Solving problems as a team has a multiplying effect that is very powerful. It isn’t just that it can create a solution faster than solving problems individually, it has the potential for producing better solutions and spreading those solutions to more people more effectively.
When we observe teams in action we see many types of problem-solving taking place within the group. Sometimes we see one person try to tackle a puzzle by themselves. Other times we see small groups try to solve the puzzle. There are times when everyone in the room is working on the same puzzle. From what we’ve observed and tracked, multiple people working together on a puzzle give better results.
A single person trying to solve a puzzle by themselves will result in one of the following outcomes.
The person has a good idea what the solution is and solves the puzzle quickly.
The person has an idea of what the solution is and solves the puzzle after working on it for a while.
The person doesn’t have a good idea of the puzzle and spends a long time trying to solve it.
The person tries to get some ideas from other team members and draws them into helping solve the puzzle.
Let’s take a closer look at what each of these outcomes does for the group.
In outcome one where the puzzle is solved quickly the process and the solution are achieved in isolation. The rest of the team doesn’t know how the puzzle was solved. Sometimes the rest of the team doesn’t even know that a puzzle was solved. If something was revealed or found as a result of solving the puzzle the other team members only get reward but not the process. For example, if the solution for the puzzle results in finding the combination for a locked box and inside the box is an object the team needs to complete the mission, most of the team just knows that they now have the object but knows little or nothing about how the object was obtained.
In the second outcome the situation is similar to the first except that because the solution took more work the person solving the puzzle is a little more likely to share how the puzzle was solved. Most of the other team members are just glad it finally got solved and move their attention to the next problem rather than concern themselves with how the solution was found.
In the third outcome the solution is often not found, and the puzzle goes unsolved. In many instances the person trying to solve the puzzle will quietly move on to another puzzle not telling anyone they didn’t solve the puzzle. This often leads to general frustration by the group because they are missing an essential part of the overall solution that they thought was being worked on.
In the last outcome the person realizes that they don’t have the needed insight to solve the puzzle on their own, so they involve others who then either take over or collaborate to find a solution. In this instance, there are more people involved with the solution so the process and out come are known by more members of the team and the overall knowledge of the team is increased.
When I give a team building presentation, I like to give tangible examples of the principles that build better teams. One of the methods I use is interactive activities that illustrate the advantages of working together as a team to solve problems. Here is an example of one of these examples. The image below is a visual representation of a well-known phrase.
I usually put six of these on the screen and give the group a couple minutes to write down what they think the phrase is on their own. After a couple minutes of struggling, I ask how many solutions were found. Usually less than half of those participating have written an idea for one or two of the six puzzles shown.
I next give them the same amount of time but this time I tell them to talk it through as a team. As soon as this happens they begin to tell each other their ideas and I see two important things happen.
Any ideas are heard by the rest of the team.
If an idea makes sense, there is immediate validation of the idea.
Usually a team of 8 to 12 people will come up with solutions for most, if not all, puzzles in a couple minutes of discussion.
The multiplying factor is amazing. In the individual solve situation with an average group of 8 participants we have 3 people with one or two answers for a total of about 4 or 5 answers for the whole group. There is also a high chance that 2 or more of the answers are for the same puzzle.
When they work as a team they have on average have answers for 5 of the puzzles but all 8 of them know the answers and they all feel more confident in the answers because they’ve validated them with the team.
So, if we measure the outcome from the activity by known answers, number of people who know the answer, scenario one gives us maybe 5 known answers in the group but scenario 2 gives us 8 times 5 for a total of 40 known answers in the team. The multiplying effect is huge.
This is just one example of how team problem solving can be significantly more effective than individual problem solving.
By the way, if you are still struggling with a solution for the example above. The answer is “space invaders”.