The Art of Team Problem Solving
Utrectht, a city in the Netherlands, has built a bicycling infrastructure that supports over 125,000 trips every day. They did it with large scale problem solving. They’ve achieved some brilliant social and fiscal rewards.
The savings from reduced air pollution and healthcare costs are estimated to be worth about $300 million annually.
Along the way Ulrectht citizens created unique and beautiful solutions for problems such as the Dafne Schippers Bridge, a graceful and functional bridge that partially sits on the roof of a school.
These types of solutions and a legacy of success is driven by a shared vision. Ideas are welcomed and tested and built upon. I am fascinated by a culture that supports and executes on a good idea that will not pay off for decades.
“What do you think?” is one of my favorite questions to open up the dialogue on tough problems. Its even better when directed at new or junior teammates that don’t necessarily get a fair shake at the talking order.
Their fresh ideas are just as welcome as the old salties that have seen it all. When directed with curiosity and encouragement it says that you value their opinion, that its safe to share ideas. This is integral to team problem solving.
I believe that being able to function and problem solve in a team will become one of the most important skills of the future. We are headed into a new technological revolution.
Autonomous vehicles, Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, and the instagram puppy filter… what a time to be alive. As we advance our problems of old will become small and unimportant. Maybe we end up with a colony on Mars. Maybe the mundane parts of our lives are completely automated.
Inconveniences like DMVs and standing in line will become strange activities of the past akin to lobotomies and outhouses. “What do you think?” will become as important as “What can you do?”
In knowledge work we will be increasingly compensated for original ideas and novel solutions to big problems. One of the best ways to solve a mean, hairy problem is to tackle it with a team. Singular bright minds can fuel the vision, but they seldom achieve without the help of others.
Often team problem solving gets off track when egos become attached to solutions or we become detached from data and information. To combat this we should strive for an environment where the best idea wins, not the loudest voice. This is detailed in Ray Dalio’s many talks on what he calls “Idea Meritocracies”
To me this feels like one of the best and most sustainable ways to focus teams on solutions and results. Idea meritocracies are vital to knowledge work. In my short 15 years in the Information Technology field I have witnessed incredible growth.
Despite the advent of faster and more resilient technology we still struggle with having GOOD ideas, with communication, with problem solving. This is the thought behind the unicorn Slack, maybe we can communicate and collaborate in more interesting ways than email.
The days of restarting a service or needing weeks to stand up a new server are gone. They now happen in an instant, the question is how do we leverage these new powers. We are free to move onto solves for bigger and better problems. As we collectively move on up, the problems will become more complex.
Big problems take longer to solve, they are better approached with a team that is focused on a solution. They require more ideas and collaboration because the logic branches and twists. The solutions seem to flicker just out of our reach and we drive towards them because it is so damn rewarding to solve the puzzle.
I am obsessed with finding win-win-win solutions via technology. I want the user to win. I want the team to win. I want the company win. I do not care if my idea or my original solution is used. I only care that we all end up with a very good idea. An idea we can continue to collaborate and build upon.
The user wins because they get a good product or solution. They get something they need or want that brings them value. I hope that it makes their life even a little bit better as a byproduct.
The team wins because they’ve worked through a difficult spot. They build trust in each other. The individuals build skills and get incrementally better, thus the whole gets better. The shared solution forges a touchstone that will provide the team lessons and guidance.
The company continues to be profitable and productive. The company gets a team with grit, with determination to solve and win. The company can trust its culture.
It is my hope that Idea Meritocracies can scale to all of humanity. I see humanity wide applications for the way we solve problems in our teams. Imagine a what species can do that is singularly focused on solutions and effective collaboration.