Sunday, November 30, 2008

Unstructured Time

There's a series of children's books written in the 1970s called Frog and Toad designed to help young people learn how to read. One of them - Frog and Toad Together - contains a short story called "A List." In it, Toad makes a list of all the things he has to do by the end of the day: wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, and so forth. He then follows this script as his daily plan, never straying from it. As his day progresses, he scratches off items from the list.

Then a strong wind blows the list out of his hands.

Enter Frog. Toad immediately reaches out to Frog to chase after his list, because "running after my list is not one of the things I wrote on my list of things to do." Frog is unable to recover the list.

Despondent that he has lost his list, Toad does nothing. Frog writes a new list for Toad with a single entry, "go to bed." This Toad does, and he completes his day.

In addition to helping young people learn to read, it offers insight into very common workplace behaviours: Toad is a contract employee, Frog is his manager.

Toad does only as he is told to do, nothing more and nothing less. He isn't engaged in solving problems, he's simply performing tasks. Additional tasks that come his way that are pertinent to the problem he's working on are deflected to other people. (As an aside, if he works for a firm that supplies contract employees, those additional tasks would increase revenue for his firm.) And, of course, the loss of his task order left him idle and helpless rather than liberated to engage in more creative pursuits.

Frog, meanwhile, doesn't redirect Toad's energies in any meaningful way (nor does he furlough him, although that would be a bit of a stretch.) His priority is to restore order to his team.

There are some interesting lessons in this. Our children's lives are increasingly structured for them. They follow fixed routines of school, athletics and activities, which limits the times during which they can complete homework (a surprising volume of which is assigned to them in the very early stages of their academic careers). Because their daily lives are mapped out for them, they're constantly being told exactly what to do from minute to minute, which means they don't learn how to make best use of time. So it's valuable for a child to learn how to deal with - indeed, capitalize on - unstructured time, precisely because their lives are so highly structured in the first place.

It's also important that our children recognize the difference between performing tasks and solving problems. We can map out a series of steps that we need to take to accomplish a goal, but that series of steps is only as relevant as our current understanding of the problem space. If the problem space changes, we have to change with it if we're going to accomplish our goal. We also have to recognize this and make these changes independently and not constantly look for instruction from others. Sounds obvious, but we see it all the time at work, particularly in the Information Technology space, which is increasingly long on service-level agreements and short on results.

This is all a bit out of reach for a 6 year old, but it makes the story a lot more interesting when we read it together. But she does come up with some very creative things when she's left to her own devices.