Performance Management Blog

Funny Thoughts and Ideas on “Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly”

Some thoughts of mine on how I work around some of the issues of managing and leading change.

One of my approaches is where I show a cartoon with two caterpillars sitting on the Square Wheels wagon and talking about a beautiful butterfly floating by…

The one caterpillar says to the other caterpillar:
     “You’ll never get me up in one of those things…”

Over the years, I have been playing with this theme and using the joke to set up a discussion about how to deal with resistance to change and how to involve and engage “the caterpillars” in a discussion of possibilities for improvement. But I also learned a valuable lesson when presenting one day many years ago in a workshop in Hong Kong.

People did not laugh at the joke, which proved to be a great learning lesson for me when I finally realized what had happened and what was happening. Now, I set the story up with the following slide, which I use to communicate that the participants are now about to receive a learning lesson:

I set all this up with a simple slide from one of my favorite athletes, who was quoted in Sports Illustrated in 1990. On losing to Tim Mayotte, he said:

When I told the joke, people did not laugh and I thought it might be a cultural issue (their English was excellent but they were primarily Chinese) so I asked them to talk about it at their tables for two minutes, which they did with an increasing amount of animation and laughter. Only when I asked them for the answer did I learn something VERY important:

What happened to me happens to everyone. I read the joke one day in a Reader’s Digest magazine and linked it into my presentation. The punchline to the joke HAD to be: “The caterpillars are resisting change that is inevitable.”

What I found out in Hong Kong is that my assumption was most assuredly NOT correct and that there are a wide variety of creative and innovative thoughts on pretty much any situation. People do NOT view things similarly. And that diversity of opinion generates a great deal of possibilities.

The correct answer to most performance improvement situations is to say, NO when someone asks you if you know something. That way you generate a possibility for a new idea that you had not considered.

Dr. Ted Forbes was at Darden School of Business in the 90s and he and I were chatting on the phone. He asked me if I knew about caterpillars and butterflies and I said, “NO” even though I knew a great deal about lepidoptera (moths and butterflies, the scientific name):

Ted said,

Thus, by listening to his thoughts, I got a new one liner, one that links up wonderfully to my metaphors around the Square Wheels Wagon being up to its axles in mud. Mud is that mess we all get in with the bureaucracy and overall “gooeyness” of how most organizations really operate.

Similarly in a conversation with Diane Mashia, then with PayChex:

The possibilities for improvement are limitless, but generally limited by our thinking about how things are, not about how they could be if we made different choices and had different alternatives.

In another post, I will ask for some reactions to some of the different punch lines from, “You’ll never get me up in one of those things!”

Hope you like the concept. You can read more about the whole concept in the article, “Teaching the Caterpillar to Fly.” (Click here to download)

Have FUN out there!

Dr. Scott Simmerman

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant, earning CPT and CPF credentials. -- You can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com and a detailed profile is here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottsimmerman/ -- Scott is the original designer of The Search for The Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine teambuilding game and the Square Wheels® images for organizational development.

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