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Literally Following Instructions

following instructions

When I was young, I loved to read Amelia Bedelia books. The original book was written in 1963 by Peggy Parish who was a school teacher in Manhattan. Do you remember them?

Inside the jacket cover, the first book is summarized as follows:

“When Mrs. Rogers leaves Amelia Bedelia alone in the house on her first day of work anything can happen. And it does!

With a list of what is to be done before her, Amelia Bedelia sets about her duties. And no one could possibly accuse her of not following directions – for that is precisely what she does. But when Amelia Bedelia draws the drapes or dresses a chicken, the results are hilariously different than might be expected!”

As a child, I found Amelia Bedelia and her literal-minded actions to be hilarious. As a leader, I have found that the results are not always what I expected after providing direction. Drew and I used to say, “There is the right way. The wrong way. And some random third way to do things.” We could never understand why the third way would be chosen.

It turns out that what we say and what is heard are sometimes very different. Why is that? Because everyone has different backgrounds, histories and perspectives.

To illustrate this point with my personnel, I have them write instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then, I very literally follow the instructions. 

Assume they say to put the peanut butter on the bread. I take the jar of peanut butter and place it on top of the bag of bread. 

Next, put the jelly on the bread. I take jelly and smear it on top of the bag of bread.

Then, put the two pieces of bread together. I put the bread together with the jelly and peanut butter facing outwards. Yes, it is a mess!

They get frustrated but it does not take long to illustrate the point. Before you know it, the instructions become much clearer.

Writing standard operating procedures (SOPs) is a difficult task because everyone interprets words differently. To combat this, we use what I call servant leadership. The trainer not only uses written instructions but also physically shows the trainee how to complete the task. By demonstrating the work, the tribal knowledge, which is not always easily captured on paper, is now also conveyed. The result is everyone is less frustrated and the work is done properly.

So, how does Amelia Bedelia end?

“Mrs. Rogers was angry.

She was very angry.

She opened her mouth. 

Mrs. Rogers meant to tell Amelia Bedelia she was fired. 

But before she could get the words out, Mr. Rogers put something in her mouth.

It was so good Mrs. Rogers forgot about being angry.

“Lemon-meringue pie!” she exclaimed.

“I made it to surprise you,” said Amelia Bedelia happily.

So right then and there Mr. and Mrs. Rogers decided that Amelia Bedelia must stay.

And so she did.

Mrs. Rogers learned to say undust the furniture, unlight the lights, close the drapes and things like that.”

How often are we ready to let someone go in our organizations for not following instructions when the root cause of the problem was that our instructions were unclear to them?

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