The Lesson of Procrustes

Procrustes the metal worker—not to be confused with Krusty the Klown—was an important figure in Greek mythology. A son of Poseidon, Procrustes was an iron smith, thief, murderer, and inn keeper. He offered hospitality to strangers passing his place on the sacred byway between Athens and Eleusis. For a price.

Procrustes had a special bed that he offered to wayfarers. It was made of iron, and he liked to brag that the length of the bed was always an exact match for anyone who laid down upon it. Procrustes’ couch was, it seems, the Sleep Number Bed of its day, adjustable to fit all sleepers’ needs. Sort of.

How did Procrustes manage this trick? Here’s where the modern Sleep Number has him beat. Procrustes didn’t adjust the bed; he adjusted the sleeper. Was the bed too long for the occupant? The rack would serve to stretch the corpus to fit. Bed too short? Off with the legs. And, always, Procrustes was off with the dead wayfarers’ loot.

Theseus—a great hero, the founder and king of Athens, and also a son of Poseidon (the old man got around)—was legendary for the tasks he faced to achieve hero status, much like Hercules, in order to claim his Athenian crown. One of those tasks was to kill Procrustes. As Plutarch writes, Theseus overcame Procrustes "by compelling him to make his own body fit his bed, as he had been wont to do with those of strangers." As Gilbert & Sullivan advise, "Let the punishment fit the crime."

Customized Management

What, you may wonder, does this have to do with management and power? One mistake of managers and business executives—and it’s a much broader problem than just something facing managers—is to try to force problems into preconceived molds and solutions.

It’s important when faced with a problem to consider it carefully and find a solution that fits it, rather than forcing it into a premixed solution, a Procrustean bed. Templates and models are useful, but it is they that must fit the empirical circumstances, not the other way around.

A skillful manager makes the bed—the solution—fit the wayfarer’s needs. That takes a lot of knowledge, but more. It also takes craft and art. Making the bed fit the sleeper means listening carefully to the dimensions of the wayfarers’ problems. What are the real dimensions? Have we obtained enough measurements? Have we made the right measurements?

Crafting the solution to fit the problem also means exercising informed choices. What’s really important and what is fluff? What are the consequences of taking one action as opposed to another? What costs do those choices impose? How much is necessary and how much is sufficient?

Timing is important. Don’t try to envision how to make the solution work until the problem has been thoroughly scoped out and understood.

It’s too easy to take up the approach of Procrustes and adjust the problem to fit the solution. I fear that our political leaders, and some of our top business folks, too often approach daunting issues—spending, the economy, environmental protection—by emulating our misguided Greek guy. Stretch those problems on the rack until they fit the bed. Cut off those inconvenient legs.

Worse, they don’t seem to know when they are taking those kinds of actions. Worst, they don’t seem abashed when their Procrustean tendencies get exposed.

So, at many levels, from the day-to-day job environment to the world around us, Procrustes and his bed survive. It’s important to recognize the trap of trying to fit the evidence into the iron bed of preconception and convenience. It’s often easy to see a new set of facts and find that they fit—with maybe just a little trimming here and there, a nip and a tuck—into a familiar pattern.

Sometimes the bed fits. But be careful, because often it doesn’t, and the results of trying to fit the facts into our preconceptions can be misleading and dangerous to our companies, our jobs, our co-workers, and ourselves.

Ultimately, emulating Procrustes often results in the same fate he suffered. Having made our bed, we will be forced to recline in it, stretched to fit or sans legs.

—Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor

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