People sell thousands of management books with the promise of showing you how to create great ideas. Some companies or departments seem to churn out great ideas at an amazing rate, while others wouldn’t know a great idea if it was naked standing in front of them. No book can tell you how to create ideas but there’s an easy tip to creating environments where great ideas flourish. In fact, we can learn a lot from a simple children’s fairytale written by the great Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.
In 1839 H.C. Andersen published The Emperor’s New Clothes. It was originally going to be a simple morality story which taught a lesson about vanity. If you’re not familiar with it, do a quick internet search. (I’ll wait.) At the last minute the author decided to change the ending. Instead of everyone just seeing the king naked and admiring the invisible clothes, Andersen added a small child who reveals the emperor’s nakedness. This changed the moral of the story significantly. There was still a lesson about vanity but now we all have an invaluable lesson about “speaking truth to power.” That little boy also holds the secret to a truly creative workplace.
Many of us identify with that little boy. When we see things that are wrong, we feel compelled to speak up. However, most organizations don’t encourage or even tolerate that Andersen’s child in us. They don’t want us to expose their weaknesses or they don’t want to be challenged. Maybe they know things are wrong but they really don’t want employees or customers throwing it in their faces. Since these organizations don’t welcome feedback they are often exposed (both liability-wise and otherwise.) They don’t correct problems that are obvious to others.
Another, less obvious problem caused by squelching or ignoring feedback is that it also hinders creativity. Great organizations encourage the free flow of ideas. In this environment anyone can raise an idea to improve things. Those ideas don’t always see the light of day because everyone in the organization is able to (and even required to) check the idea against reality. If the idea’s not going to work, every person in the organization must shout it out. Every member of the best organizations is obligated to be Andersen’s little boy. Because of that, everyone is encouraged to come up with great ideas without worrying about going out into the world with no clothes.
Try it in your organization. Next time someone points out a reason why an idea won’t work, instead of being frustrated with their negativity, try thanking him/her but keep thinking up ideas. Some of them will be great.
I noticed a long time ago that even people I respected as highly intelligent and effective in their lives struggled with self-advocacy. Self-advocacy is widely recognized as an essential skill for each student in order to contribute to post-K-12 success as an independent citizen. Are we failing to teach that skill, or are many adults failing to retain it? When students’ IEP’s and Section 504 plans included language such as “Student will let teacher know when he doesn’t understand the homework assignment,” I have wondered how these students will achieve this goal when so many of the very capable adults I’ve known might well have failed to accomplish it.
Just last evening, a woman I admire, with academic and career credentials anyone would be proud to have, described her inability to ask a person whom she had hired to do work in her home to deliver the result he had been hired to deliver. The problem wasn’t that the worker was unable to meet my friend’s needs, but that my friend was uncomfortable simply asking for what she was paying for.
Maybe my friend’s reluctance was a creature of past discouragement. If one doesn’t think “asking” will work, why put oneself “out there”? Poet Maya Angelou said “Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it!” Maybe we’re somehow afraid of success.
Or maybe self-advocacy is too often identified with being “pushy” or “aggressive,” rather than task-oriented and self-assured. Are people reluctant to go after their needs because they simply are insecure about how to do so?
But let me encourage you a bit, at least as self-advocacy applies to your position as a pupil transportation professional. Consider carving out those requests that you must make for the sake of your student riders, from those things you’d just like to have in your work environment. Practice asserting yourself with supervisors to get the equipment, the changes, the personnel that you need to keep students safe. When self-advocacy is, in reality, for the benefit of students whose safety depends upon you, you’re obligated to take the plunge. Maybe if you (1) identify what they need; (2) develop a plan to get it for them; and (3) carry it out with good timing, respect, and awareness of the style and limitations of the people with the power to give you what you need for students, you’ll find you’re successful – at least some of the time. Maybe, then, you’ll try it in your personal life as well.
Long-time star of the Tonight Show, comedian Johnny Carson frequently played the role of Carnac the Magnificent, a “mystic from the east” who could psychically “divine” unseen answers to unknown questions. When student safety is in your hands, you can’t depend upon others being mind-readers. You’ve got to ask for what you need to keep students safe.
I recently had the opportunity to see the movie Argo. The lead character, Tony Mendez – played by Ben Affleck, is a CIA extraction expert. That means it is his job to help people the U.S. government considers “important” out of countries where they are in danger. This particular story involves trying to extract six U.S. diplomats from post-revolution Iran. (For those of you that haven’t read about it or seen the movie, I won’t spoil it for you.) Needless to say, if your job is so important that people’s lives depend on your performance, it is essential that you are thoroughly trained and ready for the mission. We’d like to believe that Mendez spent much of his career learning and practicing the essential skills for his job. He had to have studied and practiced foreign languages, foreign cultures, weapons, strategies, and tactics. Although we don’t see this in the movie, we know it to be the case. Mendez’ bosses would not have entrusted him with such an important mission if they weren’t certain he was the best person for the job.
As someone who has performed trainings both here and abroad, of course I feel training is important. Otherwise, why do it? In these tight budget times, some organizations are unwisely trimming and cutting their training budgets. We all know of the operation that barely complies with mandated training hours but really is just going “through the motions.” They might look the other way when a portion of the pre-trip is skipped. They might overlook a student’s serious medical issue. They might even ignore or minimize a parent’s complaint. When what they see or hear doesn’t match what they trained, instead of revising or increasing training, these managers often point to compliance with the mandated minimums. Unfortunately, when something goes wrong they use the same reasoning to assuage their guilt.
For those transporting students or educating students with special needs, many more than the six lives with which Mendez was concerned are actually on the line every day. Our customers expect and deserve a level of performance which is exemplary. Modifying a famous quote from Seneca: “Heroism results when training and opportunity meet.” It’s our job to ensure that the expertise really is there and ready for our critical mission. I know I take the responsibility of training very seriously. Those I respect in our profession do as well. We don’t have Ben Affleck making movies about what we do. Our heroic efforts get less publicity. However, make no mistake about it, they are no less important.
I recently reviewed a few newspaper articles that I’d saved for later consideration. One item that caught my eye was written before the November election. It created a “word cloud” of one of the presidential debates. A quote from a political consultant interested me – since, being a dinosaur – I hadn’t heard of a word cloud. The consultant said, “Word clouds display the narrative and trajectory of a campaign’s emphasis and direction. They are extremely helpful in cutting through the clutter to visualize the strategy of a campaign.”
Here’s what I’m wondering: What would a word cloud created from your presentation at a safety meeting tell about what’s important to you? What would such a cloud created from your enthusiastic “back –to-school” orientation reveal about your “emphasis and direction” for the year? How often does the word “safety” actually come up? Do words of caring and compassion for children play a big role? Are their words that are significant because of their absence, and words that demonstrate your strategies when depicted visually that you really hadn’t intended to be prominent?
My web search of “word cloud” tells me there are a lot of tools available for generating a word cloud of written text. Most of them come across as neat ways to create an art form: “You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes”; create something which is “visually stunning.” Others, however, focus on a word cloud as a means of analyzing a speech.
Political campaigns use word clouds to gauge the message they’re sending. Similarly, it could be interesting for each of us who communicates by written or spoken word to occasionally use one of the word cloud generators to see if we are saying what we mean, and are getting across points that are consistent with where we really want our emphases to be.
I think I’ll try it as I prepare for upcoming conferences. Perhaps you’ll consider doing the same for your own presentations. Let me know how/ if it works for you. — Peggy
Need a little motivation? Got the Winter Blues? Click on the Kid President link under Those Who Inspire Us.
Sometimes when you travel it seems like you run into the same person at various points along the way. Last week while traveling back home from the Dominican Republic where my daughter is teaching, I had one of those experiences. I saw the same woman at the ticket kiosk, baggage counter, magazine store, and security check line. It was at this latter point that I really took notice. She was in a very tight embrace with a younger woman (who I later learned was her daughter.) There were more than the usual hugs and goodbye tears.
The parent sat a few rows ahead of me during the flight to the U.S. and I could see that she remained very emotional throughout. As it turns out, she was near me during the 2 mile walk required to get through passport control and U.S. customs in the Atlanta airport. This is where I asked her the first three words: “Are you alright?” Well she wasn’t. During Atlanta’s poor imitation of the Bataan death march, she identified herself as “Sherri,” and revealed the horrible circumstances she was enduring. Her only child was in medical school in Santiago because they couldn’t afford a school in the U.S. She had sold many of her possessions and scraped together all of her savings to afford this one week visit with her daughter because the student was very homesick and was threatening to quit med. school. It was highly unlikely she was going to see her daughter again for at least 3 years.
Upon her return to the U.S., Sherri would face additional difficulties and many unknowns. Her abusive soon-to-be ex-husband was challenging every step of the divorce process. She was certain this would continue because he had been totally non-supportive of their daughter or her for the last few years. Sherri was also uncertain if she would be able to keep her 2 jobs. She had left her jobs abruptly when her daughter’s dreams were at stake. Read the rest of this entry
I had a gum graft last week. No fun, but not as bad as I’d anticipated. In fact, I was made more comfortable during the procedure with the help of a healthy dose of nitrous oxide. It’s a good drug, even if “laughing gas” is a bit of a misnomer. And, it’s not nearly as “magical” as the medication they administer intravenously so that one’s colonoscopy is less fearful than the preparation for it. But, I digress. The point of my story is that I had some insights during my “twilight time” to what it might feel like to be a student with a disability – restrained, movement limited, and in some cases (like mine, yesterday), basically unable to communicate. I couldn’t “do”; I was “done to.” I was at the mercy of the periodontist and his assistant. I trusted in their expertise, but couldn’t help wondering in the semi-paranoia induced by both the nitrous and the situation, if they knew what they were doing.
I amused myself by focusing on what I might say about this in a blog. That diversion helped to make me somewhat objective about the complete vulnerability I felt. Here are some observations.
• Sometimes touching a student’s body in the course of securing him or her cannot be avoided. Be aware that you’re doing it. Say something that recognizes and apologizes for what may constitute a privacy intrusion.
• Assume that the student is hearing and understanding every word you say to another person with whom you’re working. I happen to think my periodontist is a terrific guy, and I really like his assistant, but I didn’t want to hear even a little bit of conversing about their holidays – I wanted total concentration on my mouth.
• Soothe the student with reassurance that everything is going well. At the end of the procedure, Dr. Thomas said “You did awesome,” to which I replied, “How did you do – that’s the important thing!” In the course of the hour long procedure, I might have liked to know what stage we were at. I might have been glad to know that there was very little bleeding – an indication that I was unlikely to have the excessive bleeding reflected on my post-procedure instructions that would require extra care. You get the point. I’m not enjoying reliving the experience, and you probably don’t want to read more details about it. So, getting back to the student and the CSRS – It may seem obvious, and even patronizing to say “You’re all secure and ready for a safe ride,” but it can be very reassuring to the student.
Anyway, it might be valuable for you to reflect deeply about what it must feel like to be at the mercy of another. I highly recommend reading Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman, an award-winning book about a teenager who is “glued to his wheelchair, unable to voluntarily move a muscle-he can’t even move his eyes.“ Narrated by the fictional boy, it will add to your vision of vulnerability, much as yesterday’s experience added to mine.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Guangzhou (Canton) in the People’s Republic of China. Since this isn’t a travel blog I won’t bore you with the usual references to exotic sites and fascinating people. Among the many lasting impressions I will keep is a set of circumstances that are seared into my mind. Near death experiences have a way of doing that.
I’ve experienced countless unsafe modes of transport including Tuk-Tuks in Bangkok, dirt bikes in West Texas, illegal taxis in central Mexico, parachutes in San Diego, and elephants in Chang Mai. However, taxi rides in Guangzhou had the special distinction of bringing me face-to-face with death. As a matter of course, a Cantonese taxi ride involves prolonged periods where the car straddles the lane line. No doubt, in the driver’s mind this increases their options. At any instant they can switch lanes because, after all, they’re already partially in the other lane already. As a result, a taxi ride is frequently an exercise in attacking and defending. Sort of like a perverse fencing match with potentially similar results.
Near misses, in this setting, are extremely common. You would think that after one or two near misses the driver would learn to be a bit more cautious. However, we humans have a unique and amazing ability. We can rationalize and explain away these experiences so that we are more comfortable when we repeat them. This may sound trite and even whiny. However, in any safety sensitive business this is extremely troublesome. In fact, two Georgetown University researchers (Dillon-Merrill & Tinsley) have shown that people who escape near-misses are even more likely to repeat the risky behavior. Unfortunately for many of us, surviving a near miss teaches us how good we are at surviving rather than how close we’ve come to disaster. Each time we miss we become a little more confident and a little less cautious.
There is a reason the FAA defines a near miss as an event where two planes come within a mile of each other. Pilots are required to report these near misses. Were it not for this rule (verified by radar), most professional pilots (like some professional bus drivers) would be too self-confident to report it. More significantly they would be unlikely to change any of their behaviors or procedures. That is, of course, until the near miss isn’t a miss at all.
NOTE: Peggy and Pete will be taking a break for a couple of weeks. We’ll be back early next year to share, discuss, ponder, and laugh in our usual manner. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy we will be keeping our friends and families just a little bit closer during this holiday season. We encourage you to do the same.