The Mosquito Metaphor built on the Wagon in the Mud illustration

This all started when people from the Publications Department approached Diane Mashia with a request that she do some communication facilitation.

It seems that group members were having difficulty relating personally to coworkers. Those who approached her felt, of course, that department members would be more comfortable discussing ideas without blame or without judgment. Thus, the session had to focus on what was really happening without making anyone feel defensive.

Diane thought Square Wheels would be a great metaphor to use since it objectively describes how things are with a focus on the future – two factors that would help the discussion be less emotional. So she called me and asked for ideas. And the session had been scheduled for the next day so we were not blessed with a great deal of planning time…

We discussed details for a few minutes and I finally suggested that Diane use the main illustration (Square Wheels One) to start the discussion and get things rolling. Then, she would use the "Managing Mud" illustration and have them discuss that briefly. From there, she would transition to communications.

For this one hour meeting, there were no managers present. They were involved in later meetings when a variety of plans and solutions were discussed to focus on the long term group dynamics.

Diane reported that the group came up with lots of great ideas that described the Square Wheels within their organization. People then discussed the "mud and muck," which added to the reality of the work environment and made it even harder to get work done efficiently.

(This metaphor generally links to those things that bog you down but are hard to get a grip on - the gooey mess of how an organization operates. It also takes more energy to move forward when you are "up to your axles in this stuff."

People saw the "muck" in their communications with each other as representing their unwillingness to address conflict and their "political sidestepping" of issues that were important and should be discussed. But because this often represents an uncomfortable situation, many felt they avoided these discussions.

The "mud" was also likened to having always to go to someone's supervisor instead of going directly to that person to discuss problems or ask questions.

She then added the sound effects as a recap, pointing out how as the wagon goes "thump thump" the mud goes "squish squish" and makes the whole process even messier and harder to manage. Heck, it might actually be quicksand or concrete!

At this point, Diane added some "marker dots" to the illustration around the heads of the pushers and pullers and asked the group what these dots might represent. As this discussion evolved, the participants began to share that these dots might represent the mosquitoes, flies, gnats, bees, ticks and the like that can be somewhat common during wagon pushing and pulling. She then had them all make "buzzing noises" which were accompanied by the healthy sound of laughter!

The reality, anchored by the sound of "buzzzzzzzz" in the workplace, was that these annoying little beasts, many of them bloodsuckers, also carry diseases like malaria, Lyme disease, hepatitis and all sorts of other problems. And some people are allergic to their stings.

These pesky little annoyances can have large negative impacts on people and organizations if allowed to fly around freely. When asked, "What might be represented by these mosquitoes and gnats," the group moved into a discussion of these other factors.

By then, they could see how the little nasties -- gossip, back-biting, withholding information, complaining about others, denying access to useful resources -- were like the nasty gnats attracted by the people in the mud and muck. These two are deadly in organizations, often causing problems in morale, quality and productivity and increasing stress and workplace dissatisfaction.

In order to get rid of these beasties and make that annoying "buzz-buzz" go away, the groups need to remove the mud and get focused on rolling forward. Only then could they work on replacing some Square Wheels with some of the round ones.

Diane reports that the session opened up the atmosphere for some really good conversation about what frustrates people, and how they feel when they discover they are victims of back-biting and office gossip. The group agreed to address these things with the managers NOT present and then meet with the managing team about a month later.

For the next month, the people met weekly in small groups to discuss their problems, and make recommendations to the managers based on those discussions. The purpose of these discussions was to provide a non-judgmental outlet for people to talk about their frustrations. They even did some role playing to practice making the issue the issue and not focus on the person, which is a coaching framework: If it's not personal, don't make it personal.

The process worked out very well, and things have improved in that department. Diane reported that a month later when she re-visited the workplace, she was greeted with the sound of "buzzzzzzzz," a sure indicator that the group remembered the learning and the message.

In the time since that training, Diane has moved into a management position and continues to use the tools in her coaching.

How does this relate to coaching and organizational performance?

The improvement process is simple and straightforward.

1. Do Square Wheels with the group and establish the language of Square Wheels and Round Wheels and the supporting framework.

2. Show the Mud illustration and the people up to their axles pushing and pulling, with a discussion of what bogs the organization down.

3. Then add some dots and a discussion about the little things that annoy people as they are trying to get things done and establish the "buzzz" as a way to communicate the conversational and behavioral issues that are common with these things. Set up the "buzz" as a way of saying, "bug off!" and getting people to stop these non-productive behaviors.

4. Discuss possibilities and things that might be addressed. Agree on an informal signal ("buzz") about the occurrence of these annoying behaviors for the workplace.

5. Deal with the annoyances and begin to deal with the mud in the workplace.

6. Begin to address the Square Wheels and discuss the Round ones. (More on how this process can be applied can be found in the Facilitator’s Guide, the various toolkits and in the articles on the website).

7. Roll On!

Note that you really do not need anything more than Square Wheels One and some easel pad sheets or blank transparencies to deliver this session. You can show the main cartoon, ask what it would be like to have the wagon and the people "up to their axles in this gooey sticky mess" and then use a marker to put some dots around the heads of the characters.

Record the discussion points, facilitate the problem identification and ideas for improvement, and generate some action plans and commitments for improvement.

Change will occur when people feel uncomfortable with the way things are, have a vision of how things should be and then make better choices about how they will react. Peer support is critical and having everyone share a common language of Square Wheels and Thump and Buzz can be highly effective.

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