It’s amazing what a toddler and a box of cheerios can teach you. Eating healthy, math, using a spoon, how to diffuse a tantrum, your place in the world, the limits of your patience…
But I was shocked one day when my little boy taught me something about government when he demanded Cheerios and wouldn’t give me the opportunity to even open the box.
Toddler: “Papa I want Cheerios!”
Me: “Okay,” as I reach for the box.
Toddler: “Now! I want Cheerios!”
Me: “Okay, let me open the box…”
Toddler: “NO! Give them to me!”
So I hand him the box and off he runs. To almost immediately come back angry that he can’t open the box. Which I do. Then we repeat the above except now he’s grabbing for it before I can open the bag inside the box. So I give it back to him and begin the countdown. 3…2…1…
Toddler: “Papa, I can’t open the Cheerios!”
Me: “I know. Let me hold the box and you just wait a minute.”
I open them up, and am given the chance to put some in a bowl for him.
Me: “Now, walk to the couch or your going to spill them.”
He runs. He slips. There are cheerios on the floor. And toddler anger and frustration.
At this point, we’re only about three minutes into our little adventure, but we eventually get him situated on the couch with a small bowl of Cheerios to snack on.
But what does this have to do with government? A lot, especially if you’re to the career and think you know more than others because you have fresh ideas or you’re at a point in your career where you think you have all the answers and everyone else should fall in line.
In government, collaboration is a hot buzz word, and one that annoys me, especially when people talk about collaborating among departments. Why? Because that’s called working together, and it should happen on a daily basis without having a buzz word attached to it. But no matter what it’s called, it has to happen because when it doesn’t, the scene with the toddler is created.
I’ve watched people new to government (and I was the same way) rush to make decisions without talking to the people around them. I’ve seen career administrators walk into situations and dictate tactics and minutia without regard for the expertise of those around them. They didn’t try to find the right or most effective path…they just took a path because it was a new way of doing it or because they knew beter.
The problem with that is you don’t know if it’s the right path. You don’t know if, once you have the box of Cheerios, you still have to open the box, open the bag, pour them into a bowl, and walk slowly to the couch. The process took much longer because you rushed ahead to shove them into your mouth. Someone in your organization who ALSO loves Cheerios and wants you to have them could have helped you get them sooner.
In government, try not to rush to the end of a process or program without consulting the people who will be doing the work or will be impacted. Otherwise, you’ll end up stumbling over your own feet, spilling Cheerios, and then going back to those people for help.
And they’ll chuckle. And they’ll help you. But they know it would’ve been easier to do it once.
While I will never grow tired of helping my boy out – I’ll actually be pretty depressed the day he doesn’t – your colleagues will eventually grow tired of you coming back to them over and over again having made the same mistakes. You’ll lose their respect because you don’t respect them enough to talk with them up front, only to clean up your dropped Cheerios afterward.