This tweet has stuck with me for years. It makes me smile. I’m not sure I could even pick a third favourite specific reptile, but I’m fairly confident in saying that crocodilians are my third-favourite order of reptiles. I’ve never had this conversation at work, though.
But what if I’d had this conversation at work? Corporate brainstorming is often pretty boring and not terribly creative. Thinking rarely ever gets outside the departmental mindset, let alone the metaphorical “box.”
But what if we got the juices flowing arguing about turtles vs. tortoises? And then some know-it-all throws tuataras in there and everything goes off the rails? I mean, if companies really wanted out-of-the-box thinking, what better inspiration than a reptile with a third eye?
However, neither small children nor early childhood educators tend to head up corporate teams, and so this free-wheeling approach to knowledge sharing doesn’t come up much at offices. Also, if you’ve ever been drawn into a discussion about dinosaurs with a five-year-old, you know you might as well just write off the rest of your day. So much for those OKRs.
But what if kids did run things? Or we at least worked like kids? What if those of us in the tech sphere thought and acted more like kids?
There are fronts upon which youth is very much valued. Twenty-two-year-old entrepreneurs are popular because they don’t know what they don’t know, they’re malleable and they’re game for anything. Endless ideas, sky-high confidence, lots of energy, willing to work-work-work, never getting hung up on excessive bureaucracy or “corporateness.”
Given the growth expectations put on funded companies, who else would be willing to not only get on that mechanical bull, but to keep feeding it quarters and ride it out to the bitter end?
What could we accomplish at work if we didn’t yet know (or at least hadn’t yet internalized) what we’re good at or bad at? If there’s singing or dancing or drawing to be done, kids don’t hum and haw and drag their feet, saying they can’t carry a tune in a bucket, or they couldn’t draw a convincing stick person. The music starts and they sing, they groove, and they’ll make art with anything at hand. Popsicle sticks! Macaroni! Glitter glue!
I don’t know a single adult who wasn’t, at some point in their lives, discouraged from doing something, either something they’d just started or something they loved or were really curious about.
It might have been explicit discouragement, or as a result of something someone in a position of authority said, or the way they acted, when they withheld instruction or encouragement, or when they were dismissive or laughed at something sincere.
Don’t talk so much, you’re not good at math, you’ll never make a living at that...
By the time we’re adults, we are well primed to sit down, shut up, do what we’re told, don’t try anything wild or crazy, and don’t get any bright ideas.
Now, admittedly I have no idea how any company would work if everyone spoke their minds at all times, randomly got up and ran around, shouted out whatever came to mind, scribbled on random surfaces, zoned out and picked their noses, etc.
But surely a little more random creativity and liveliness would be preferable to 70-slide PowerPoint presentations and week-long workshops in windowless grey conference rooms. Granted, kids wouldn’t suffer in silence. They’d make faces and flop around dramatically and loudly announce, “I’m booooored.” Or they might just fall asleep bonelessly wherever they’re sitting. Any of these reactions are fair, frankly.
Instead of information silos and office politics and dotted lines and competing priorities, imagine if we functioned like story time. Everyone settled in, focused, facing (more or less) the same direction, for the single purpose of listening and learning and being enriched.
Imagine instead of competing or sabotaging or not pulling our weight, we made sure we were involved in taking care of each other and took turns being the focus, like who was going to braid whose hair? (But professionally and consensually.)
Now, where money is concerned, a kid-like perspective is a crapshoot. Kids rarely have a reality-based concept of money and what things cost. They’re like really rich people that way. You don’t want to build up a successful startup and have someone come along and offer to buy it for $1,000 and have some kid in the C-suite who thinks that’s a HUGE amount of money! At the same time, I’m pretty sure kids wouldn’t take trillion-dollar valuations seriously, either. Good call.
Kids can be pretty industrious and laser-focused if there’s something they want and they have to save for it. Sure, like anyone they’d rather have instant gratification, but most kids get it and will invest themselves if given a path to success.
They understand that consistent hard work and small amounts of money add up when you keep at it. Which is a good way to teach valuing building things, sticking with a big job, appreciating incremental progress, and even just appreciation anticipation. People (large or small) who never have to delay gratification are often…difficult.
Do you see six-year-olds trying to IPO and exit in 18 months? No, you do not.
Kids understand some elements of building strong teams. Everyone who is nice and does the work is part of the group. When something goes wrong, and if adults don’t interfere, children’s justice is swift, broad and harsh. Do something mean, and “you’re not my friend any more.” And then I tell my other friends, and they won’t talk to you or play with you, either. Imagine, not a single hush-hush HR meeting or NDA involved.
Plus, tomorrow we may well be back to being best friends again, all will be forgotten, and the work continues apace. No office politics or, you know, Milton Waddams burning the building down.
Now, yes, kids can have some issues that are really detrimental to strong teams. Like cliques, or if you don’t do a good enough job of trying to fit in or do what everyone else is doing (or what the self-appointed boss says). That can lead to big issues and ostracization. And yeah, things can break down and get real messy when two people want the same role or the same project, and then people take sides. And kids absolutely do remember the really mean people pretty much forever.
Who was your mortal enemy in Grade 4? See? Told you.
Ultimately, we can’t fill our C-suites with children to helm our companies, because that would be illegal. But we can take a moment when we find ourselves in various situations and wonder how, with a kid’s perspective, we could approach or react to a situation. Especially those that are clearly not working in a way that makes logical sense, or when bureaucracy has taken over.
And hey, next time someone new joins your team, go right ahead and ask what their third favourite reptile is. But if they say “frog,” don’t eat lunch with them.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org