Tag Archives: team problem solving

One Crab in the Basket

“All my team wants to do is complain. I know things aren’t perfect, but we still have to get the work done. They shoot down every idea I have,” Chet shook his head.

“Have you ever been crabbing?” I asked. “Crabbing, you know, where you trap crabs, pull them out of the water and throw them into a basket?”

Chet looked at me a bit sideways. “What’s that got to do with my team?”

“Here’s the thing, Chet. If you only have one crab in the basket, you have to really pay attention, because the crab will crawl out of that basket lickety-split. The trick is to catch more crabs quickly. With a bunch of crabs, when one starts to crawl out, the other crabs attach to the legs and pull him back into the basket. You would think they would all try to crawl out, but that’s not what happens. Sometimes, teams are the same way.

“Before you describe a possible solution, go around the table and have each team member describe the major benefits if we are successful at solving the problem. If you can get them to focus on the benefits, they are less likely to focus on the crab (you) trying to crawl out of the basket.”

The Fear in Contribution

“Does anyone have any ideas about how we can solve this problem?” Wayne asked. The team just sat there, staring at him with lizard eyes, fixated, motionless. Sure, it was Wednesday (hump day), but the atmosphere was limp.

It was like throwing a party where no one shows up. You think you have done your job as a manager, assembling the troops to solve a problem, but you get no response from the team.

It’s not lethargy and your people are not stupid. I find the biggest problem is fear. Fear that their idea will be seen as inadequate or silly.

Prime the pump. Simple solution. Pair everyone up. Have team members work two by two for a brief period of time (brief, like 45 seconds), then reconvene the group. Working in pairs takes the fear out. People can try on their thoughts in the privacy of a twosome before exposing the idea to the group. Primes the pump every time.

Whose Idea Is It, Anyway?

“But, I am the manager. Everyone is counting on me,” Bryce pushed back.

“Then, why are you in here, by yourself?” I asked.

“I have a problem to solve. It’s a serious problem. Everyone is counting on me to solve the problem. It is my responsibility.”

“Is it your responsibility to solve the problem with the best solution you can come up with, or the best solution to the problem? Have you thought about stepping outside yourself, asking for help, other perspectives? Yes, you are accountable for the best solution, but, no one said it had to be your idea.”

Benefit of NOT Solving the Problem By Yourself

As a manager, you are often faced with a problem to solve. And, you think, if I could just get my team involved, there are some benefits. Team problem solving –

  • Communicates the accountability to the team
  • Brings in a diversity of fresh ideas
  • Brings in ideas that can be combined with other ideas
  • Challenges the team to contribute their best thinking
  • Brings in other perspectives on what the real problem is
  • Surfaces additional “what if” scenarios
  • Speeds execution of the solution

So, why don’t we get our team involved more often?

  • We don’t have time
  • Our team members are already overworked
  • Our team members are too busy to attend a problem solving meeting
  • It’s not their problem

Our objections are just head-trash. Every time the manager solves a problem for the team, it cripples the team from engaging in problem-solving behavior.

The team still needs a guide. And when you float the problem, they will resist, at first they will panic. Your job, as a manager, is to simply outlast the panic. If you want to build a team, give them a real problem to solve. -Tom

Mother of Invention

The point is to determine the best alternative. Not the best alternative that you can imagine, but the best alternative that is possible. Step one requires temporarily suspending judgement, to consider alternatives outside of your own experience or imagination. Without suspending judgement, outside ideas get filtered.

But, why waste time on outside ideas that are likely nonsense?

See, you already filtered those outside ideas as nonsense.

Suspending judgement is difficult, because it requires you might have to admit you were wrong in your assumptions.

Suspending judgement, temporarily requires that you consider ridiculous alternatives. And if you consider ridiculous alternatives, it frees your mind to generate more ridiculous alternatives in a chain of ideas containing many elements, one of which may actually save the day. Idea fluency.

You may never get to the idea that saves the day without the meanderings of ridiculous alternatives. When we temporarily suspend judgement, it gives us permission to consider things run backward, the front end of one idea connected to the back end of another idea, the ridiculous context of one idea as the crucible for the right idea.

Productive by Design

The response in the room was silence. Everyone counted, one, two, three, waiting for Jeanine to nod her head indicating that the discussion was over. Today would be different.

The team knew that the less they contributed, the less they could be held accountable. Jeanine would describe an issue or a problem, and then ask for ideas. No one ever had any ideas. No ideas meant no accountability. The team was not doing this on purpose. Most counterproductive thinking is unconscious.

Productive thinking requires conscious thought. It most often happens by design, rarely happens by chance. Jeanine’s statement of the issue played right into the hands of chance. “The customer is complaining that their product is always late, even though they know it was manufactured by the deadline. Does anyone have any ideas?”

Chance of an idea? Fat chance.

We changed Jeanine’s question to make it more specific. “In what ways can we move the customer’s product from our manufacturing floor to the staging area and onto the truck in less time?” Suddenly, there were seven ideas.

Productive thinking happens by design. Make your question more specific. You will get more ideas.

Would You Say It, If It Wasn’t True?

“You described the situation with your team like a rubber band. Your team is stretched, trying to deal with the problem,” I said, “what do you think the problem is?”

“The problem is that we are behind schedule,” Deana stated flatly.

“What if I told you the problem with the team has nothing to do with the schedule?” I proposed.

“What do you mean? That’s the problem, the ops manager is manipulating the schedule so it looks like we are on-time when we are behind.”

“So, you are on the side of the project manager?”

“Yes. I mean, outside the meeting, without the ops manager, everyone on the team talked about it, and the truth is, the ops manager is manipulating the schedule,” Deana insisted.

“The truth?”

“Well, yeah, I wanted to check with other team members, get my facts straight and that’s what everybody thinks. When the project manager brought it up in the meeting, that is exactly the way he said it. He told the ops manager straight to his face, ‘Everyone in here thinks you manipulated the schedule.’ I don’t think he would say that unless it was the truth.”

“There’s that truth word again,” I smiled.

This is the story of a team in the classic struggle of BAMs. BAMs is the mental state of any group that drives its behavior. BAMs is in one of two states, work or non-work.

  • Work Mode vs. Non-Work Mode
  • Rational vs. Irrational
  • Scientific vs. Unscientific
  • Cooperative vs. Collusive
  • Controlled vs. Uncontrolled
  • Conscious vs. Unconscious

Deana’s team has a problem. In a classic move of non-work, the team mis-identifies the problem. The team does not have to deal with the real problem if it can create the appearance of working a different problem. The problem you solve is the problem you name. The team named the wrong problem.

I woke up this morning in a cold sweat. This is not the story of a team (your team). This is the story of a nation. This is the story of a nation in BAMs. Has the nation named the wrong problem?

What’s Not to Talk About

“So, did your team deal with the issue, or did they avoid it and move on?” I repeated.

“Well, thank goodness my manager was there. When the project manager accused the ops manager of manipulating the schedule, no one knew what to say,” Deana replied.

“So, everyone checked out and looked to the senior-most manager in the room. Was the ops manager manipulating the schedule?” I asked.

“You know, no one is really sure. I was talking with one of my team members after the meeting and he thinks it was a big cover-up.”

“So, the situation was never resolved. We don’t know why we were behind schedule. We don’t if the schedule was accurate. We don’t know how to prevent this in the future.”

“What we do know,” Deana thought out loud, “if we are ever behind schedule and try to cover it up, we won’t talk about it in the meeting.”

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. Ask me and I will send you a one page pdf about the program. Or you can follow this link to find out more.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017, 9a-12p

To register, just ask Tom.