Straight Talk

Dec. 21, 2004
Keep your idea wheelbarrow open -- and upright

Grandpa Moses used to say that a business-school education never hurt any M.B.A. who is willing to learn something after he goes to work for a living. Grandpa claimed that M.B.A.s, fresh out of the ivied walls of academia, were like wrecking crews whose only tools were sledge hammers. To them, every assignment was a condemned building waiting to be demolished. Company-specific education can be acquired only on the job. It is the process of learning to think with what company people know. It is best taught by mentors. It is best learned by inquisitive junior executives armed with open wheelbarrows and open minds. Let me illustrate with a story. A newly hired intern at a hospital for the mentally ill was asked to observe a patient's behavior in the hospital's exercise yard during the noon hour. On his first day, the fresh-faced doctor noticed that the patient was pushing a wheelbarrow around the yard -- upside down. After several days of observing this peculiar routine, he asked the patient why his wheelbarrow was upside down. "Well, Doc," the patient explained, "I used to come out here every day at noon, and I pushed my wheelbarrow around the yard right side up. And do you know what happened? These nutty inmates dumped so much garbage into my wheelbarrow that I couldn't push it. So now I turn it upside down, and they don't dump their junk into my wheelbarrow anymore." Now, let's imagine that you are fresh out of graduate school and you are hired by Any Company USA. When you arrive for work on the first day, you are given a wheelbarrow. Then, without further instruction, you are told to push it around the office all day long. The chances are pretty good that you will have the same experience as the mental patient did. Your wheelbarrow soon will be filled with other people's junk. So what do you do? Sure, you can turn your wheelbarrow upside down, but then you'll be stuck with only the ideas you learned at business school. And you'll be doomed to failure in your new job. Or you can post a "Don't Dump!" sign on your wheelbarrow. This will eliminate collecting other people's idea-junk, but it also will eliminate collecting their idea-gems. As a new employee, your challenge is to do what you have been assigned to do, as efficiently and effectively as possible. So, if you are told to wheel a wheelbarrow, that's what you must do. But you also are being tested. You are being challenged to be resourceful and innovative. The trick is to keep your wheelbarrow open to company-specific ideas you can use at the same time you avoid being swamped by someone else's idea-junk. For example, you can install a screen over the top of your wheelbarrow that limits the size of the ideas you collect. Or you can install a lid with a specially designed slot that will accept only ideas of a specific size and shape. Or you can compartmentalize your wheelbarrow. This will force the donors to separate their ideas into predetermined classifications for your easy evaluation. How you execute your assignment will tell your superiors more about you than your business-school credentials did. Less about how much you know but more about how well you think. Sometimes the wheelbarrow exercise may take a different form -- for a different purpose. You'll be told to imagine that your wheelbarrow is filled each morning with 24 precious hours of time. Your assignment? To control its use. Time is one of an employee's most valuable possessions and one of a company's least-guarded assets. Only when executives truly understand the value of their time to their employers do they appreciate the importance of their time to themselves. Idea-dumpers are time wasters. We can't lock our minds or our doors, turn off our phones, or cut off all our corridor conversation. We must, in the course of the day, pay some attention to well-meaning idea-dumpers who use our time. If we allow them to waste it, we do so at great risk to our success. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc., an IW contributing editor, and is the author of the recently published book Management Rhymes and Reason. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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