One night, as I begin to read a bedtime story to my 6-year-old daughter, she stopped me and said, "Dad, why don't you tell me a story instead of reading it?" I set the book aside and my mind was racing to my childhood experiences -- the fox and the crow story springs to mind. I like the idea of a fable, it has a moral. I tuck my daughter in bed, sit beside her and let the thoughts flow.
A crow notices a grandma making tasty doughnuts*. With my hand gestures complementing the narrative in the fading nightlight, the crow flies to a tree after getting a doughnut from grandma. Then, a wily fox enters the scene, spots the doughnut in crow's mouth and comes up with a plan to steal it. "Hey crow, everybody tells me that you have a beautiful voice, can you sing for me?" The excited crow opens her mouth to caw. I continue, matching my daughter's wide-eyed gaze. As the crow caws, the doughnut falls and the fox takes off with it. I pause and then add, in a slow, subdued voice -- never get swayed by flattery.
My daughter dozes off after thanking me for the story -- I am thrilled with the personal connection, the animated tale is better received than any read from a book.
Twist to the Tale: Handling Hidden Agendas and Crafty Conversations
As my joy subsides, I think about the parallels between this tale and encounters in a career. Given that we interact with people every day, the building blocks for a career stem from how we "handle" situations -- situations like the one in the tale, hidden agendas and crafty conversations.
In that context, the story shares what the crow should not do, but what about the actions the crow could do? Here are some alternatives for the crow:
- Open his mouth to call the fox out on his hidden agenda and lose the doughnut!
- Ignore the fox; you never win in life by ignoring people when you meet them in person, worst form of disrespect and also an ungraceful act.
- Crow holds the doughnut with his feet and then engages the fox- maybe even humor the fox with a caw.
The Real Twist
I broached this story again next evening with my daughter and egged her for alternative endings. Initially she said, as expected, the first option. When I prodded her and said that the crow would still lose the snack, she thought for a moment and said, "I would hold the doughnut on my feet." I felt like a happy coach. Then she added, "I would ask the fox if he is hungry and if he says yes, I will give him the doughnut." A little perplexed, I asked, what about your share? "I will go back to grandma to get another one." With that, she turned around and started to play with her sister.
I was stumped. Nobody said there was only one doughnut.
Assumed Constraints and Innovation
Past experiences with budgets and resource constraints have conditioned many to think there is one doughnut. It took a young fertile mind to awaken a mind tainted by past experience to check a constraint that was implicitly assumed.
It reminded me of a circus elephant in Ken Blanchard's gem of a book, Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager: Increasing Effectiveness Through Situational Self Leadership. A young circus elephant tries to free himself from the chain and soon gives up. Even after the elephant grows up, he never makes another attempt to break free from the chain. Ken Blanchard aptly calls this, "an assumed constraint."
These assumed constraints are a common thread across many innovations. History is replete with examples of challenging "assumed" constraints that spurred innovation. Unlocking the assumption that consumers will buy only after they can feel the product in a brick-and-mortar store helped create Amazon.com. Challenging the assumption that people never cared for good user interface for unloved products, Tony Fadell's Nest thermostat was born.
Back to the simple bedtime story, unperturbed by assumed constraints, like only one doughnut, it encouraged an innovative thought in my daughter. Showcasing the essence of giving -- focus on what is of great value to others but less cost to you -- the cost of the doughnut for her was lower than what I had perceived. She was able to react to the situation much better than any of the alternatives I had.
Leadership Life Lessons
Overall, I wanted to share with my daughter, through the twist in the tale, wisdom from my experience to equip her to handle the real world. In return, she led me to the magic of young minds, uncluttered by constraints -- assumed or real. I want to believe we learned from each other, the reality is that I became wiser through this process, experiencing a true giver in every sense of the word.
Please share your thoughts and experiences of learning even the smallest life lessons from younger adults in the comments section.
*doughnuts - the version I grew up on was a south Indian lentil snack, vadai, that morphed into a doughnut to fit my English narrative and yet retain the shape.