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Leading Problem-Solving Teams

In observing thousands of teams, we start to see patterns of behavior that give us insight into how teams can best be lead during the problem-solving process. I want to contrast two different examples of team leadership in action.

My first example happened while I was training on an Air Force base. We had set up an escape room and I was training the Air Force personnel how to run an escape room. We had some test teams that had volunteered to help with the training and we were running one of those teams through the room when I saw a leadership style that didn’t work so well.

One of the members of the team was an Air Force colonel. He was the overall boss of all the people on the team and everyone in the room knew it. As the event began, I noticed that a reporting system developed where everything that happened in the room was reported to the colonel. The team would search the room locating puzzles and clues. These were all relayed to the colonel who then would offer an opinion on what the puzzle was or what the clue meant.

As time went on two things began to emerge. The first thin that I noticed was that several of the team members seemed more interested in pandering to the colonel than anything else. They would often ask the colonel’s opinion and then work on the puzzle. Once they solved the puzzle they would then report their success to the colonel, so they could get credit in his eyes for the work they completed. In some cases, it was painfully obvious that they cared more about looking good to the colonel than they did about completing the mission.

The second thing that I noticed was that the colonel was wrong in multiple assessments of the puzzles and the clues, but rather than contradict his authority the team pushed forward following miss interpretations of the clues or solving the puzzles in the wrong way. Instead of thinking for themselves the team basically turned all creative and investigative efforts over to one person who inevitably made mistakes. Those mistakes caused the team to fail the mission as time ran out.

The second example of leadership took place last night as I presented an escape game experience to a group of about 120 young women ranging in age from 12 to 15 years of age and some of their adult leaders. They were divided into teams of six to a team and each were given a packet that contained the clues and puzzles they needed to solve the mystery. There were five puzzles in each packet that all needed to be solved for the team to gain access to critical information that lead to solving the mystery.

As time began, it was interesting to watch the dynamics of each team. Some teams divided the puzzles among the team members and began to solve all the puzzles at the same time. Other teams worked on one puzzle at a time as a whole group. Most groups however, opened the packet found one or two puzzles that they recognized and began to work on them ignoring the other puzzles in the packet.

One of the puzzles was a numbered grid. Around the room were individual squares from the grid. Each square had part of a picture on it. By finding each section and drawing the image on the grid they had in the packet, they could see the full picture. However, very few of the groups knew what to do with the grid because they didn’t notice the images placed around the room so, they set the puzzle aside and focused their attention on the other puzzles. Those groups with a good leader functioned a little differently.

A couple of the teams laid out each puzzle on the table and took a moment in the beginning to discuss each for any ideas about how to solve the puzzle. When they didn’t understand a puzzle, they didn’t just lay it aside, they actively talked about what they thought the puzzle was. This gave them an advantage over the other teams in finding the solution. The leadership in this case was not about reporting to a single person but it was about identifying team needs and objectives.

I think what we learn from these two experiences is that a leader doesn’t need to know all the answers, but they do need to step back and look at the whole picture and not just the most immediate problem. Leading a problem-solving team doesn’t require the leader to be the one that solves all the problems. It requires the leader to keep track of all the problems that need to be solved and involve the whole team in identifying the best way to approach each problem.

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