Get ’em out of the cave

Photo of a cave“I’m sure the first caveman who went over the hill to see what was on the other side—I don’t think he went there wholly out of curiosity. He went there because he wanted to get his son out of the cave.” — Studs Turkel, “Working”

I love this quote. I heard it for the first time when my 16-year old was in his school’s performance of “Working.” This musical, based on Stud Turkel’s novel of the same name, is a collection of interviews with the working class in America. My son played a steel worker, who described his desire to make things better for his kid, to get him out of the cave. Such is the case for many parents. We want to raise our children in a different, often better environment than our parents could offer to us.

It got me thinking about leadership and getting employees “out of the cave” when they’re stuck in ruts. With a change in environment, job responsibilities, or even daily routine, employees can gain new perspectives, be more innovative, combat burnout, and become more engaged with the company and its mission.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m surrounded by parents who seek enrichment activities for their kids. But, I can’t say the same for all the executives I’ve worked with over my career in the software industry. Sure, some have been great at identifying development opportunities for their employees, but others seem to get caught up in the business at hand and never seem to think about enrichment for their teams.

As inspiration for all of us, here are some tried-and-true approaches from parenting that I’ve seen successfully applied to the workplace:

Parenting Leadership
Exchange programs
Just like you might encourage your teens and college students to explore student exchange programs or mission trips, ideally in a different country… Look for opportunities for your employees to work from another office for a short period of time, ideally in a different geography.
Shadow days
Just like you might ask a co-worker to take your kids to a meeting or lunch on “Bring your kids to work day”… Match a top performer with an executive in another area of your business, and have him or her shadow the executive for a day.
Summer camps and sabbaticals
Just like you give your kids time to do something different when they’re not in school, such as camps, travel, or just unstructured time during the summer… Give your employees a 5-day “sabbatical” each year to work on whatever experimental or research project they chose, just so long as it might benefit the team or the company.
Temporary jobs
Just like you might help your kids find part-time jobs or internships… Identify rotation assignments for your employees. Could they step into a new position until you can hire the full-time person? Or fill in on another team who is looking for temporary contracting help?

With each of these approaches, kids and employees are exposed to different cultures, ideas, opportunities, and challenges. The overall impact? Improved happiness, confidence, engagement, innovation, and productivity.

I’d love to hear your approaches to getting your your kids or employees “out of their caves.” Please leave a comment!


© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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Innovation…in the bamboo forest?

Photo of a bamboo ForestWhen we bought our first home, my husband and I were warned about the bamboo growing on our back hillside. Friends told us that the bamboo was invasive, that it would eventually send shoots all over our yard. Unfortunately, they were right. My husband and I spent many weekends digging trenches to prevent the bamboo from spreading, pulling up the shoots, and silently cursing the person who had planted it.

Yet, we stopped cursing it when we realized the bamboo fueled our children’s creativity. Once our kids were old enough to play outside on their own, they discovered the hillside and started calling it the “bamboo forest.” It wasn’t very large, but in their minds it had all the elements of a forest – tall growth, a blanket of leaves, and a magical element that unleashed their imaginations. They spent hours in the bamboo, building forts from fallen branches and leaves and having all kinds of fun.

We sold that house many years ago, and my kids, now teens, have fond memories of the bamboo. I was reminded of it just the other day when I heard my son and some friends talking about houses they used to live in. In his now deep voice, my son enthusiastically described the bamboo and the fun he and his sister had there. In hindsight, I’m happy that the previous owners planted it. It provided a constrained space perfect for inventing imaginary worlds. Our kids didn’t need a special toy or after-school activity to teach them how to be creative.

Creativity and constraints go hand-in-hand in the business world as well. In her Harvard Business Review Blog titled “Why Innovators Love Constraints,” Whitney Johnson wrote:

“Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.” 

Designers also understand the power of limits. If things are too open-ended, or if you have too many tools at your disposal, innovation can’t start, or is hampered. A few years back, Scott Dadich, the Creative Director of Wired Magazine, wrote in “Design Under Constraint: How Limits Boost Creativity“:

“In fact, the worst thing a designer can hear is an offhand ‘Just do whatever you want.’ That’s because designers understand the power of limits. Constraint offers an unparalleled opportunity for growth and innovation.”

Leaders and parents alike, do you have a bamboo forest to encourage innovation? Please share it in the comments. I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: