Row Row Row Your Boat

November 9, 2007

Two heads are not better than one.
 
Teams are lousy problem solvers. Have you ever watched Donald Trump’s TV program where he gets groups of Harvard grads and sends them out to see which team can sell the most cupcakes? Then he fires somebody for not helping their losing team. Then he ups the stakes by asking them to design a new package for Twinkies or some other product that is paying him for the cheesy exposure. The kids all gather in a room and scream at each other. Somebody always pouts. Somebody glares. Absurd “ideas” abound.
 
Which idea for the new Twinkie package becomes the one adopted by the team to present to the Twinkie manufacturer? The best? The most creative? The most interesting? The most innovative? Never.
 
The winning idea is the one pushed hardest by the most aggressive “team” member. After all, if you want to impress The Donald, it has to be YOUR idea that gets adopted, not the best idea. What if someone else has a better idea and you let it get through? If it wins, you won’t get credit. If it fails, you will get blamed and could get fired. Can’t let that control out of your hands.
 
So whoever pushes the hardest gets their idea adopted. But this is a team, right? So, step two is to  water down the idea with “suggestions” from your team. Oh sure, your team will come up with something different from the current Twinkie wrap but it won’t be much better.
 
Look at the guys in the boat above. If they all row together the best they can do is arrive at a single place at the same time. If they don’t all row together, they won’t get anywhere.
 
If they were individually given a goal—cross the lake or whatever—you’d get a dozen solutions. Some good, some not so good. But one would be great.
 
Ever seen two great singers sing a song together? It always stinks. Their timing never matches. It’s amusing, but not good.
 
Do big, expensive government task forces ever produce solutions? Name one.
 
Take a look at the Manhattan Project. It was important. It actually saved the world. When those scientists got together the first thing they did was decide who would work on what. They didn’t work as a group. They worked on problems individually and then put their pieces together. Yes, they asked each other for input or math help (true). But they worked individually.
 
So how do you solve a problem without forming a committee? Easy. Ask. Start with the person closest to the problem and ask for his ideas. Work your way out from the epicenter of the problem seeking ideas. 
 
The solution to your shipping problems might come from someone in accounting.  You might get a mountain of new thoughts to explore.
 
You won’t get some middle manager’s watered down (safe) suggestion. You’ll get choices, options, innovations. You’ll get pieces that could be assembled in a thousand different ways.
 
You’ll get new energy too because your people will like knowing you want their input.
 
But this approach takes skill. And it takes courage. Few managers have either. Good luck. Just remember the guys in that boat. The best they can do is arrive at the same place at the same time.
 
Chris Reich, Author of TeachU’s Business Talk Blog
 

Chris Reich

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