The Island of Misfit Toys
3 December 2009
The holiday TV classic, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, was on last night. I watched the whole show with some delight, as it brought me back to a more innocent time. The 60s sensibility of the production is funny now, and a bit jarring. When Rudolph's dad told Rudolph's mom that she can't go looking for Rudolph “because this is man's work!” I laughed out loud. I don't think that line would make it past the editors today.
But there are more enduring themes in this production that are as true today as the day they were written. One of my favorites is the Island of Misfit Toys. For those of you who need a reminder, the Island is a gathering spot for mismatched toys that no one wants. For example, there is a train with square wheels. There is a dolly that cries. There is a bird that swims in a fishbowl. And there is a Jack-in-the-Box named… Charlie.
Over my career as a consultant, in conversations I’ve often imitated Charlie’s plaintive line, in his cracking voice: “Nobody wants a Charlie-in-the-Box!” It’s a catch-all phrase that reminds me that some things are just…not…quite…right.
In our day to day work, we all recognize these things readily. Systems that don’t do what we want them to. Processes that are head scratchers. People that don’t seem to fit in the roles that they’ve been given. But once you learn to live with a Charlie-in-the-Box, you can almost forget the obvious. You begin to have some misplaced affection for those hapless systems, processes, and people. They’re not very good, but they’re yours. And that’s why they persist.
In Rudolph’s day, it was important to have a happy ending. So the show ends with Santa going to the Island, picking up the Misfit Toys, and finding children who are happy to give those sad toys homes. Awwwwww! But in the real world, our job is to recognize when our affection for systems, processes, and people is misplaced. Our options include repairing or replacing our misfit toys, and that is the only happy ending we should entertain.