A few weeks ago, my inner Disney nerd was indulged in a way she never was before- by meeting and spending time with my inner classical music nerd. The two met at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s opening night of Fantasia Live! As a great lover of classical music since my days in ballet, and a particularly ardent fan of movie scores, this was a dream come true for me. The high point? Getting to watch “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with a live accompaniment of Dukas’ distinctive, soaring notes.

But my student affairs nerd got something from the experience as well. Yes, my many nerdy sides got to come to the party 🙂 The story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is essentially one of creative problem solving and crisis management. So where did the adorable, but ultimately misguided, sorcerer Mickey go wrong?

His guidance was incomplete. As you’ll see in the video above, when Mickey conceived his plan, he did implement some training. But there were unanswered questions, and he wasn’t available to answer them. Who among us hasn’t dealt with that situation? Managers give instructions, might show us the way for a brief moment, but then can sometimes leave us to our own devices without a full view of the project we’re completing. And what do we do as the broomsticks? Sometimes we stop and ask, sometimes we’re paralyzed to act further…but sometimes we just carry on in the absence of a solution. And to the managers reading: ensure that the guidance given is as complete as possible…and then make yourself available for any questions that may arise. Otherwise, you could end up with a flood in the office.

He lost focus. Isn’t it frustrating to have a question for your boss or supervisor, only to find that he or she is nowhere to be found? Yes, it is unlikely that a broom would ask a question, but people can. Sometimes, there is a common sense solution to be found (I wrote about using the “use your head, use your heart” strategy last week), but sometimes there isn’t. Our bosses are not to be faulted for having other obligations; as you move up the ladder of an organization, your attention is needed in more and more ways, by more and more people. But as your attention is needed by demanding parties, ensure that when you’re working with an individual, you’re focused. (I’ve got something for that too.) It makes the person you’re advising feel as though you value their time and their thoughts, and in the absence of it a simple task could spiral out of control. Again, a flood in the office.

He panicked when his first solution didn’t work. Again, to the credit of the novice sorcerer, he did try to solve the problem when he realized it wasn’t going as it should. But when that solution didn’t work, he allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the progress, and became despondent. A fatal flaw: he didn’t ask for help. It’s not the most humbling thing in the world to be able to say, “I did something wrong.” But it is the most constructive. Without admitting you need help, you limit the number of solutions to the problem that can be presented: as many as you alone can come up with. But when you open up the pool of ideas by adding different perspectives, you can enlist the talents of others. For instance, more advanced sorcery. But because many of us don’t have access to such a powerful problem-solver, we just need an equally magical solution.

So how can we avoid the pitfalls of sorcerer Mickey?

  • When providing guidance, give instructions that can be clearly understood- not by you, but by the person receiving them. Mickey could have avoided an indoor tsunami if he had said “Fill the well, and stop when the water level reaches the top. I see you don’t have eyes, let me know if you have a question.” For that matter, this classic cartoon could have been avoided if sorcerer Yensid (his real name, and as you’ll notice, it’s “Disney” spelled backwards) had just told his apprentice “Don’t touch the hat, please.”
  • Be available to those you’re guiding. Empower them to make the simpler decisions, help guide people in making the hard ones. Be as present as possible in dealing with people, and don’t leave them searching for an answer in your absence. The Walt Disney Company has been able to continue for over fifty years after Walt’s death because he was so clear on what he wanted the park to be, but flexible about how those goals were fulfilled; his ideas and intent are accessible, even if he’s not. That balance between clarity and creativity has created a great working environment for many, and a magical experience for nearly all who watch his movies and enter his parks. I know there are strong opinions about the value of Disney overall, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going with this set of assumptions.
  • Don’t fight the current, work with it. If your original idea or solution is being carried away, a casualty in the process, let it go. Come up with a new one. But don’t allow despair to let you sink. Keep your mind working, come up with a new solution, and get new minds on the problem if your creative stores have been spent. Failure doesn’t have to be final, or even permanent. Ride the current wave, and your return to shore could be triumphant, as with a surfer; rather than defeated, as with the victims of shipwreck.

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