Flip the Snake

Published: March 27, 2012

Sometimes it takes a unique perspective to find a solution. We can work as hard as we like, but the answer remains hidden until perspective is adjusted. Sometimes that perspective has to come from outside ourselves, and accepting it becomes the challenge.

Back when my son was a Cub Scout, he participated in the annual car race event: the Pinewood Derby. While some scouts focused on speed and did everything they could think of to make their cars the fastest, my son was inspired by appearance. He wanted his creation scroll-sawed into the windy shape of a snake. He carefully painted the name “SNAKE” on the side of the car. Unfortunately, when he installed the wheels, the front wheel covered the “S” leaving only “NAKE” visible to observers. The finishing touch was to craft a forked-tongue with a rubber band and attach it to the front of NAKE.

NAKE ran four races. He lost the first three by wide margins because he never made it to the end of the track. My son would dejectedly pick up his vehicle from the track with a quizzical look. In the final heat, the dad responsible for placing the cars at the starting gate inadvertently placed NAKE backwards thinking the forked tongue was a tail. My son wailed a protest in a desperate effort to persuade the dad to reverse NAKE’s direction. It was too late. The starting gate lifted, and NAKE zoomed to the finish line backwards – way ahead of his competition.

Who would have thought that a simple change in direction would alter the results so significantly?

A teacher recently needed a similar change in direction. After learning that he would not be rehired, the 3rd year professional’s emotions had been spilling over. Every chance he had, the teacher made sure his colleagues knew how unfair the decision had been. A few close friends took up the mission and helped spread the news of inequity to the community. Facebook posts soon followed. Before he knew it, his previously confidential conversation with the school’s principal and the district’s human resources director was front page news. A buzz filled the teacher’s lounge. Neighbors passed wild variations of the story on to their friends via e-mails, texts, and whispered exchanges while dropping off their kids in front of the school.

When I sat down to coach the teacher, I asked how he most wanted to leave his role, if he wanted to be remembered as the jilted teacher who was treated unfairly or if there was a different legacy he wanted to leave behind, an alternative energy he wanted to bring into his next position. We flipped his perspective. He was able to see that the hoopla marking the past week had spiraled out of control. He talked about the importance of preserving his reputation and maximizing the chance for a good reference. He challenged himself to rise above the fray and take control of his legacy. He vowed to move forward with professionalism.

Flip the snake. Flip the drama. If you don’t see the flip, find someone who can challenge your thinking. Discover the people on your team who have a unique perspective … and then be open to a flip. You might just find yourself winning the race.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.