The Triangle Story

"and a little child will lead them."

When my children were quite a bit younger, our family found ourselves at numerous pre-school plays and programs. It was during one such Christmas pageant that I was schooled by a 4 yr. old boy.

If you have kids and have been to such programs, it’s a familiar scene. The teacher stands off the front of the stage and an aide aligns the kids in a single file across downstage center. The purpose is so every parent can have a clear view of their little darling’s performance.

They began by singing a couple of Christmas carols. Well, mostly they scanned the audience for their families and waved. Once that was accomplished they settled into singing.

At the close of one song, the teacher’s aide brought out a cardboard box and walked down the line of anxiously awaiting kids. It was rhythm instruments. For those unacquainted with pre-school symphonies, rhythm instruments consist of small implements designed to make noise. They range from castanets, maracas, sticks to hit together, straps with jingle bells attached and yes, a triangle which ended up in the hands of a small lad at the end of the row.

They proceeded to sing a few more carols that were unrecognizable because their melodies were hidden by the exuberant instrument playing. It was a beautiful and joyful thing to behold.

Then it ceased. The proud teacher turned to the audience and said, “We want to thank you for supporting your children and our school by attending to our Christmas pageant. We’d like to close by singing two more familiar carols and welcome you to join in with us.” Then she turned to face the kids, nodded to the pianist, and the music began. But there was a problem.

All the kids looked perplexed. Obviously in practice, the aide collected the rhythm instruments before the final songs, but here they stood, three and four year old kids with these ‘things’ in their hands. Things that shouldn’t be there. One by one each child got rid of their distraction. Some put the sticks into their pockets. Girls tucked the maracas into their dress sashes. But the kid with the triangle. He looked down the line and saw what the others were doing, so he attempted to put the triangle into his pants pocket.

He started with one corner, but as he pushed it in the width of the triangle prohibited it from going in far enough to stay in. So he rotated it to another corner only to discover the same results. You could see and feel his angst. This was a problem he must solve.

By this time, most of the parents in the audience were focused not on the carols, but on the dilemma of this boy as he continued to rotate and struggle to make the triangle fit. You could almost hear the thoughts “That’s not going to work. Just put it on the floor.” Then it happened. It’s the first time I can admit to really observing a stroke of genius.

His countenance changed from confusion to confidence. Then he pushed the beater (yes that is what the striking stick is called) into his pocket. This left a portion sticking out of his pocket onto which he simply hung the triangle. Then he humbly stepped forward and joined his classmates in song. He was unimpressed with his brilliance.

Most of those watching were like me, amazed at the solution. We didn’t think of that. A majority of us sighed in relief and a few lightly clapped in congratulations. It was such an audience reaction that the teacher turned slightly to us to see what was going on. The song wasn’t over. Why were we reacting?

This scene happens every day in your organization.

No, you don’t have a kid with a triangle. But you have someone who is struggling with getting their weekly status report in on time. They look around at their co-workers and they seem to get it done, but for their work, it just isn’t easy. They are struggling. They try countless approaches, yet each week it’s not enough.

Then it happens, this individual discovers a macro that greatly simplifies the compiling of the spreadsheet report. It saves them hours of work and allows them to hand in their report alongside their fellow peers. But here are the missed opportunities.

The other performers aren’t paying attention. They might find great benefit from this new solution. This macro might shorten their process and save them valuable time. But they don’t notice because they are too focused on getting it done the old way to experiment and discover new approaches.

And like the little boy with the triangle, the creative problem solver may not appreciate their own accomplishment and simply step back in line and join the chorus. They may have an idea that would revolutionize a specific process, but like their lemming brothers, they focus on getting back in step rather than sharing their discovery.

And worse, their manager (the teacher) is so caught up in the big picture that they don’t even know their worker was struggling and that they discovered a brilliant solution to a common concern. They are too focused on managing and measuring that they neglect to mentor.

If you are a worker, take a moment to pull your nose off the grindstone and look around. Check out what others are doing. Be inquisitive and interested in learning new ways and experimenting.

If you are a manager, remember your job is not to get the thing done. Your job is to take care of your people, who get the thing done. Focus on your people. Come alongside them. Make them feel safe and appreciated.

And if you are a creative (which includes everyone), take the time to share your ideas and innovations. There is likely another kid struggling with a triangle that could use your insights.