Have you noticed that everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot and everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac?

Even where boundaries are unequivocal, such as the designated legal speed limit, we tend to frame them based on our own perspective.  Does this explain the difficulty in establishing the parameters for appropriate behaviour within an organisation?  When does selling become ‘the hard sell’?  When does getting staff input become a moaner’s charter?

Perhaps a group of small children can help solve this constant corporate conundrum.

When he was in year four, every Wednesday afternoon my son went to Forest School. This fantastic scheme takes two classes from the local primary school into some nearby woods – whatever the weather. Forest School recognises that different children have different learning styles and types of intelligence.  For some, sitting still in the classroom is the worst context for learning. The natural environment also encourages new skills – or helps us re-discover latent ones. For example, the countryside is what it is and hasn’t been designed with the safety of children in mind. Safety can’t be abdicated to the head teacher or a set of building regulations. To assess risk and be safe becomes everyone’s responsibility.

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One of the first lessons of Forest School is setting boundaries.  In the woodland, the boundary beyond which the children absolutely must not go is marked with red flags.  Anyone who knows kids understands that if you tell them not to do something, one of their strongest natural urges is to find out what happens if they do it.  This is them learning about consequences. That’s a potentially harsh lesson in open woodland. So to make sure that everyone knows exactly where the boundaries are, understands why they are there and respects them, everyone is involved in setting them.

One child and a helper are given a red flag.  They walk out into the wood and the rest of the group watch them and clap. When the children in the group think the boundary is reaching a point beyond which it is unsafe, then they stop clapping. When everyone has stopped clapping that is where the flag goes. This is repeated until a boundary is established.

Think about lists of values, mission statements and corporate visions. They are supposedly there to help people understand how to behave.  It seems that these are often abstract expressions* of discussions about the scope and boundaries of behaviour. Forest School would appear to teach us how to manage a more direct and meaningful dialogue about these things.

Where might this approach be applied in your organisation and how exactly would it need to be modified to work in that environment?

*The picture used above is called Red Flag.  It’s an example of abstract expressionism.