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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

United We Fall

by Ira Bryck

I didn't grow up knowing much about trees. My childhood home was in a baby-boomer neighborhood where the developer was kind enough to leave one giant oak tree on each plot. Our neighbor's fell on our house, smashing the eaves. Then ours (dubbed "Lonesome Louie") got revenge, doing even more damage. I learned my first factoid about trees: that there's just as muchwood in the roots as above ground; and those roots reach out two to three times wider than the branches. You can't just go around cutting up that tangle of support without wreaking some havoc.

I have another freestanding fact about trees, gleaned from watching both the tree lined streets of Long Island go bald from Dutch Elm disease; and all the Bradford pear trees on my store's South Main Street die from one simple infestation of whatever disease kills Bradford Pear trees.

It was many years ago, so the first time I ever heard anyone explain the benefits of diversity. More kinds of things, the harder it is to kill them all. Whether it's many kinds of trees, people, thinking; the more the merrier, and the heartier.

So it's sort of ironic that there's so much striving for "shared vision" and "getting everyone on the same page," as if it will have some sort of preventative or even curative effect from all the evils and enemies that kill the un-unified.

Of course unity is essential. The car can't go if the wheels are not pointed in the same general direction. The construction delays on the Tower of Babel are legendary.

In business and in life, you do want to be efficiently pointed; and have some grasp of what your colleagues are trying to say. But not so much unanimity that only the most vanilla ideas can pass through the super-efficient filter. Better your company have a certain level of chaos, if there's a way to interpret it; a healthy dollop of nonsense, if it builds the immunity against big portions of boredom and mediocrity.

But in tolerating a variety of perceptions, you don't want to be like the six blind men examining an elephant. One felt the elephant's side, and declared he was feeling a wall; another grabbed a tusk, and claimed an elephant is like a spear. The third man, holding the squirming trunk, insisted an elephant was a type of snake. And so on: hold the ear, the elephant is a fan; hold the tail, elephant equals rope.

You'd fire these guys in a minute, but what if you're like them? At least they're not all feeling the tail- you have to give them that. In that company, you'd have a team of people all wondering why their rope was losing market share.

But how to know what you know, and what you don't know? If we could know what we don't know, wouldn't that be great!? We'd never get caught looking dumb, because we'd know when to keep our mouths shut. Instead of having to take a chance that our next utterance might be genius, might be moronic.

I think the best we can hope for is to create an appreciation for diversity of opinion, for taking a chance, for spending time reaching into the unknown: not knowing exactly when you're grasping at straws, and when you're going to get the gold ring.

This is one of my philosophical harangues that ends up in a sales pitch for the UMass Amherst Family Business Center. It begins with trees, segues into cars, towers, elephants, straws and gold rings. Then it ends up by saying that our community- our environment- is the perfect laboratory for reaching out. People come and become better at learning, better at thinking. Better at picking the brains of others, and Eureka!! You become better at picking your own!!

One of the great compliments I receive on a regular basis from members and prospects is that they feel smarter and more honest at UMass Amherst Family Business Center meetings than other meetings. How could this be? It's the safe harbor feeling: no bragging, no selling, the recognition that we are all different types of trees, making a very powerful forest.

Once again, I invite you to take a look. Start by giving me a call. You have nothing to lose. Or maybe you do, and maybe this is the perfect place to lose it.

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