Toddler Parenting: The Ultimate Crash Course in Being Effective at Work

Me and my little 'extreme user'

Me and my little 'extreme user'

Demanding. Frustrated. Stubborn. Selfish. Emotional. Impatient.

If you’ve ever had a tough boss or a tough client, you’ve probably privately used some of these words to describe him or her. 

Yet, if you’re a parent, you know that these adjectives can also easily be applied to another tough crowd: our children.

As my son makes the transition from infant to toddler to preschooler, I’ve been reflecting on how parenting has changed me as a person and as a professional. My theory? Parenting is by far the best crash course – the best on-the-job training you could hope for, really – for improving your effectiveness and success at work. Here are my top three parenting lessons that also help me at work:

Communication and Empathy are #1

The craziest thing about little kids, even ones who are too young to talk, is that they are constantly communicating with you and you are constantly communicating with them. Whether it’s through your words, your body language, your eyes, even your energy – our children soak up all of these cues even when we don’t realize it.

Parenting requires you to be constantly vigilant about what you are communicating and how you are communicating it. Every signal sends a message. For instance, using words to describe our planned activities for the day helps my son create a mental script that he can follow and find comfort in as we move throughout the day. Similarly, If I’m nervous about my son’s doctors appointment, even if I don’t communicate that message verbally, my body language might tell my son that we’re about to enter a situation that makes me anxious, which in turn creates anxiety for him.

In crisis moments, communication – and especially communicating empathy – becomes especially important. One of my favorite parenting books, Love and Logic, outlines a step-by-step process for how to tame a toddler meltdown. The first step is called “locking in the empathy”. Simply put, this means getting down on on your child’s level, making eye contact with them, and starting first by expressing your understanding for their feelings and emotions. By showing your child that you are focusing on him and his experience of the situation, you’re much more likely to make progress trying to calm him down and move on to the next thing.

As professionals, this emphasis on communication and empathy is equally important. Whether it’s making a recommendation for a new strategy, having a tough conversation, or simply nurturing a professional relationship, being mindful about how and what we communicate is vital both for our clients and for our colleagues. How often and how well do you communicate the planned activities for any given client project, or lock in the empathy with a tough colleague who’s not making things easy for you?

Life is about Choices

This is perhaps my favorite toddler trick and it’s all about control – or at least the perception of control. Being a toddler is tough for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that you’re self-aware enough to want to have free choice and independence, but at the end of the day you’re still two years-old, which means you get to do practically nothing on your own (at least, this is what I think being a toddler is all about). When a toddler confronts this inner conflict head on, it’s like instant internal combustion. So, to help ease this disconnect, you offer choices. 

Love and Logic talks about offering choices that are first, equally acceptable to you and second, don’t knowingly cause any harm to anyone. To demonstrate this, imagine a scenario in which you struggle every night to get your child to eat vegetables at dinner (in my experience, this is a very likely scenario). You don’t care what vegetables your child eats, but what you do care about is that he has something green on his plate. Instead of asking him, ‘would you like vegetables or a cookie at dinner,’ you ask him, ‘would you like broccoli or green beans with your dinner?’ All of a sudden, the conversation has shifted to one about choices, and usually this is enough. Your toddler feels in control of the situation, and your end goal of getting something green on the dinner plate is accomplished (although whether he eats it is another story). 

Since learning about the mind-blowingly effective world of toddler choices, I’ve started playing around with choices at work too. It’s been especially helpful with colleagues when I need to engage them in a conversation about pivoting or redirecting our work to focus on something unexpected. With a little bit of pre-planning before the conversation, I can pick a couple of choices – either of which will work for me – and then present them to the group for discussion. By selecting a few options that I’m ok with and then letting go of the final decision, I’m able to steer the group in a direction that I feel good about, while still including others in the process and giving them ownership of the final decision. 

Staying Present and Mindful

By far one of the toughest things about parenting is that our children make it tough to multi-task. Those pesky kids with their needs and wants! 

In truth, while we all love to check email while watching TV or doing any number of things at the same time, being a parent forces you to put down your devices, your to-do list, and pretty much everything else and focus completely on your child. Parenting is, in fact, the best form of mindfulness training you can find. Some of my happiest, most fulfilling, and most memorable moments with my son are the ones when I am able to drop completely into parent mode: sitting on the floor building a train set, listening to my son describe his day at school, getting lost in the plot of a playful library book. I may never finish cleaning the house or doing laundry, but I’ll also never regret the moments when I stopped worrying about chores and errands and instead spent my time being completely present with my son. 

Being present at work often feels in direct conflict with what I’m supposed to be doing at work, which is being productive. How can I let go of my to-do list and be present at the office when my inbox is overcrowded and my calendar is filled with meetings? My approach to this is to find moments of being mindful in the midst of the day’s chaos. This could look like any number of things, but right now for me it looks like closing my laptop when I’m in a meeting so I can focus on the conversation. It looks like asking how my teammate’s holiday was, and then genuinely listening to the answer. It looks like enjoying the progress my client makes in a workshop, without worrying about the work that inevitably comes next. 

At IDEO, I learned about the value of looking to extreme users, or edge cases, for insights into how to design solutions or services that work for everyone. Three years into my parenting journey, I can safely say that toddlers are most certainly extreme users! 

How has being a parent changed your approach at work? I’m curious to hear what you think.

My Thanksgiving is Perpetual

Channeling my inner gratitude...

As a creature of habit (as most humans are), I find the opportunity to try something new both exhilarating and daunting - precisely because it's a chance to go "off schedule."

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a yoga class - a class I'd never been to before and that was completely off schedule. And, like most spontaneous occasions, it was a total blessing in disguise. Here's why.

At the end of the class - my arms and legs sore and achy, but my heart feeling full - the teacher closed with this quote:

I am thankful for who I am. I am thankful for what I have. My Thanksgiving is perpetual. 

Sometimes quotes take a few minutes to sink in with true meaning, but this one grounded me right away. My thanksgiving is perpetual. What a lovely thought to carry me through the weekend. 

Since this yoga class, though, this idea has kept coming back to me. The thought that my thankfulness, my sense of appreciation could be felt not just on Thanksgiving Day, but everyday, that my thankfulness could be perpetual… Something about it just speaks to me and where I am in my life right now. 

After some reflection, I've decided this idea of having a full cup of thankfulness, one that's filled to the brim, overflowing each and every day and every moment, resonates for two important reasons. One of them is obvious and easy; the other one takes work. 

First the obvious part - in order to feel thankful, we must be aware of the things in our lives to be thankful for. This point is all about perspective. And boy, I do have so much, and more importantly, so many people to be thankful for. To be able to look at my son - in quiet moments, in funny ones, in sad ones and everything in between - and know in my heart that he feels loved unconditionally. To have a life partner who accepted me for who I was when he married me, and whose love now seems to expand like an elastic rubber band to continue accepting me no matter how I grow and change. To have family and friends who truly listen, who show up and give as much as they can of themselves to support me and my family.

My thanksgiving is perpetual. 

But the second reason this quote resonates is a bit more complex, more layered with purpose and intention. This is about choosing to live a life – really to build a life – that is so authentic to you and your values that it becomes easier and easier for you to continue to fill up your gratitude cup and see it overflow, every day, for the rest of your life. If I want my thanksgiving to be perpetual, I must make choices and tweaks and edits that help me align my outer life with my inner life. This, I think, is where the rubber really meets the road, as they say. And it is, I think, where you'll find the difference between feeling thankful on Thanksgiving, and truly feeling like you are laying the groundwork to feel and experience thankfulness day by day, moment to moment.

My thanksgiving is perpetual. 

Now sure, we can't possibly feel thankful all the time. There is always frustration, challenge, and pain and sometimes the best we can do is hold on tight and work through whatever's right in front of us. But when we’re done, after the water has ceased to be choppy, I believe we are also capable of experiencing gratitude and appreciation for what those challenges taught us, the way they changed us – and that we made it through to the other side. 

With so much heartache and so many inexplicable things happening around the world, I struggle sometimes to make sense of what's happening outside of my own little life, my own little family. I may not be able to ever understand or control what happens to others, but I can control how I feel about my life, the interactions I have with others, and the choices big and small that I make and that make up my life.

If ever I was looking for a mantra, a touch stone that I would like to hold on to, it's certainly this:

I am thankful for who I am. I am thankful for what I have. My thanksgiving is truly perpetual.

PS: Wonder what others are saying about gratitude this time of year? Here are a couple of new favorites that have inspired my thinking this week:

See One. Do One. Teach One.

You know the expression, ‘See One. Do One. Teach One’?

In a medical context the saying always weirded me out a bit. (Like, really? You’re going to stick me with that needle only after seeing it done by someone else a time or two?) But, funny enough, over the last couple of weeks I’ve found a new meaning in this expression, and it has to do with the teaching part.

First, an admission: I really like leading workshops. I may not be a complete extrovert, but leading a workshop – facilitating discussions, working through challenges, seeing lightbulbs igniting over people’s heads and post-its flying in the air – is a guaranteed path to my own personal happy place. At IDEO I had the opportunity to run a number of client workshops on various parts of the OpenIDEO challenge process. Each time I ran a workshop I got a bit smarter, a bit more adept at addressing tricky questions or common hurdles, and a bit savvier at structuring the day so it was fun and productive. Which means that over time I developed a tried and true method for bringing clients through the OpenIDEO process – and I loved it.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when I had the opportunity to lead a half-day design thinking and innovation workshop at the National Archives. Knowing that I’m a workshop person, of course I quickly jumped at the chance – even after I remembered that I’d need to create all my slides and accompanying materials from scratch (since I didn’t have anything from my IDEO days). This, I thought to myself, will be a lot of work. So I sat down and started on my deck.

And it turns out yes, it was a lot of work. But, so much more importantly, it was an opportunity for me to actually learn the content I was teaching. What I realized is that when I was leading OpenIDEO challenges, or even talking with clients about IDEO’s approach to design thinking and innovation, I was representing IDEO – using their stories and their content. Teaching the design thinking approach to a new audience and doing it in my own voice and with my own language really, truly helped me learn it, internalize it, and then share it in ways that I knew would resonate with my audience.

Creating something from scratch – even something that I thought I knew well – pushed me to understand my content more fully and engage with it more deeply. Getting my hands dirty through doing? Awesome.

I spent the next 24 hours after the workshop buzzing with the knowledge that I had just learned and practiced something new and important…and it felt really good. And, in that halo glow of those 24 hours, I actually got offered an opportunity to run the session again, this time for different clients. So I got back on the horse, reopened my slide deck, and set about recreating the wheel.

One week later, I stepped in front of another new audience to teach them what I know. This time around, like the session a week earlier, I didn’t have all the right answers prepped in advance. I didn’t have the best tips for overcoming hurdles on instant recall. Nor did I instinctively know the smartest ways to diffuse a difficult conversation.

Teaching something from scratch – even when it felt untested or uncharted – pushed me to open myself up to even more learning in the moment and to make small course-corrections throughout. Being able to respond to the needs of the room, as they arise? Even more awesome.

And in the process, I experienced the value of learning as I was doing, of challenging myself to know something inside and out through the act of teaching it to others.

See One. Do One. Teach One. I still don’t love it for needles! But in my own work? I’m onboard.

An Evolving Definition of Community

Who knew 'Presidential' was a flavor of cupcake?

When I was in business school, I defined community as a collection of people – consumers especially – who were uniting around causes and missions that they cared about and using their purchasing power and their voices (especially on social media) to effect change in the world. Once I joined IDEO, I began to round out this working definition of community to include location – that is, whether the community exists online or offline – and how that location influences the type of work people can accomplish together.
Over the last 3.5 years with OpenIDEO, my passion for community – and particularly unlocking new ways of supporting communities to collaborate, innovate and see positive change where they live – has deepened and taken on new dimensions that I couldn’t have expected. And I’m very proud to say that my next step – as a Presidential Innovation Fellow in Washington, DC – is helping me continue to round out my understanding of community on a scale that I could have never imagined (Read more about the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the incredibly talented folks who’ve joined this year’s class).
For my first project, I’ve been paired with an innovative team of strategists and doers at the National Archives and Records Administration. I, along with another PIF, are charged with exploring how crowdsourcing and online community engagement can help NARA accelerate its efforts to expand public, online access to our Nation’s most valuable historical records. It’s no small task when you consider NARA has over 12 billion pages of paper records within its holdings! Yet I’m confident that crowdsourcing, if applied in smart and intentional ways, can quickly and effectively scale this effort.

When I started The Changebase, way back as an MBA student in 2009, I had a hunch that the idea of community – a collection of people united by common experiences, shared values or like-minded goals – would play a large part in my professional career, but I couldn’t have anticipated exactly how.

In business school I defined community as a collection of people – consumers especially – who were uniting around causes and missions that they cared about and then using their purchasing power and their voices to effect change in the world. Once I joined IDEO, I began to round out this working definition of community to include location – that is, whether the community exists online or offline – and how that location influences the type of work people can accomplish together.

Over the last 3.5 years with OpenIDEO, my passion for community – and particularly unlocking new ways of supporting communities to collaborate, innovate and see positive change where they live – has deepened and taken on new dimensions that I couldn’t have expected. And I’m very proud to say that my next step – as a Presidential Innovation Fellow in Washington, DC – is helping me continue to round out my understanding of community on a scale and through a lens that I could have never anticipated (Read more about the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program and the incredibly talented folks I'm lucky to partner with in this year’s class).

For my first project, I’ve been paired with an innovative team of strategists and doers at the National Archives and Records Administration. I, along with another PIF, am charged with exploring how crowdsourcing and online community engagement can help NARA accelerate its efforts to expand public, online access to our nation’s most valuable historical records. It’s no small task when you consider NARA has over 12 billion pages of paper records within its holdings! Yet I’m confident that crowdsourcing, if applied in smart and intentional ways, can quickly and effectively scale this effort.

What will be the tangible outcomes of my time as a Presidential Innovation Fellow? Thankfully I'm only two months into the program, so I don't need to know that answer just yet. But I do know that over the next year I'm looking forward to further evolving my definition of community, this time on a national scale. How might we design citizen services that meet the needs of a community as diverse and complex as the American people? Wish me luck!

The Values We Wear to Work

When you think about the work that you do - the companies you join, the teams you're a part of, even the projects you take on - how often is your approach to that work determined by values?
Sure, a lot of us have chosen to go into work that feels like it aligns with our personal values - but that's not what I mean. Rather, I'm talking about overarching values that either you, your employer or your team have set as guiding principles. If you had to describe the North Star of what you do at work and how you make decisions, what would that star look like and where would it take you?
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the very nice community of Bozeman, Montana and speak on the campus of Montana State. The title of my talk was "Creativity, Design Thinking and the Crowd" and my intention was to talk about how OpenIDEO approaches the intersection of design thinking and crowdsourcing in its own way.
As I prepared my slides and delivered my talk, however, I realized that my talk - more than anything - was an exploration of the values that we hold dear as part of the OpeniDEO team and, by extension, as members of the OpenIDEO community.
In the end, I circled around 10 core values that I believe both steer and ground the work we do:
We’re about people
We design for inclusion
We focus on collaboration, not competition
We speak to different motivations
We invest in framing the question
We use a process
We’re transparent
We design with, not for
We believe in-person matters, too
We leave room for emergence.
Interestingly, having had some time to reflect on the experience of delivering this talk, I'm actually not sure that this list couldn't benefit from some refinement, a couple of additions, and maybe even some edits. Perhaps that’s true with all workplace values – they are subject to change with time and perspective. Regardless of what stage of development they're in, many of the values I’ve outlined in my talk have been true to me for some time and remain that way to me right now, like a badge of honor that I wear proudly everyday at work.
What values do you 'wear to work' each day? Are they codified somewhere in writing, or are they more reflective of an informal, collective mindset that you and your team shares? I'd love to hear what you think.

MontanaState

When you think about the work that you do – the companies you join, the teams you're a part of, even the projects you take on – how often is your approach to that work determined by values?

Sure, a lot of us have chosen to go into work that feels like it aligns with our personal values - but that's not what I mean. Rather, I'm talking about overarching values that either you, your employer or your team have set as guiding principles. If you had to describe the North Star of what you do at work and how you make decisions, what would that star look like and where would it take you?

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the very nice community of Bozeman, Montana and speak on the campus of Montana State. The title of my talk was "Creativity, Design Thinking and the Crowd" and my intention was to talk about how OpenIDEO approaches the intersection of design thinking and crowdsourcing in its own way.

As I prepared my slides and delivered my talk, however, I realized that my presentation – more than anything – was an exploration of the values that we hold dear as part of the OpenIDEO team and, by extension, as members of the OpenIDEO community.

In the end, I circled around 10 core values that I believe currently steer and ground the work we do:

  1. We’re about people
  2. We design for inclusion
  3. We focus on collaboration, not competition
  4. We speak to different motivations
  5. We invest in framing the question
  6. We use a process
  7. We’re transparent
  8. We design with, not for
  9. We believe in-person matters, too
  10. We leave room for emergence.

Interestingly, having had some time to reflect on the experience of delivering this talk, I'm actually not sure that this list couldn't benefit from some refinement, a couple of additions, and maybe even some edits. Perhaps that’s true with all workplace values – they are subject to change with time and perspective. Regardless of what stage of development they're in, many of the values I’ve outlined in my talk have been true to me for some time and remain that way to me right now, like a badge of honor that I wear proudly everyday at work.

What values do you 'wear to work' each day? Are they codified somewhere in writing, or are they more reflective of an informal, collective mindset that you and your team share? I'd love to hear what you think.