Nothing will bring together a group of people, or tear them apart, more quickly than an “escape room.”
For those that have not yet found themselves paying for the privilege of being locked in a room with their best friends, worst enemies or group of total strangers, an escape room is a game where you are locked in a confined space with others in order to solve a series of puzzles within a certain amount of time to accomplish a goal, usually finding the key to unlock the room. Once the clock starts, the group quickly establishes its problem-solving dynamics, which usually consist of one of the following patterns: a strong leader coming forward to direct others, small cliques forming to focus on different areas or each person working pell-mell on their own.
The team skill that makes or breaks a successful escape (besides the employees letting you out because they need to close the place for the night) is the team’s ability to solve problems together. Is the team culture one that supports one another’s efforts or tears each other’s opinions apart? A culture that encourages effective back and forth or unproductive arguing? Whether paying to be locked in an escape room or getting paid to be “locked” into your work environment, problem-solving is an important “power skill” to master in order to succeed in today’s marketplace.
All organizations are in the business of problem-solving in one way or another. The best problem-solving cultures are developed both from the top down and the bottom up. For leaders to engender effective problem-solving within their teams, there are four important steps they can take to demonstrate to themselves and others the value they place on team problem-solving. As explained in a January 2023 Harvard Business School article, author Catherine Cote describes those four steps as:
- Problem framing. Determining the scope, context and perspective of the problem you’re trying to solve.
- Empathy. Consideration of whom a problem impacts when working toward a solution.
- Breaking cognitive fixedness. Examining situations through more than just the lens of past experiences and allowing for the consideration of alternative possibilities.
- Creating a psychologically safe environment. Encouraging an environment in which all team members feel comfortable bringing ideas to the table, which are often influenced by their personal opinions and experiences.
Leaders who demonstrate these traits of mental flexibility, empathy and perspective will empower their teams from the top down to encounter problems with a desire to work together to solve them, as opposed to avoid them.
Teams that seek to improve the problem-solving culture within their organization have key actions that they can take that work complementarily to those just described. Heidi Grant, social psychologist and author of the book “Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You,” describes some of those actions to journalist Rebecca Knight in her April 2021 Harvard Business Review article “Is Your Team Solving Problems, or Just Identifying Them?” These actions include:
- Focusing on the why before the how. Consider why the problem identified must be solved to align with the organization's vision before focusing on the details of how to solve the problem and the potential obstacles that could impact the proposed solution.
- Advocating for bandwidth “pruning.” Big and small problems each take time to resolve, and there is a finite number of working hours in the day, week, month, year. Teams should empower the reinvigoration of processes and reconsideration of low-value activities to give managers the opportunity to create increased worker bandwidth which can be focused on solving new problems.
- Use external data to spur internal conversations. Bring in external data from outside the organization to help spark discussions related to organizational activities. Consider sharing a journal article, a newspaper column or a passage from a business book you’ve just read to spark dialog amongst team members.
- Respect historical perspectives without being beholden to them. It is important to acknowledge the experiences of veteran employees at your organization who have seen successes and failures from past problem-solving approaches in the past. But acknowledging the past doesn’t mean letting it hinder the future. Explore what is different from the previous attempt — whether it is personnel, the business environment or new external research — that helps support taking an approach to solving a problem that has been tried in the past. Respond in a productive manner to the objections, whether it means scheduling a separate meeting to explore the topic more in-depth or reviewing documentation of previous attempts to help support the current endeavor.
Problem-solving isn’t easy. There’s a reason they are called problems. Our natural tendencies lean toward problem avoidance rather that problem resolution, as illustrated by the pile of unopened mail on the dining room table, the lightbulb in the living room that is out, the pile of quarter-completed projects in the garage (these examples are in no way taken from real life). It is only together that we can collectively work to solve the problems we face at our organizations and thereby unlocking the mysteries, discovering the key to success, and escaping from the comfort of identifying problems versus solving them.