People are More Important than Things

For me, it all started with the simple idea that people are more important than things. How many times, I wonder, did I say that to my kids?

Right now, to me, it seems like only yesterday. A roaring blizzard had us stuck inside our New York apartment for what seemed like months. Andrew was four and a half, Marni just past a year. But, on the day in question, I learned a fundamental truth about teaming from those two unlikely mentors.

A neighbor’s daughter was visiting, and she and Andrew were deeply engaged in reconfiguring the living room furniture, to create a veritable city of interlocking tents. I knew enough to keep my architectural sensibilities to myself. So, I took Marni into another room and read ‘Hop on Pop’ for the fifty thousandth time. And then the phone rang…

Just moments into the conversation, I heard a lot of giggling, some mysterious crunching sounds, and then a wail… MOMMY…. She’s smashing our tents….

I dropped the phone, put my senior negotiator hat on, and went to investigate, ever hopeful that I could bring peace in my lifetime. If not world peace, at least some level of domestic tranquility.

But it was not to happen in that way. I tried all my best lines. ‘She’s too young to understand.’ ‘Big brothers protect their little sisters.’ ‘Mommy is getting a colossal headache and it’s going to be nap time in three minutes!!’

Of course, my little defendant-in-training was determined to fight back, and unfortunately for me, his little mind had had been carefully nurtured in the arts of persuasion.

He started by recapping the situation. “Mommy, we were building a Very Important part of our project (sounding as if the enterprise was being funded by Peter Thiel.) And she just came in and smashed it flat. And when I tried to reason with her and get her to do some work, she just ran away screaming.”

In an instant, I understood. This was no different than things I had seen happen in the workplace.

What had gone wrong?

First, there was a team on a mission: to build whatever their vision told them to.

Second, they had clearly defined whose responsibility was what.

Third, they were having a great time. You might even say that they were engaged and highly productive!

But then their team was descended upon by someone who could not possibly contribute to any of their needs.

Marni was not a great fit for the mission of the team, and didn’t have an appreciation for its mission, so instead of supporting the team’s drive to succeed, she wound up being a roadblock – leaving everyone frustrated and unhappy.

Generational change in the workplace can lead to problems like this, due to increasingly divergent views of what’s really important and how best to get things done. But that’s not the fundamental problem. The real problem is that if the needs of the team – as a living, breathing thing – are not made clear, and accepted by all, its mission is at risk.

As the late Madeleine L’Engle said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” She was not only my children’s favorite author, she was also mine, and an inspiration to me as a very young writer. This was an idea I wanted to share with you, with thanks to my (now very adult) children for teaming with me in the learning adventure called life.