Got a problem and having trouble finding a solution?
Not long ago I was invited to work with a local youth group on leadership skills. But though I was the “teacher,” the students managed to remind me of something very important about leadership and problem solving.
Today we’ll look at three ways you can approach a challenge that will help you find creative solutions, and boost your chances of success.
The weekend was centered on a series of eight problem-solving challenges. Each student got to lead their team through one of them. After each, we would pause to reflect on the leadership lessons we had learned. It was amazing to watch their skills and teamwork grow with every iteration.
The fourth challenge was the one that really got my attention. Here is the problem we asked them to solve:
Challenge Statement: Using the materials provided, build a device that will allow this egg to be dropped from ceiling height to the floor without breaking.
They had 10 minutes to plan, and 20 minutes to execute their solution. The only resources they had at their disposal were some drinking straws, Popsicle sticks, a couple rags, rubber bands, and masking tape.
With this challenge, I had envisioned them building a protective casing of some sort for the egg, possibly suspending it with the rubber bands within a larger framework that would absorb the energy of the fall. Everything in my mind was focused on protecting the egg itself.
When I searched YouTube to see how others had solved this challenge, they took the same approach. It was all about the egg and what they could do to protect it.
So with some amusement we watched as the students went into their brainstorming session – the focus of their discussion was entirely different: they planned to do nothing to the egg.
Instead, their plan was to create a funnel on the floor out of sticks, straws and rags that would catch the egg after it fell.
During their 20 minutes’ execution time they did their best to mimic the rough design they had scribbled on the white board. Along the way, they had to make a number of modifications and workarounds to resolve unanticipated problems (getting it to stand up, dealing with the weight of the rags).
The Moment of Truth
At last the moment of truth was at hand. Would it work?
I had my doubts – they hadn’t followed the conventional YouTube wisdom of protecting the egg. The funnel looked woefully inadequate. And when the leader stood on the chair and held the egg up to the ceiling, they all realized at once the criticality of getting the aim just right.
They all counted down and the leader released the egg. It accelerated through space, and entered the funnel slightly off center, but accurately enough…and then we heard a cracking sound as the funnel collapsed.
The room fell silent and you could feel the balloon of enthusiasm deflate a little.
The egg was out of sight, buried under a pile of rags. But when the leader retrieved it – it was still whole! The entire room erupted in a shout!
Their idea had worked and they had successfully completed the challenge.
Find Creative Solutions – The Takeaway
It turns out that for all eight challenges we did that weekend, the creative solutions the students found were different than the ones we anticipated, and yet they were successful seven out of eight times.
As experienced or insightful as we think we may be as leaders, we don’t necessarily have all the answers. We might even be focusing on the wrong part of the problem.
So here are three takeaways you might find useful from this story.
- Don’t let how you frame the question limit your possible answers. It wasn’t “build a protective egg case” or “build something to catch the egg.” The broadness of the question made it possible for a more creative answer. (See: Understanding the Problem for more; 5:36 min video)
- Involve the team. Eight brains are better than one. Get everyone involved in helping solve the problem. Sometimes you might find yourself stuck focusing on the egg. Teammates with a different perspective can help.
- Take the time to brainstorm. The first idea that occurs to you may not be the best. We might want to get to work immediately, but there is benefit in forcing your team to come up with at least three different, viable courses of action before deciding on which to pursue. (More on the brainstorming process here – 5:56 min video)
Smart leaders will find ways to harness the incredible creativity of their teammates to solve the problems they face. When we find ourselves getting tunnel vision thinking about the egg, sometimes it takes a teammate to show us there is another way to solve the problem.
Dealing with a problem of your own? Trying to find creative solutions? Broaden the question, involve the creative powers of others, and force yourself to come up with several viable alternatives before deciding to act.
Who knows, maybe next time they might try to hard boil the egg…
Question: What techniques do you like to use when trying to solve a difficult question?