Mulla Nasrudin's Donkey: A Workload Issue

What can a story about a traditional Persian folk hero teach us about management? In this article, I look at the Mullah's experiment with improving his donkey's running costs, and the lessons we can learn from it.

Mullah Nasrudin decided to reduce his outgoings by reducing the amount of food his donkey ate. Sensibly, he didn't suddenly halve his donkey's food intake, but gave him a little bit less each day. After a few weeks, the donkey dropped dead from starvation.

What a shame", said Mullah Nasrudin. "If only he had lived: I was almost at the point where I'd trained him to live on nothing at all.

So what can we learn from this, from a management perspective?

  • Don't keep incrementally reducing your workers' "food". I have noticed, as have others, that it is becoming more and more difficult in England for teachers to be allowed out of school to attend courses. I'm not sure how you can expect teachers to willingly embrace and experiment with new ideas, and learn from colleagues in other schools, if you constantly reduce the opportunities for them to do so.

And if you tell me that they can do more and more of this stuff online, then I will respond that:

(a) face-to-face is still much better than online for some things;

(b) online interactions should be seen as complimentary to face-to-face, not a substitute; and

(c) when are you expecting teachers to do it anyway? In their own time? Many do, but that's no reason to build it in as an expectation.

  • Don't keep incrementally adding to to people's workload. Asking them to do more and more with the same resources is exactly the same, in effect, as reducing their food intake. It's true that many teachers willing take on more and more anyway, but eventually something will "give", such as their health.

I recall one staff meeting in which the boss said that he was really pleased with the progress being made. He said people were coming in early and staying late, and sometimes even coming in at weekends, and that as a result we were meeting all the targets in our strategic plan.

However, he was very concerned about the increase in the amount of short-term absence, with people taking two or three days off because of a migraine or a cold, and that he was therefore going to be bringing in a new sickness procedure to put a stop to it. Who said that Dilbert was just a comic strip?

  • Part of our "food" is the expression "Thank you". Many people will take on all sorts of things in return for a genuine expression of thanks. I don't think you need to go over the top, like taking all your team to Barcelona for a week. But saying "thanks", supporting them if they are are having problems and, yes, having an end of term/semester meal -- all of those things count.

Staff are not donkeys. Managers should avoid being like Mullah Nasrudin!