Its a catastrophe – the kindergarten approach

I have been discussing some approaches to help teams deal with both “catastrophes” and “impediments.”

This time I am looking at an approach that really is about catastrophes, by which I mean things that are really overwhelming a person or team.

In this situation people feel out of control and potentially panicked. So we want to find an effective way to deal with overwhelming, major challenges.

You might be surprised though where I found this approach.  It was in kindergarten.

My daughter went to agile kindergarten and now she is in an agile primary school.  I know you can’t find “agile kindy” anywhere, but actually kids are being taught a growth mindset, resilience, skills for working in high performing teams and a lot of pretty advanced stuff.

I was really humbled when I went to my daughter’s kindergarten last year.  I thought I was a good coach with important clients but then I met teachers who were responsible for equipping children for the world that I and my generation have created … and that is a pretty tough ask.

In addition to learning a growth mindset, my 5 year old was learning what I thought was pretty advance resilience skills.

So here is the approach my daughter revealed to me

When dealing with a person or a couple of people

Step 1 – someone comes to you and they are panicked.  The problems they face seem pretty overwhelming (like our project will definitely not deliver on time, or my dad forgot to pack my lunch … or something that is a major issue for them).

Step 2 – Don’t solve the problem.  Let them explain it while you listen without judgement.

Don’t solve the problem.  Let the kid explain it in their own words while you honestly listen and patiently let them work through it

Apparently at kindy, my daughter’s teachers would never judge a child or make them feel stupid – I knew that.  But they also don’t fix problems until the kid has a go,.  This is something I agree with but have sometimes found that it takes more patience than I like to admit, especially when I am in a hurry and my daughter is concerned with things I see as less important.

So we do the same at work – ask people what is wrong and actually listen with the confidence that they are a smart person with an issue that must be worth worrying about if they are worried.

Step 3 – Ask if it is a big problem or a little problem

My daughter explained to me that you can get really upset over little things and then if you are stressed you stop realising that it is a minor problem.  So she and her classmates ask “is this a big problem or a small problem.”

If it is a small problem then the process (according to my young daughter) is

  • See if you can find a solution yourself.  If not then maybe take a break and come back or consider how you have solved similar problems.
  • Speak to your team mates and see if they have had a similar problem or if they can help you fix it.  Apparently in kindy, there is a lot of peer based problem solving
  • If you and your friends cannot solve it then ask the teacher.

So for small problems, the teacher often redirects the kid to the team, or asks the kid if they can think of ways they have solved similar problems in the past.

Step 4 – this is a big problem – we cannot fix it easily and it really sucks

Acknowledge that the person thinks this is a big problem.  Do not talk them out of it or tell them to grow up and act like an adult.

Step 5 – ask three questions

Now that we see this is a big problem, we ask three questions:

  1. What can you control in this situation?
  2. What can you influence even though it is not in your direct control?
  3. What is out of our control – we can’t change it so we have to accept it?

Step 6 – concrete first steps

Now that we know what we can control and what we must accept, ask the kid what they think their next step might be.  What can they try now, knowing what they can control and what they can’t.

Kindy is pretty complex, but let’s summarize what an adult team coach would ask

  1. You seemed stressed.  What’s up?
  2. (no judgement, just listen and acknowledge that you are listening)
  3. “OK, so this is the problem.  Do you see it as a big or small thing?
  4. (If it is a small thing then they might have calmed down, but do not tell them it was trivial, just move forward).
    1. OK, have you seen a problem like this before?  What did you try”
    2. Can someone in the team help with this?  What might they suggest or do to help?
  5.  If it is a big problem (as they define it not as you define it), ask three questions:
    1. What can you control in this situation?
    2. What can you influence here, even though it is not directly up to you?  What can you do to help influence the outcome?
    3. What do you not believe you can control?  In that case what do you need to accept rather than try to change?
  6. What is the first thing you can do?  What else might you try?
  7. Then if they are still stuck your might be able to help too.  On the other hand if this is a super-critical thing that involves real anguish, maybe you are not the coach to help them.  Maybe you can help them find a more professional counselor.  This is rare in my experience but real issues are often beyond my domain … so in this case I think the best I can do is empathize and give people the confidence that they are allowed to ask for help.

This seems more complicated than some other approaches, but the secret is to just listen and help people categorize the things they can do and the things they have to accept.

Working as a group

Of course the answer to almost any catastrophe is to draw some boxes on a wall.

Draw 4 boxes on a wall with the following headings

  • Things we can control
  • Things we can influence
  • Things we need to accept or plan for
  • Options and alternatives

a wall e

Then get people to explain what they think the issue is and hand out post-it notes and pens.

Have people add the things in the first three boxes that they believe the team can control, influence and accept.  They may not want to accept things that are bad, but there are some things that are inevitable, out of the team’s control, or not worth fighting for.

Have the team review the contents of the first three boxes when they are done.

Then shift to next steps.  People might want to communicate things, start taking action or even change some existing approaches to adapt to the change in circumstances.

That’s it.  It might take you a while to reach the standard that kindergarten kids have achieved, but with very little practice you should find that the team can go from stress to action faster than before.

Give it a go and see if it works for your team.





3 thoughts on “Its a catastrophe – the kindergarten approach

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