Lessons from the School Playground

As a parent of four children who recently migrated to a new grade school environment, I have gleaned some things from their transition.  Let’s call them Lessons from the School Playground, and they pertain to business leadership.  Specifically, I have detected several very specific policies and actions that work, and some that don’t.

First, I observed from our new school that the scholastic environment is very controlled and involves a very linear thought process. Obviously, there must be controls and strong discipline or work simply wouldn’t get done.  But, in this type of environment, the child that traditionally follows the rules, listens to the teacher and executes as instructed, prevails.  If by chance, you are a creative thinker and challenge the status quo and behave outside the instructed norms, well, you are toast.

At my children’s new school, there’s a “lock-down” at lunch and “quiet time” for 10 minutes after lunch to concentrate on clean up.  I gather the “lock-down” coincides with the “quiet time” for maximum efficiency. Of course, the children think this is absurd and see the principal more as a warden than an academic motivator. They may be right.

The second observation specifically pertains to the school playground and is referred to as a “lock-out.” The playground rule requires that no matter who you are and what you are doing, you may not exclude another child who asks to play. Compared to the “lock-down,” which restricts mobility with no possibility for escape, playground children can get around the lock-out policy. They craft elaborate systems to avoid playing with those they don’t like without appearing to violate the policy.

For example, a group of children playing together will choose  a more likeable child to play, while telling the newcomer they don’t like to join a more interesting game on the other side of the playground. If that fails, the children then will place a fake complaint about the newcomer in the complaint box. The next day the newcomer is punished and misses recess. Objective accomplished.  Plus, the principal calls the parents in to share all of the complaints about the child.

For both children and business leaders, the key challenge involves understanding that the only way to really succeed and realize your full potential lies in being a creative thinker, challenging the status quo and thinking outside the box. As Albert Einstein said, “The level of thinking that has created the problems of today will not be the same level of thinking required to solve them.”  So to be solution-oriented, we must break out and think at a level above the norm.  Yet dissonance can trigger consequences that bring more boundaries and control.  And that’s just what we wanted to avoid in the first place!

The solution, of course, involves remaining on the cutting edge of thought without constantly winding up in the principal’s office (or your superior’s office).  To be clear, I don’t condone the manipulation of the “lock-out” policy by the kids at school.  I do, however, applaud the creativity used to get out from underneath the schools’ behavioral control and, at the same time, to retain their freedom to express themselves in the manner they choose. Therein lies the solution.

The school, like many business leaders, has the right objective: maintain a productive and disciplined environment that maximizes performance. But the strategy of lock-down, lock-out and quiet time goes in absolutely the wrong direction to achieve the desired outcome. Schools, and business, must manage group coordination in a way that stimulates learning and produces results without an overabundance of control and rigorous linear thought.

The problem for academics and business, frankly, is that it is easier to manage with bureaucracy, control and linear thought. It is much more difficult to manage through vision, passion and out-of-the-box thinking. Unfortunately, while the command-and-control method is easier on leadership, it is less motivating and harder on the rank and file. Taking a lesson from our school, students will spend most of their time pondering ways to avoid the systematic control policies, and in the end, they will be less motivated and productive.  In their new book Empowered, Forrester analysts Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler demonstrate this same lesson of employee empowerment in the real world.

So, for optimal performance in business, take the difficult route. Spend time articulating the vision and objectives and give your team the freedom to create the method to achieve results. Build motivation and compliance through enrollment and empowerment. Give leadership the proper training to manage complex-team and diverse-team dynamics through guidelines, coaching and support. Encourage teams to be creative, think in a non-linear fashion and seek solutions in areas that don’t exist today, or up and coming ideas and technologies.

Stephen Covey, in his book 7 habits of highly effective people, talks about the power of self motivation that emanates from a personal objective and passion rather than specific mandates and control. When he told his son to keep the lawn “clean and green,” that mandate was generally disregarded. However, when his son adopted the “clean and green” challenge as his own passion and purpose, the results proved far superior.

Therefore, here’s the playground lesson: The key to success involves creating compliance through ownership, not through command and control. Try it! The results will be worth the effort.