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Problem Solving Leadership – Day 5

For the last full day of the workshop, we took part in a delegation simulation. The class was divided into two groups, each of which developed a problem for the other to solve within a time limit.  Both halves of this exercise were equally interesting: working as a team to decide on and develop a problem, and then solving a problem designed by another such team.

In creating a problem, we chose a facilitator and followed a set-based design process. We generated ideas through brainstorming, clustered them, eliminated most of them by agreeing on some guidelines, prototyped the remaining two, and voted to decide between them. This process was not entirely smooth. While we successfully applied several lessons learned earlier in the week, there was some conflict in the group which proved difficult to address while still completing the task in the available time. In one case, two members of the group did not seem to agree with the process we were following, and refused to take part. In another, one person’s work was erased by another without their agreement. Even in a classroom environment, where the stakes were low, these were tense situations and required careful attention to maintain the effectiveness of the group.

In the end, both groups produced problems which were loosely specified, and allowed for a great deal of creativity in the solution. This led to a valuable insight into effective delegation. Jerry defines problem solving leadership as the ability to enhance the environment so that everyone is empowered to contribute creatively to solving the problem. By providing a minimal specification with only essential parameters, members of the group were both empowered and inspired to contribute individually in unique ways. The motivational effect was palpable.

Photo credit: Rickard Johansson

Photo credit: Rickard Johansson

Both problems could easily have been solved in a trivial fashion by one person, but instead, the teams seized the opportunity to engage their creativity. In observing the other group solving my group’s problem, I could watch how everyone in the group found a way to contribute according to their abilities, without conflict or confusion. The end result was of much better quality than we anticipated.

The problem specification had created an environment in which the team could flourish, and this enabled both efficient organization and high motivation. Two of my classmates, Henrik Kniberg and David Barnholdt, have since experimented with this idea in their own teaching. They designed exercises which compare the behavior of problem solving teams in response to problem definitions with different levels of detail. They’ve shared the results on their blogs, which are worth reading.

This type of creative delegation is not without its pitfalls, of course. I could easily imagine getting drawn into the game Jerry called “bring me a rock”: ask someone to bring you a rock from the nearby stream; when they do, answer “not that rock”, and ask for another; if they ask which rock you want, answer “I’ll know it when I see it”.

This game mirrors many failed attempts at delegation. Creative problem solving only works if you are prepared to accept something different from what you might have expected. This means letting go of your own approach to solving the problem, and letting them solve it their way. Jerry described this with a great analogy to a monkey trap, where a monkey’s fist is caught in a hole because it won’t let go of the bait. People can be trapped the same way by an unwillingness to let go of an idea.

This doesn’t mean that the problem should be underspecified. It should be constrained to the bare essentials, and specify results rather than methods. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Another idea which resonated with me was communication through “I” statements rather than “it” statements. For example, “I’m frustrated” rather than “it’s frustrating”. This more accurately relates the feelings of the speaker, and helps promote a connection with the audience. Many “it” statements can be transformed into “I” statements in a straightforward way.

Teams get better at adapting to change through experience coping with it together. One of Jerry’s suggestions for team formation was to give the team a problem to solve which is not too easy, but not too hard. This allows the group to “organize through success”. Some of the participants felt that the problems were too easy, and therefore not interesting, but I certainly learned a great deal from them.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 2, 2009 at 16:39

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