Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lessons from Chicken Little

We go through phases in our house where it's the same book for bedtime stories for my three-year old for a week or two. Right now, it's Chicken Little. If you read it every night, you'd over-analyze it too.

For those that don't know/can't remember, here's the version we're reading, abridged.

An acorn fell on Chicken Little's tail. Chicken Little announced her (his?) analysis: The sky was falling, and she was going to tell the king. Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky and Goosey Loosey all accepted C.L.'s conclusion and go along to tell the king. They all looked pretty foolish when the king plucked an acorn out of her tail feathers. They all laughed and went home.

Chicken Little did a poor job of thinking critically. Given limited information and other more plausible explanations, Chicken Little committed to a conclusion way too fast.

Every day at work, we're dealing with similar limited information problems. We're taking pieces of information, trying to get a better understanding and then, ultimately, making conclusions and recommendations about what to do next. Chicken Little's story is another version of the typical knowledge worker office.

It ticks me off that the king doesn't do anything to improve the advice he'll get next time because typically, neither does your boss.

Maybe in his fairytale world, he appreciates the interruption. At my work, the whole day is interruptions. It's what makes us so inefficient. What if the king helps C.L. unearth the reality by coaching her way through the analysis. "Chicken Little," he says, "what facts are you using to come to this conclusion? Are there other scenarios that could explain what happened? Have you done any research on what typically falls from above at this time of year? Have you considered what the composition of the sky is?"

"Oh, I see how that works," says Chicken Little, "if I pause and ask questions, I start to know more." The next panic may be avoided. We may move a tiny step closer to focusing on our priorities instead of being reactive. The king has to assume Chicken Little is teachable. Lucky for him, I haven't met anyone who isn't.

OK. Too much for three-year-old reading, but not too much for the office.

Our organizations are typically filled with power and fear. Solutions are not thoughtful and democratically generated, they're stamped with "draft" for fear of being overuled or they're laden with ego and personal perspective. People get more points for looking smart than they do for building a more efficient, sustainable organization.

We need to examine our styles. We're all afraid of coming off looking like Chicken Little, so we act like the king. It's not helpful in the long term unless you're putting on a show to justify your throne.

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