Bats flying into plywood: The business school lesson I remember most

It has been 15 years since I earned my MBA and almost 20 years since I earned my bachelor’s in information systems from the same business school. Since then I have forgotten a lot of detatils from classes like Finance, Economics, and COBOL programming. There are, however, lessons I remember. One of those happens to involve bats flying into a sheet of plywood.

I think I learned this lesson during an undergrad class, but it could have been an MBA class. I took several classes with Professor Kurke. He had a creative teaching style that I enjoyed as exemplified as when he told us about bats in order to teach us about leadership.

Bats flyingAs he explained, bats have poor eyesight and primarily use echolocation (sonar) to navigate and locate prey. However, sonar takes a lot of energy, so when navigating familiar areas–such as leaving their cave to hunt for food–they fly from memory rather than expend the energy for echolocation.

This means that if you put up a piece of plywood just outside the opening of a cave bats leaving the cave will crash into the plywood because they were just flying from memory. On the way back and for a few days later the bats will use their sonar to avoid the obstruction. Then they’ll get used to it being there. If you remove the plywood they will continue to fly around where it was until they are motivated to use their sonar again.

I’m not sure who the asshole scientist was who made unsuspecting bats fly into a sheet of plywood just to prove his point. Something softer, like a mattress, would have worked just as well.

What I do know is that I remember this story more than I would have remembered some dry lecture about how humans have a tendency to operate on autopilot and may not notice that the environment has changed until they are hurt by it. In fact, I’m sure we probably also read a business case to reinforce the lesson, but I can’t tell you anything about what it was.

I do still remember those bats. I think of them whenever I’m in a meeting with people who seem to be blindly following the same path without checking to see if they should change their ways. Perhaps I should bring some plywood to place outside the conference room door.

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