What is your Toothpick? (and what do you do when you get screwed?)

So today I was assembling some Ikea outdoor furniture. I’ve probably assembled close to 50 Ikea pieces in my lifetime. This one was a little more complicated than I was used to. It was called Applaro, as Ikea is wont to do, but with Swedish double dots above the first A and the O. It had 14 total steps involving an adjustable back and the ability to fold and store it away.

ImageSo of course I was sweating it. I’ve had experiences when I’ve been assembling, let’s say a futon, when I’ve got to the like very delicate point where it’s supposed to do the futon thing and fold away, and realized that I’d put everything together exactly backwards. And I had the flu that time as I recall. (To be fair that was not an Ikea piece.)

Nothing that bad happened this time. My first problem though was when one of the screws wouldn’t tighten nicely into it’s groove. Luckily, a very good friend of mine who is very handy has told me that many such problems can be solved with the strategic insertion of a toothpick. And so I did. And so it did.Image

And this got me to thinking about management. Yup, just sitting there on my deck on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the mid-Atlantic. I suddenly, in a flash of revelation, saw the toothpick as a metaphor. So as a manager, what’s your TOOTHPICK? What’s that thing you always do when things don’t go right? We all have toothpicks. I suspect we all revert to our primeval management instinct. Mine is always to have a conversation. I know, it’s not very commanding and certainly not very sexy. But I find it very effective. It fits my style. It builds on what I’m good at. During my career I fretted once or twice or more that my management style was not “strong” enough for the CIA. But no matter how hard I try, I do “mean and nasty” rather poorly. And I would like to think most people who’ve worked for me would say I’m not controlling. But you would have to check. In the end, however, I decided I could only be the very best version of myself. That was truly my only path to excellence. So my question to you is do you know your toothpick? You have one, I’m sure, and if you don’t know what it is, you need to figure that out.

ImageThe silly screw problem got me to thinking even further. Now in this case the screw just wouldn’t tighten from the get go. I never got a chance to overtighten it. But I’ve had that experience too. When you twist just once too often and the whole dynamic falls apart. Now that’s clearly a metaphor for management. The manager is always trying to influence matters she can’t fully control. And when he tries too hard, when he responds to uncertainty by becoming more controlling, almost always nothing good happens. In fact, he and his team gets screwed.

In the end the AAPLARO was assembled more or less as IKEA intended. I did lose a piece when it fell through one of the cracks in the deck and into the crawl space full of ivy. Luckily, I have a drawer full of leftover IKEA parts from previous assemblies. I can always find what I need there.

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3 responses to “What is your Toothpick? (and what do you do when you get screwed?)

  1. Great metaphor. I would agree with your assessment of your “toothpick,” but I think you are missing another one that is perhaps closely related: you have a unique ability to make people feel at ease in your presence, which is something I think is very important when working with/leading people such as myself that are still relatively new to the professional world.

    Now, if only I could figure out what my toothpick is…

  2. Very interesting metaphor. As a teenager I worked in construction and we used splints of wood for many purposes. I use toothpicks too for some “honey-do” items around the house. As I thought about the management metaphor, toothpicks, screws, over-tightening, etc., I still wondered why the screw didn’t quite fit. Sometimes on our teams, we just don’t have the right pieces. Some may call it chemistry, but sometimes, the elements just don’t fit because we don’t have the right parts. So instead of making it fit (using toothpick management), we have to get another screw that fits. Having the right parts for the right job is about excellence and it will help your team from falling apart when pressure or weight is applied. Yes, toothpick managment is very useful, but having the right people and tools in place from the beginning also enables good management and leadership. Thanks for thought-provoking metaphor!

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