Time to herald the wisdom of chickens

It is the ultimate hippie nightmare. The Grateful Dead, a band which for 30 years represented the cause of love, peace and LSD, is about to provide marketing lessons for 2010. Their fans, who liked to be known as Deadheads, once offered a stoned, smiling defiance of that all-purpose authority figure of the straight world, known simply as “the Man”. Now it turns that they were working for the Man without knowing it.

A book called Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, written by a couple of high-flying experts in entrepreneurialism, is about to be published. Next year a competing volume, Professor Barry Barnes’s Wisdom from the Grateful Dead, will be in the shops. Other works on the general theme of making bread from the Dead are on their way.

According to the business experts, the way Jerry Garcia and his band related to their audience from the late 1960s onwards has influenced Apple, Google and others. The Grateful Dead had what Barnes calls “dynamic synchronicity”. There was no obvious leader. In order to prove its freedom from financial greed, the band allowed itself to be ripped off now and then.

In the same spirit, there was no ban on taping at concerts, nor – at least until straight lawyers put a stop to it – was there any control of merchandising. By offering their followers those freedoms while ensuring that every public performance was a new and largely improvised experience, they established fierce loyalty among the Deadheads. Today’s breadhead business leaders would like some of that magic to work on their consumers. Or so the argument goes. To the non-entrepreneur, there is little sign of the Grateful Dead’s zonked-out altruism in today’s commercial world. In fact, without too much effort, one could probably manage to produce a whole library of inspirational business guides from 1960’s pop music – Creating New Markets The Dave Clark Five Way would be jostling for space in the bookshops with The Key Management Skills of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.

There is, it seems, a desperate hunger among business types for some code that will help them make more money. In recent years, an addiction to metaphor has been in evidence – business only understands how it works through the prism of an entirely different world. Before writers raided the hippie archive, there were management manuals based on Greek mythology, on classical history, on war.

Next it will be the turn of the natural world. Just as historically based business guides offer the comfort of the past, so wildlife can be seen as a model for management methods which are tough yet beneficial, providing rewards for the strongest while ensuring the survival of the species as a whole. This week a collection of lessons from nature will be published under the title Smart Swarms. According to the book’s author, Peter Miller, the way certain insects, birds, mammals and fish interact with one another can help businesses survive and prosper. Bees, for example, reveal the importance of seeking diversity within a team. When a bees’ nest becomes too large, members of the colony search the neighbourhood for another suitable site. They return to the nest, perform a “dance”. Those with the best dance will persuade the other bees to follow them. Companies could learn from the dancing thing, apparently.

Ants provide another lesson. For each task, precisely the right number of ants is involved, providing a model of efficiency. What the ants are telling us, in their own little way, is that bureaucracy is a bad thing. There are more lessons from termites (on handling the climate), reindeer (on sticking together as a herd) and fish (turning together at the same time).

It all sounds interesting enough but, as with the Deadheads, the application to the business world seems, shall we say, a little stretched. With a bit of ingenuity, one can find management lessons almost anywhere. I could argue without too much difficulty that the great unwritten management guide is The Wisdom of Chickens: Business Lessons from the Henhouse.

Everything that a modern manager needs to know can be learned from poultry, the book would reveal. A good manager will establish his authority with cockerel-like efficiency, crowing regularly, herding his staff together occasionally with showy little gestures, looking out for predators, and offering favours briskly and on an equal basis to all members of staff. The Wisdom of Chickens would provide an answer to the tricky question of maternity leave. As soon as a member of staff becomes broody, she should be ignored, apart from being sat on now and then. When she returns to the flock, she should be given a hard time for a day or so until she has settled back in. When the profitable world of business books tires of Jerry Garcia, termites and reindeer, it will the moment for chicken management to rule the roost.

Why is such a twerp taken to be interesting?

Anyone wishing to make the case against the English obsession with social class can do so in two words: Lord Bath. The owner of a hereditary title, the family seat of Longleat and an estimated wealth of £157m, Bath was born with certain advantages. He has used his money to write light, pointless novels, to daub rude pictures on the ceiling of his house and have a rackety private life. He goes about in studiously zany clothes, makes silly remarks about his “wifelets” and wears his hair in a pigtail.

There is nothing wrong in being a twerp, or even spending inherited wealth on your twerpish pursuits. What is truly bewildering, and reveals how deeply a cringing class-consciousness is part of the English character, is that this very ordinary man is taken seriously. He appears on chat shows, is mentioned in gossip columns. Now, unbelievably, Nesta Wyn Ellis has researched and written a biography, to be published this autumn. I hope she was well paid for her efforts. A man is deemed to be interesting and newsworthy simply because he is mildly dotty and was born with a title. So much for the classless society.

For further reading: ‘Smart Swarms : Using Animal Behaviour to Organise Our World’, by Peter Miller (Collins)

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Independent. Tuesday, 3 August 2010