Lessons on collaboration, from a 5 year old | Mike Cook

By Mike Cook
Contributing writer 

Last Sunday afternoon I found myself in the midst of a standoff with my 5-year-old grandson, Miles.

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. Here was an opportunity for grandpa to help.

I began sorting pieces, looking for those that had the 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 abut this information as I thought he would be.

Using my method, things moved swiftly. 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.”

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.

At this point I decided to invoke the opinion of the one authority he always responds to: his mother. I said that we’d have his mother look and if she said the piece fit it would override the “puzzle master.”

This suggestion brought about the second of the looks from my grandson. I asked his mother to come over, and she immediately verified that it was indeed to right piece. 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 said 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.” 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, and 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.

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.”

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.

Before getting on the plane last night, my reflection complete, I called the”puzzle master” and thanked him for what he had taught me.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

Tags: ,

Related Stories