Sesame St. , Barney, & LOs LO9672

Joe Katzman (
Sun, 1 Sep 96 20:46:05 -0500

(Note to RK: Yes, this is a new title. First of all, the topic to which I'm
replying was a tangent to begin with in the "life in organizations" thread. No
sense perpetuating the confusion. Second, the nature of this post is unique
enough that I'd say it deserves to stand on its own. --JK)

Ben (,

I was thinking about some of the points you raised regarding positive mental
attitude vs. the need to be negative sometimes, and the funniest images popped
up in my mind:

1) Sesame Street
2) Barney

I suspect that your posts go to the heart of why so many adults love the
former, and instinctively hate the latter at a gut level. Furthermore, I think
there are some very important clues and lessons in these reactions for all of
us, and especially those of us striving to be change agents.

Why do so many people find Barney so infuriating? Because sometimes we're not
"a happy family." Sometimes we need to be with people whom we do not like, let
alone love. Because believing doesn't always make it so. That's reality. Many
adults feel, correctly, that what Barney promotes is not so much caring but a
state of denial approaching that of cult membership. A sort of "happiness is
mandatory, all will be well because Barney will make it so" approach. They
believe (and so do I) that the culture is the message, not the content - and
that the culture is forged in denial and dependence on a big authority figure.
No wonder some parents have gone so far as to forbid their children to watch
the show.

PMA proponents can seem kind of like that at times. Maybe change proposals and
proponents can as well? Examine your own answers to that, and ask yourself
whether your approach or the change process you're implementing has some of
that feel. It might explain some of the resistance you're facing.

Contrast the Barney approach with Sesame Street, which has gone to great
lengths and on occasion taken real risks so as *not* to duck reality. To wit:

- Oscar the Grouch is a major presence on Sesame Street, and the other
residents have to get along anyway. Sound familiar? Of course it does; every
office has its Oscar, and every one of us has a little bit of Oscar in them
sometimes. Do they exhort Oscar to become different, to develop a "positive
mental attitude"? No. They accept his grouchiness as who he is (and by
extension, a legitimate part of all of us) and work to cope through a
combination of wits, perseverance, and amused tolerance. On subjects where
Oscar is expert (grouches, for instance), they will even take him very

- Some people are incompetent. Grover often is, for instance. Nice guy, but
with 'help' like his... Anyone know a Grover? Anyone been one on occasion?

- Sometimes relationships are characterized by conflict, and sometimes someone
loses as a result. Ernie and Bert have totally different outlooks and
interests, and are always jiving on one another. Know someone like that? A
pair of departments? Yet Ernie & Bert are held together in the end by
acceptance and deep mutual respect.

- Big Bird could see the Snuffalapagus, and until recently he was the only one
who perceived that the creature was real. Anyone else ever felt like that, not
just as a kid but also within an organization?

- Some problems are very real. "Mr. Hooper is dead, Big Bird. People don't
come back when they die..." That's as real as it gets! We also have problems
like pollution that no one person can solve, though we should clean up own
trash if we don't want a 'glop, glop, grunchy, glub garden' (?) in our own
area. Etcetera. We can't make those things go away, but neither should be
forget all the important lessons and good things taught.

Unlike Barney, Sesame Street feels REAL. It doesn't deny conflict, or
negativity, or different perspectives. Sometimes conflict is real, and
sometimes terrible things happen. Sometimes a negative approach is even the
right one, in order to bring an off-kilter situation back on course. But the
show's lessons and caring are real, too, and we shouldn't forget them in the

What a great message! No wonder so many adults as well as kids love Sesame
Street. Its approach resonates with people, and they can accept it even as
they acknowledge that it has a strong idealistic component. Have you ever
heard of ANYONE forbidding their kids to watch Sesame Street?

Consider how many people have watched Sesame Street since its inception. 100
million? 500 million? Now ask yourself how many people have had their
behaviour influenced by watching that show. [Test: be on a stage in front of
an audience whose median age is 40 or below. At an appropriate point, but
without any explanation of what you're up to, reel off the numbers "1-2-3-4-5,
6-7-8-9-10" in tune, and point to the audience. Listen to how many people not
only respond "11-12," but do so *in tune*. It will scare you a little.]

Aside from being one of history's great values-transmission efforts, Sesame
Street has a change management record that should awe any expert. Perhaps
watching them for clues isn't as dumb as it first appears.

When managing a change process, therefore, I'd be inclined to pay very close
attention to the effort's rating and presentation on the "Barney <--> Sesame
Street Continuum." We know that culture is important in order to ensure
long-term success as a business, and especially as an LO. Perhaps using the
"Sesame Street vs. Barney" lens will help some of you to think about (and
maybe even communicate) a few of the important dimensions in a light-hearted
and memorable way.

Joe Katzman, MBA
Communications And Technology (C.A.T.) Consulting
"The more you know, the more you can imagine."
Phone: (416) 502-2223 Fax: (416) 397-4079


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