In Search of a Tray Table

“If we see it we’ll know it.”

I felt for the young mother in the aisle seat across from me on my flight to Maui: Traveling with toddlers is not easy, and I could feel her apprehension. Her son wasn’t fussing when we took off, but he was wide awake, and he’d have to be entertained. It didn’t take long for him to decide there was nothing interesting out the window where he’d been perched on his dad’s lap.

His mom took one of his toys out of her carry-on bag and handed it to him, a colorful stuffed giraffe with ribbons in different colors and textures stitched along its neck. He wasn’t interested in the giraffe, and shook his head, batting it away.

She reached in the bag again, this time pulling out a book and asking him, “Want mommy to read you a story?” He shook his head again, and he pushed the book away.

“Well then, what would you like?” she asked him, but he just stared back at her with that look toddlers have which clearly mean, “I have no idea what I want, so how can I possibly tell you, even if I already had full command of the English language ”“ which I don’t!?” He scrunched up his face, with a cry just moments from erupting.

At this point his dad reached for the carry-on bag, pulled down the tray table of the boy’s middle seat, and dumped the contents out on it, saying, “Let’s do this the easy way, and just let him pick.” There were so many little toys in that bag, and both mom and dad scrambled to corral them all on that dinky tray table as things fell off the edge one by one.

Their piling the falling toys back on to balance the whole mess turned out to be what would entertain their son the most and he started laughing. As soon as his parents got all the toys to balance on the tray he’d reach out, knock one off, and erupt in another fit of laughter. Good thing the direct flight was barely 20 minutes long, for he continued this until we landed, the flight attendants wisely ignoring the fact that was one tray table which would not be “returned to its upright and locked position.”

Play Art Loud by Daniel Incandela on Flickr
Play Art Loud by Daniel Incandela on Flickr

Is there a 3rd alternative for you too?

This entire episode really hit home for me because a day earlier I’d sat with a manager who was very frustrated. Her whole team has been openly unhappy due to a change in business strategy which has been handed down “from the powers which be” and she has been searching for the day-to-day peace which will please both her team and her bosses.

Everyone knows they can’t go back to the old way they did business; the recession has made it clear they must reinvent. However they are also struggling with the new strategy handed down to them. Their manager feels that proverbial stuckness “between a rock and a hard place” and her frustration is growing with each passing day. She’d said to me, “I just can’t accept this either/or: There must be another way.”

As I sat on that plane, I realized she didn’t have to “accept this either/or.” We’d need to find her tray table; a platform on which to stage a new game, and find another alternative we just couldn’t see yet.

That baby’s parents didn’t care which toy their son played with: They just wanted the result of his being quietly entertained.

The “powers which be” of this business want the same thing: They want the results that a successful business delivers to all its stakeholders. Even if it appears that they have mandated a new business strategy (for that’s what owners will do when they get tired of waiting), I doubt they’d reject one this working team found to be much better in achieving the same results or better.

This may need to be our new battle cry in their coaching: We’re in search of a tray table.

Accidental solutions are still solutions

No one ever rejected an accidental solution which happened to reveal better success. The trick in business is that we have to design a good workplace environment where these happy accidents will happen: People are encouraged to just dump a bag of tricks inside out and see what they can do.

We often have way more to work with than the confines of a middle seat on an airplane.

What comes to mind for you?
If you were coaching this manager, what advice would you give her?
How can she encourage her team to keep trying instead of giving in to the frustration?

More food for thought in the archives:

My mana‘o [The Backstory of this posting]
Each Thursday I write a management posting for Say “Alaka‘i” at The Honolulu Advertiser: Here is a link there, and this is why I cross-post them on Talking Story, revised with internally directed links. As for today’s story, there is nothing like real-life stuff we take notice of when it comes to figuring some things out!


  1. says

    This really spoke to me. In my family, I’m known as the person who, when asked to choose Option A or Option B in situations, always says that there MUST be an Option C!
    I guess when things are black or white, I like to look behind the “grey” and see what’s there.

    • Rosa Say says

      I think that’s a fabulous strength for you to have Marisa! Questioning is a kind of exploring, and we succumb to a creative desire (and I know you are creative!)

      In speaking with this manager the day before this plane ride, that’s what I tried to focus on with her versus coming to the answer of an alternative yet, that she should stick with her gut feeling, and her certainty that there had to be a third way, and they just had to find it. We mostly talked about how to convert her team’s frustration into an exercise that was searching and stretching yes, but it was also creative and much more useful than their frustration was proving to be.

      I’ll bet your family really counts on you when they get this feeling too, that “If we see it we’ll know it.”

    • Rosa Say says

      Good point Wally, for solutions do expire, and can evolve. I think the key is for the manager to create this environment where that kaizen practice of continual improvement and experimentation can thrive. We can also “bank” solutions that will keep in memory when future opportunities for them arise.