemnity and grandeur, and most importantly for me, the strong teamwork among the hundreds of participants captivated me, drew me in to think about what I was seeing. Like a Guatemala tourism web site prosaically puts it: “Lifting (the anda) takes a great deal of effort and cooperation.” How and why does that effort and cooperation come about?
Team Progress. A procession moves slowly, there is something elephantine in its movement but there is steady forward progress with the burden they are carrying – the polished dark wood platform supporting a full sized statue of one or more of the participants in the crucifixion, the Passion. My most memorable one was of Jesus weighed down with a tree sized cross.
Contributing to the slow movement are the dozens of participants, as many as 30 men or women (never mixed) on each side of the platform. Imagine turning a corner with 120 legs, some wearing high heels! But probably the major reason their progress is not as quick as it could be is that for every three rolling steps forward they take two back, and then move one step left and one to the right, describing the sign of the cross. This is done in time to the lugubrious music of the 30-odd-piece band following each of the processions.
It struck me that this is not much different from how organizations advance - for every few steps forward one or more are taken backward. While the religious processions pursue the sacred, we librarians tend to believe our goals are of a purposeful high order, secular, but certainly in encouragement of mankind’s betterment. If all of us carrying the load are to achieve the goal, it is going to be a long and arduous journey, with, at times, little progress.
But, poco a poco, amidst the smoke of the incense, the funereal music of the band and the tinkling of the ice cream vendor cart's bell, there is progress, even if it literally takes all day to get around the park.
Leading and Following. How do the people shouldering the platform keep centered on what they are doing? How is the vision communicated to them so they stay on course? On a side street, I noticed a man shooing people away from a tree along the route – at a midpoint where the load might feel the heaviest on sore shoulders and strained backs. The tree had nailed to it, high up, a framed picture of the saint - a reminder for those bearing the load that this was the reason for their labor; this was the purpose of their journey. Since they could not see beyond the base of the platform, could not see the statue on the anda, this was a visual reminder of what they were about.
And so it is for us in our day-to-day work to reflect on what we are about, to remind ourselves about the higher purposes of our work. Do we have a tree to look at and draw strength from? I noticed that many of the carriers and musicians seemed to derive comfort from that picture.
Community. While each procession had 60 or so carrying a platform at any time, probably another 90 men or women were moving alongside – followers on a journey - ready to take up the burden.
And they did, regularly, after so many blocks.
If a participant faints or has to step aside, the procession stops and one of those alongside is asked to step in. Once in place, the procession starts up again. Much of this is more than happenstance – it is turn taking. Spots under the anda are negotiated for months - some churches charge a fee for anyone to walk with the float. Many are willing to pay a higher price to feel the weight of the anda on their shoulder, to lend their bodily support. Along the most visible parts of the route – when the anda emerges from the church and re-enters at journey’s end - the price of followership quintuples.
The community’s support for those in the procession is made manifest in the side streets. Alfombras are street carpets, stretching from sidewalk to sidewalk for 20 or more yards. Created from colored sawdust and flowers they can feature pre-Hispanic abstract motifs. Twenty hours in the making, it takes less than two for the alfombra to be obliterated by the processions shuffling across. Like the picture in the tree, the processionalists see at their feet the evidence of their purpose and the community’s support.
There is, too, the strong support from the spectators. On Good Friday, the central park overflowed with families, couples, and a few obvious turistas. On that night, it was, as someone described it, hallucinogenic. The clouds of incense, the flood lights on each of the swaying platforms, under the full moon, with the thousands of spectators and the faces pressed alongside the dark wood of the platforms, something akin to a frieze by Goya. There was a determination in those faces that said to me each is there because of a personal belief. They are there because of a commitment to a purpose outside of themselves, not because someone has told them to be there, to follow a priest’s or cofradia chief’s command.
Does my experience in Xela have anything to do with teams at work? We are on this journey together and we are mutually dependent. The travelers in Xela supported each other. The many alongside and in the crowd, encouraged them in their journey. How do we support each other; does one side move in the same direction as the other side?
A few weeks later the events of Semana Santa contrasted sharply with a library experience. My library had an annual controlled catastrophe, the flood of books at semester’s end. The returned books went into a sort of book purgatory, pretty much lost to the reader. Embarrassed more than usual by frustrated users, the Circulation team, with the approval of the administration, put out a library wide S.O.S: “Come and help us shelve.” There’d be food and drink and other encouragements for volunteers. Of a staff of 200, about 10% took part. Ninety percent of the staff was too busy to help out, to help out with supporting a basic function of the library – assuring that needed books would be found. And, only the myopic could fail to see that thousands of unshelved books touched everyone’s work, not just the shelving unit’s. Had this been an anda in Xela, it would never make it out the door. Where was our sense of purpose, our sense of community? Had we grown too proud to see much beyond our immediate circle?
I suppose once Semana Santa concludes in Quetzaltenango, the bonhomie recedes. But, during that holy week, for that moment, when participants put aside differences, share the burden, and focus on the task at hand they achieve an enviable state of togetherness. The individual merges with the group to get to the goal, to be there, to feel the joy of a collective human-ness. Our work offers us the same opportunity.
Author’s note: John Lubans is Visiting Professor at the School of Library and Information Sciences, North Carolina Central University. Contact him via his web site: www.lubans.org