Collaboration: Lessons Learned from a Five Year Old

This past Sunday afternoon I found myself in the midst of a standoff with my five year old grandson, Miles. A few minutes earlier his mother had suggested that maybe I’d like to give him some help with a jigsaw puzzle that was partially completed. Both he and I thought this was a grand idea so we set to it.

I immediately noticed that while he had successfully located many pieces he had failed to complete the border. It looked like he had been focusing on the mid section of the puzzle. Here was an opportunity for grandpa to help! I began sorting pieces, looking for those that had the one flat side of an outer edge. Everyone knows that with jigsaw puzzles the most efficient approach is to complete the border then work toward the middle which I helpfully pointed out to Miles. He wasn’t nearly as excited about this information as I thought he would be but “Oh well, we do what we can!”

Within a few minutes I had sorted through the edge pieces while he continued to work the middle. I passed these over to him and he made the proper connection, always returning to working the mid-section of the picture.

Using my method things moved swiftly. Shortly thereafter I handed him what looked to me like the final piece of the border. He looked at it, turned it around in his hand and then declared, “Grandpa, you know I am the Puzzle Master.” I thought this was cute and replied that I knew he was masterful and had been doing a fine job. He continued, “I am the Puzzle Master and this piece doesn’t fit.” This struck me as odd; it was obviously the correct piece, so I suggested that perhaps if he tried the piece even though it didn’t look right it might just fit.  He gave me the first of several “looks” that would follow. He put the piece in, the edge was completed and he said “See, it doesn’t fit! I am the Puzzle Master and I say it isn’t the right piece.” OK, I was confused, here I was providing plenty of help and he was balking.

I thought about it for a moment. Maybe as the grandpa he only sees a couple of times a year my say so doesn’t carry a lot of weight. I decided to invoke the opinion of the one authority he always responds to, his mother. So I said that we’d have his mother look and if she said the piece fit it would override the Puzzle Master. After all, right is right, time was wasting and we had a puzzle to complete! This suggestion brought about the second of “the looks” from my grandson.

I asked his mother to come over, she did, immediately verified that it was indeed to right piece and went back to what she was doing. “Good”, I thought, “Now we can get on with the business at hand.” My grandson placed the piece into the proper place, gave me the third “look” and plopped his chin in his hand and started playing absently with the remaining pieces.

Someone needed to keep the project on task so I set about sorting pieces myself. As I found other matches I slid them over to my grandson and suggested where they might fit. He weakly replied that he didn’t think they would work so I turned them into their proper perspective and made the connections.

At this point my grandson sat back with a sigh and said, “Grandpa, I want to take a break…and I want you to take a break too!” OK then, I thought we were doing great but obviously finishing the puzzle was a top priority after all.

As we drove home I reflected on the puzzle incident. I was not happy with the experience and it didn’t seem that my grandson was all that happy either. What could have gone wrong? He had already completed quite a bit of the puzzle before I arrived, how had he done that without starting with the edge? Then it dawned on me, he had showed me the picture on the box several times, he was looking at the image on the box and finding the pieces based on the color patterns. This was a much more complex approach than I was taking, based on an entirely different set of criteria than I had been using, and he had figured it out himself. Geez! I suddenly realized that my idea of help was to show him the “right way” to get the puzzle done without asking him what sort of help he wanted from me.

As a manager you may have had this experience yourself when working with someone who reports to you.

Thinking back I realized that his mother had not said “help get the puzzle done” she had said “help you get the puzzle done.” Oops! Nice going Grandpa, rather than ask what was needed from me I assumed the value of my wisdom and experience and then proceeded to impose my will on my now unfortunate grandson. Oh dear!

Before getting on the plane last night, my reflection complete, I called the Puzzle Master and thanked him for what he had taught me.  He seemed to be glad that I had called but much more interested in playing Angry Birds Star Wars with his brother. And so it goes!