What an Escape Room Taught Me About Problem-Solving
Posted on 08.14.17
By Pamela Bradley, Human Resources Manager
A few weeks ago, I went to an escape room with my work group. There was no agenda to the outing, it was just a chance for all of us to get together outside of the work setting to socialize. I guess you could say that getting out of work for the afternoon was our first escape.
After a quick lunch, the manager came out to give us some helpful information and get us started. She explained that there are actually several different types of escape rooms in existence. If you’re a fan of the TV show The Big Bang Theory, you may have seen one type of escape room where scary characters jump out at the locked-in participants. Luckily, our escape room was not that type. I’m not sure our Type A team could have handled the additional stress.
Our escape room was more of a murder mystery with a number of puzzles to be solved. We might use a black light to find a clue leading to a key that would open a drawer with another key, and so on. Eventually we would solve the final puzzle that would allow our escape – although to be fair, there was always an open door to the hallway that any of us could access at any time.
It was a lot of fun, and when the afternoon was over we all left for the weekend. We didn’t really talk about the experience as a team-building or learning event. But in reflecting over the next few days, I realized that I had learned a few things. The escape room is a great environment for examining your own tricky problems in new ways.
Sometimes the Puzzle You Solve is a Red Herring
I was so proud. There was a riddle in our escape room, and it was baffling. It was a word puzzle, and I solved it. Hooray! I triumphantly shared the answer with my team mates, and we began the hunt for the puzzle that my answer would solve. Yeah, there was no puzzle it would solve. My brilliant solution was absolutely useless.
Lesson learned: Sometimes you make an impressive deduction that has no impact whatsoever on the problem you’re trying to solve. For example, maybe you’ve been needing some help with time management, and you master the use of Outlook Tasks. You take a class, you set up your tasks, you color-code them, and…nothing. You’re still as stressed and over-worked as ever. What you’ve got there is a red herring.
“You’re Not Ready for That Clue Yet”
In our second escape room, we discovered a mirrored box. Our team had seen a box like this one in a previous room, so we knew that the box’s front was actually a one-way mirror, and if we could solve the puzzle some lights would come on inside, revealing an important clue. Several of our team members began diligently working on the box, poking sticks into the holes on the side and trying to make the lights come on. After a few minutes, a voice boomed from a ceiling speaker, saying “You there, working on the box. You’re not ready for that clue yet.”
Lesson learned: Sometimes your problem needs to be solved in stages, and you can’t solve it out of order. I remember years ago, in a prior job, talking to someone who attended a customer service class. Upper management had sent this person to the class, and my friend was excited to apply what she had learned. When she returned to her work environment, she was surrounded by peers who ridiculed her efforts to be friendly to the customers, and an evaluation system that rewarded her for serving customers quickly. If that company had truly wanted better customer service, then they probably should have focused on those issues before sending folks off to a training class.
Sometimes You Need to Bring in Outside Help
Our team had been working in a particularly challenging escape room for over an hour. We were nearing the final puzzle and we knew it. Among our remaining clues was a sheet of paper that looked like a tic tac toe grid, with numbers in some of the squares. Several of us looked at it, and then dismissed it as a red herring. Turns out the grid was a Sudoku puzzle, and none of us had ever played one of those. We never solved the final puzzle.
Lesson learned: If we had recognized that the grid was important, we could have called in some help from the escape room employees. It just never occurred to us that we needed the help. You may find with your own sticky problems that an outside expert can supply you with a perspective or knowledge you simply don’t have. For example, if your team is strategic planning, it may be time to call on colleagues within your company, or even an outside consultant.
Applying Escape Room Lessons to Your Problem-Solving
1 – If you have tried a solution and you are not seeing the results you want, examine your issue again to see if there is another, different problem that needs your focus. Consider asking someone outside of the matter for a fresh perspective.
2 – As you create the project plan for your solution, pay attention to prerequisites for each step.
3 – Don’t be afraid to consult someone with more knowledge to provide help with the problem you are working on.