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Information and Teams

Teams often have uneven distribution of information, which can cause problems when the tea tries to solve problems together. The issue is really that only part of the team can fully address new problems because the rest of the team has not received the information necessary for solving the problem. Without this information the team members may make poor choices or spend a long period of time trying to solve the problem with only partial background on what the problem is.

In our escape room observations, what usually happens is the group will divide and work on multiple puzzles at the same time. When a puzzle is solved, rather than broadcasting to the rest of the group, those who solve the problem take the new information they just discovered and look for how it can be used. As time goes on we see information silos develop where different parts of the team will have detailed information about the solutions that haven’t been shared with other parts of the team similar to how information silos develop in companies and other organizations.

While the problem of information silos in the workplace isn’t new, watching them form in a few short minutes in an escape room can give us clues how to avoid them. An information silo in the workplace may be the product of months or even years of information gathering without sharing. In an escape room it happens much more quickly because the team only had about an hour to solve the problem. This quick process gives us a chance to observe the cause and right from the beginning.

What we see with information hording in an escape room environment is not the product of one part of the team purposefully holding information, but rather the team is distracted by their discoveries and simply doesn’t think to share with their colleagues who they see are hard a work on their own puzzles. They just simply move on thinking that they can share the information when the other team members have solved their won puzzles. What begins as a simple oversight soon becomes a real problem as puzzles often interconnect particularly in the latter part of the experience.

Once we noticed the phenomena, we started crafting puzzles that required greater team collaboration as part of the overall escape room design. So instead of a simple string of puzzles one leading to another, we created multiple paths where the answer to one puzzle might reveal a new puzzle but the clue t solving that puzzle was found in by solving a completely different puzzle. This inter weaving of puzzle paths increased the challenge for teams to communicate and spread new information among all team members. When we applied this type of puzzle design, we discovered some interesting results.

Those teams that didn’t communicate well tended to fall further and further behind in completing the rooms. Those teams that did communicate well were unaffected by the change. The middle group of teams that had some form of communication struggled at first but once they saw the way information was being delivered, they actually started to communicate better.

The next thing we tried was to do a communication intervention for those teams that did two escape room experiences in the same day. During the debriefing after the first room experience, we pointed out how communication was a problem and suggested ways that they might be able to improve during their second adventure. When the team then tried the second room adventure, we watched to see if their performance was improved. In every case we saw improved communication leading to more successful outcomes.

When solving complex problem, teams that use all their brain power are more effective than those that only utilize part. We created a simple illustration to show how effective the process can become. Below is an example of a puzzle that we presented in our debriefing. The puzzle has six visual clues for common phrases. We asked the team members to silently try to figure out what each phrase was by themselves. We gave them about two minutes to work on their own. At the end of the two minutes, we asked how many phrases were discovered. Some teams would have one or two people that correctly solved two phrases, a few others on the team might solve for one phrase. Most of the team usually didn’t have an answer for any of the phrases.

After this first try at the phrases, we told the team to now discuss the puzzle clues as a group. Once they started talking and sharing with each other, there was a dramatic change in productivity. Those that had figured one or two of the phrases gave their answers to the group and received verification from the other members of the group that they had the right solution. Those that didn’t solve any of the clues saw how the clues lead to answers and started looking at the clues in a different way, many of them solving one or two of their own. What’s more once anyone solved a clue, the entire team got the answer.

The multiplying effect of the experiment is significant. Instead of three or four people in a team of 10 getting an answer, all 10 team members get 4, 5 and sometimes 6 answers. If mapped by comparison of team members having answers, the first exercise produced 4 to 6 people/answers. The second produce 40 to 60 people/answers, a ten fold improvement.

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