Saturday, November 21, 2009

Collaboration – Life Lessons From a Sandbox

Collaboration, teamwork, empowered teams ….

Buzzwords that we like to throw around, brag about, lay claim to and espouse as our personal mantra when telling others the “secret to our success”.

Collaboration was on my mind as I watched a group of kids playing in a sandbox and as I observed their behaviors, it occurred to me that it may be possible to predict tomorrow’s collaborators just by observing these young people.

Consider the following scenarios and ask yourself if they resonate within your own professional or personal circumstances.

The “Results and Fun” Group

The first group of kids I noticed were focused on the goals and appreciating each other’s contributions.  It didn’t matter how well dressed each kid was, how well spoken they were, how strong their personalities were or the quality of each contribution.  They were intent on building the sand castle and enjoying each other’s company as they did it.  They mattered to each other.  Ego wasn’t important.

Occasionally, some kids left this group, having been satisfied that his or her contribution and purpose had been satisfied.  They left quietly and the remainder of the group continued on happily, sometimes acknowledging the departure with a “see ya later”.

They also welcomed new additions to the group easily.  The newly added talent simply slipped into the production stream and the team continued without missing a beat.

Human creativity and collaboration at its best.

The “My Way is the Best Way” Group

The next group I observed were very busy in a different way.  They struggled with whose idea was best - “maybe there should be a moat around the castle” or “maybe the castle should have bigger walls”. 

During the fighting, some would start to cry and leave the group.  Some left in anger.  Some left in boredom when they realized their contribution didn’t matter.

Some stayed anyway, contributed for a bit and then suddenly kicked the castle down because they never liked it anyway – their idea was much better.

Having destroyed the results of the group, they walked to a different part of the sandbox and started an argument with another group of kids, intent on finding a group who agreed that their ideas were in fact the best.

The “My Way is the Only Way” Group of One

One kid was building castles by himself.  It didn’t take very long to figure out why.  Every time another kid showed up to help, the first kid would say “I want you to do this or that”.  When the new child would offer a new idea, it was promptly rejected.  Some kids were more stubborn than others in pressing their point of view but eventually, the stubbornness of the one kid was too much and the others left.

Sadly, he was alone the whole time I was there.  He had pushed everyone away.  I suspect it wasn’t the first time nor will it be the last.  I wonder if he felt lonely at all or was his need to be right more powerful than his need to play with others.

The “If I Wanted  Your Opinion I’d Give it to You” Group

One kid was struggling with getting his castle to stand without crumbling so he went over to another group of kids who were happily and successfully building their castle.

After much observation, he asked them why their castle didn’t fall over.  When they told him that you had to put just the right amount of water in the sand, he told them they were wrong.

After arguing with him for a minute, they ignored him and returned their focus to the task at hand.

The kid went back to his castle, got angry and stomped on it, walking away from it.  I overheard him telling his mother that the other kids wouldn’t help him fix it.  The mother didn’t help by reminding him that in this world, most people won’t help others.  The source of his programming was pretty clear.

The “Teamwork in Name Only” Group

One group of interest built a decent little sand castle and the parents were called over to admire it.  As they arrived, one kid in particular started to lay claim to the whole project – the design, the construction, the whole bit.  Some of the kids protested while others stood in silence with their heads down.  The one kid prattled on and on about “the best castle in the park that he built”.  I’m sure the hearts of the other kids sank as they listened to him – the potential for a collaborative spirit being torn out of them by one person seizing the rewards.  The long term effects, especially if this is not the first time, are varied and complex, either creating people who won’t collaborate or people who feel the need to take all the glory themselves when they get a chance.

The “Non-Creative Way is Safest” Group

This group was of particular interest to me.  There was a group of kids building a simple castle out of blocks of sand and a child came along and said “wouldn’t it be neat if ….” and made some observations.

His observations were quite creative but one kid replied “if we do that, it will fall down anyway so we won’t do it”.  The new kid offered a few suggestions as to why that wouldn’t happen and then walked away to play on the swings.

After he left, I was startled to hear one child say “it would be neat if …..” and repeated one of the other kid’s observations.  “That’s stupid”, said another kid, “nobody does it like that” and the latter with her bullying attitude carried the day.  The potential for a great castle died because the strongest personality in the group didn’t like the idea.

The “I Don’t Like Any Of Your Ways” Group

This group was the saddest group of all.  They in fact were not building anything in the sand.  However, they took delight in occasionally running through the sandbox, destroying everyone else’s work.

They had no intention of creating anything.  Maybe they felt they couldn’t.  I don’t know.  All I know is that they didn’t want anyone else to create anything either.

Looking In My Own Sandbox

As I observed this, I was both fascinated and saddened.  We are taught that we are a product of our life genetics and life experiences. 

The sandbox was in fact a microcosm of the world I have been a part of for a long time.

I started to think about the many groups I have worked with over the years and I realized I could categorize all of these people into one or more of these groups.

I have observed many successes and failures over the years.  The failures all fell into one of these groups – the leader who would not share credit but preferred the glory, the leader who delegated all the blame, the bully who crushed creativity and contribution, the leader who only liked their own ideas and nobody else’s or the leader who seemed to exist to take the wind out of the sails of others, crushing their projects and dreams without offering a contribution of his / her own.

Every one of those leaders eventually hit a brick wall in their personal or professional lives.  After alienating, driving away or ticking off so many people for years, they suddenly found themselves alone.  They may have had short-term success but long term success has proven to be elusive for them.

They missed the key ingredient that the first group I described knew all along.

The first group knew that we need each other.

That our collective ideas are stronger than single ideas.

That focusing on our result and not on our ego produces a better result.

That sharing the credit encourages us to continue to work together on new projects and assures us that others will stick around to help us with the next sand castle.

That embracing team creativity takes all of us further than if we chose to follow our own ideas only.

Collaboration creates much better potential for good memories as well.  In twenty years, you will be telling people the story of when you worked with so and so to build an incredible sand castle.  Not many people want to relive the time they scared everyone away or that they left in sadness that they didn’t appear to matter.

This brings something else to mind.

Maybe the next time a team is looking for a consultant to help them solve their collaboration problems, maybe we should pay a bunch of kids $1000 a day to allow us to sit and observe them.

They will not offer us “stuff” to please our ego or to tell us what we want to hear.  They will not offer advice influenced by their own life experiences which may be empowering or disempowering.

They will just be themselves and in doing so, place staggeringly profound lessons in front of us.

If we are open to those lessons, it may be the most authentic lessons we will ever learn, lessons that are placed in front of us with no ulterior motive.

Aren’t they the most profound lessons of all?

I wish you well with your own “sand castles”.

Yours in service and servanthood.


For my Musings-in-a-Minute version of “Collaboration – Life Lessons From a Sandbox”, please click here.

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