Learning by Escaping — Part I

How time constraints affect our behaviours

“The clock was counting down. The beads of sweat were forming on the brows of each of the team members as they desperately tried to complete the final puzzle. Would they manage to unlock the final piece of the machine in order to save the Universe from the impending Time Paradox? The clock was showing 10 seconds to go, nine, eight!”

If you’ve ever played an “Escape Game” then this might be an all too familiar scenario for you. And for those of you who have never heard of an escape game, how best to describe it … well in simple terms it’s a group activity that involves being locked in a room with the aim of solving a series of puzzles and challenges in order to escape.

Over the years we’ve been fortunate enough to have created these experiences at many different events and for a variety of audiences. However, what has been the most rewarding is playing the role of Gamesmaster in these activities. This has allowed us to observe first-hand how the participants approach the puzzles and challenges and to identify both common themes and interesting edge cases from their experiences. These reveal the value in and the learning gained from escape games that can be directly linked back to the skills and capabilities needed in a modern business. That’s what we’d like to share with you in this and future articles.

We’ll start by looking at how constraints applied in the games affect our behaviours.

Our first observation is related to a constraint that you will find in most escape games and relates directly to a challenge we all face in the workplace. Yes, it’s the dreaded deadline!

For those of you who haven’t played an escape game before it is important to highlight that they are almost always completed against the clock.

This time limit is predominantly commercial in nature, ie you need to be done before the team booked in to play the game after you arrives. This is of course flipped by the operators of the game into one where the time limit and associated pressure creates tension, drama and enhances the entertainment value of the experience. As a result you are generally given a very good reason that your game has to be completed within the subsequent 60 minutes. So typically after that time a major catastrophe will likely occur, most probably resulting in your untimely demise.

But outside the context of creating this bounded time window for your escape game experience, have you ever considered how that time limit affects your behaviour?

At its most basic level applying a time limit to your mission implies that achieving efficiency in your problem solving is a key to success. However, the time pressure can also have a noticeably negative impact on your behaviour. “Tunnel vision”, lack of creativity, rushing what would normally be simple tasks and fixation on the wrong problems are all commonly observed to be the outcomes of this simple constraint.

In the course of a game individuals will usually get caught up with a particular puzzle for an extended amount of time, often fixated by the same incorrect approach to its solution. It is also often observed that when they are reminded of how much time they have left until the end of the game they simply increase the speed with which they are trying their incorrect approach. This is clear evidence of the time limit being a contributing factor to negatively impacting their behaviour.

So what does this tell us about how people work in our businesses and in particular when faced by our aforementioned deadlines?

In the simplest terms it demonstrates that a constraint placed on our working style, like an impending deadline, will naturally restrict the creativity of work by focusing our behaviours on completing the task at hand.

In fact, many software developers now complain that moving to an Agile methodology for development has had this unintended effect. Rather than having the freedom to exercise their individual creativity, they are now focused solely on the deadline at the end of the current sprint. Then once that has passed, it is all eyes on the next one. It is certainly true that we don’t always want our developers to be creative with their approach. But there are times, for example, when we want them to solve a new or difficult problem that it’s critical to the project’s success.

It’s easy to see how this also applies to our approaches on projects or tasks where we have a deadline imposed.

Firstly, is it wrong to use a deadline as a constraint. In short, no! After all, many of us need a sense of urgency to focus and deliver what is needed of us. But it is important to understand that stifling creativity and limiting our ability to try alternate approaches to solving a problem may have the unintended outcome of applying this constraint to the way we work.

So what is the answer? If we return to our escape game observations to guide us we often see that it is another team member who steps in to help the person affected by the tunnel vision. If it is another team member it is typically one who has not been affected by the same constraints in thinking or who has a completely different view of the puzzle. In these situations the puzzle that has frustrated one person for so long will often be solved within moments.

In our workplaces is the answer to the tunnel vision created by a deadline therefore to bring in someone not constrained by it to look at our work and the problems we are solving? Maybe! But there is also another solution.

An observation we have made is that the more times a person plays escape games, the more likely they will learn how to break the constraints of time pressure. In doing so they can develop the sidestep in thinking needed to efficiently solve puzzles that require creativity and alternate thinking.

We have also observed that this learning, that has taken place in the escape game, will be applied back in the person’s respective workplace. Not a bad outcome for playing a few “games”.

When you break it down further it makes even more sense. Tunnel vision and lack of creativity are not intrinsic to us, they can be overcome if we learn how to. So if you’re not providing a way of allowing your people to learn these skills, how will their behaviour in this regard ever change?

So the next time your team is faced with an impending deadline but is struggling to innovate in order to overcome the challenges in their way, then think about what activities or experiences might enable them to break free from the constraints that have been placed on them.

Maybe the answer is as simple as playing your local escape game.

As a result of our experiences we have seen many examples of how business challenges can be overcome using immersive learning techniques. Next time we’ll look at “escaping” and what we can learn from it about how we view success within our own businesses.

Martyn is a founder of chronyko who have over 10 years experience building and running escape games and many other types of immersive training and skills development events. We’ll be sharing lots more of our thoughts and insights on the subject of immersive learning and development in our upcoming articles.