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Team-Building: Where Do You Keep The Ketchup?
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Team-Building: Where Do You Keep The Ketchup? - Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: Where Do You Keep The Ketchup?

Executive Leadership Articles

Team-Building: Where Do You Keep The Ketchup?

Somewhere in our recent history, the phrase “results-driven problem-solver” became a catchphrase for CVs, and not long after that, it became one of the clichés to avoid when putting a CV together. And thank goodness, because one would be hard-pressed to find a more meaningless phrase than “results-driven.” Yet the second part of that cliché, the part about solving problems, is difficult to overvalue. In just about any working situation, the ability to solve problems is often seen as a sign of leadership, and the best problem-solvers often become the go-to choices for new opportunities, new responsibilities, and general company irreplaceability. Problem-solving is a large part of intelligence testing, and it was the basis for early attempts at creating artificial intelligence. While the phrase “problem solver” should probably be eschewed in the composition of a CV, its essence should not, and that perhaps is a candidate’s best problem to solve: how to claim excellent problem-solving skills without using the forbidden phrase.

Problem-solving is often one of the greatest tasks of your working teams. Every step of the way on any project, from idea generation to execution and evaluation is little more than a series of problems to be solved. When problems are solved quickly and seamlessly, we seldom notice them—it’s unlikely, even, that they will be called problems, because a problem isn’t a problem until its solution is evasive—but when the entire team reaches the same barrier at once, it’s often because every team member is approaching the path from the same direction. Good problem solvers, as we have all observed, are the ones who are able to approach problems from different directions. Yes, you checked all the Control Panel settings and made sure the passwords were correct, and you turned the computer off and on, but everyone had the same ideas there, and the day wasn’t saved until someone bothered to check the keyboard itself and discovered that a staple was lodged beneath the Y key.

True problem-solving talent is the ability to shift strategies and to approach the problem from a variety of directions. People with long and broad experience are often better equipped to solve the tricky situations than even extremely competent people with less and narrower experience, just because the roadmap to the solution often has many paths. Yet our teams are often made up of people who’ve taken the same roads and driven them repeatedly. What could they accomplish if they were instead made up of people who each knew a different section of the map, with some overlap here and there where interests were common? In a Reply All podcast this month, hosts P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman examine the problem of diversity in Silicon Valley. They interview Scott Page, a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan, who wondered when it’s best to hire the best people and when it’s best just to hire a random group of good people.

Goldman explains, “(Page) says that language, age, geography, personal hardship–they all inform how we solve problems in these crazy subtle ways. And he gave this example that I find totally mind-blowing: where we keep our ketchup.”

Page’s example is more than metaphor; one can see how it’s even literally an illustration of the value of diversity on teams. In some parts of the world, ketchup is stored in the cabinet, while in most of America, ketchup is stored in the refrigerator. When a recipe calls for ketchup, but ketchup is unavailable, what can be used in its place? A team made entirely of refrigerator-storing ketchup users is likely to arrive at mustard, or mayonnaise, as an option, but someone who keeps ketchup in the cabinet is likely to suggest malt vinegar or soy sauce, because these are items one finds in a cabinet.

Page’s research indicates that a team of experts is likely to get caught up in the same spot, all at the same time, while less-expert, diverse teams, could more quickly solve problems because they approached problems from a multitude of directions.

In realms where being first to come up with a new idea has enormous value, one would think diversity, which can be a difficult thing to attain when established channels for talent have been so reliable and new channels require the expenditure of new resources, would be a priority. Yet both Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue, among countless other realms of bleeding-edge thinking, have admitted difficulty in its pursuit—a problem, perhaps, for teams of diverse thinkers to address.

Reply All podcast (with transcript): https://gimletmedia.com/episode/52-raising-the-bar/


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Team-Building: Where Do You Keep The Ketchup? - Executive Leadership Articles

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