Tuesday, November 16, 2010

When the Problem is a Lack of Problem Solving Skills!

I was sitting on my porch today watching three squirrels get the better of a bird feeder.
The feeder, of course made for birds, is big enough to support one squirrel if he perches on the edge of the feeder while clinging to the porch screen. It is a difficult angle, but this squirrel was making it work. 

When a second and third squirrel figured out what this other squirrel was doing, they wanted to join the party.
The problem was – all three could not fit on the feeder, no matter how hard they tried. After all three fell to the ground, two immediately went back to trying. The third stayed on the ground when he realized he could still get a belly-full of the seeds falling from the agitated bird feeder as the other two struggled for ownership of the feeder.

While the squirrel on the ground ate, the other two continued to struggle to stay on the very thin ledge of the feeder. As they rocked the feeder back and forth, the squirrel on the ground continued to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Very quickly, one of the other two figured out that the ground position was worthwhile as well and decided on that option. By then the first squirrel had walked away – full.

The two remaining squirrels figured out they could take turns agitating the feeder to push more seeds to the ground where they could eat in relative comfort. While one agitated, the other stayed below to guard the spoils from the birds and other squirrels.

I smiled at their team work and collaboration as they enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

It was not the first time I had seen squirrels or other animals come together to solve a problem. What fascinated me was not that they did it, but the speed with which they realized –alternative solutions were necessary and available.

It seemed to me that the squirrels, in my yard at least, had mastered problem solving.

I started to wonder why more of us in the workplace don’t solve problems like squirrels do?

How many teams have you worked on where learning to problem-solve should have been the first assignment? I have been on a few teams where individuals, completely competent on their own, failed to achieve outstanding outcomes together with team members.

Put the HR concepts of storming, norming and performing aside. Lets face it, some people aren’t familiar with that process and don’t want to hear about a workable process for problem solving.
Many want to act and act now. Many people, I find, are well meaning and want to just “jump in” and they confuse action with progress.

Many think that any result is a good result if we all just "pitch in". This seems to be even more prevalent in today’s workplace where everyone wants to show their value by appearing to be busy and active. In instances where employees view projects as high value or high visibility there is a rush to add input, regardless of the ad hoc nature of the process.

We all know the mantra –“there is no “I” in team”.
Well sometimes there has to be. If you find yourself on one of these flailing teams where fuzzy input is guaranteed to bring fuzzier outputs, YOU have to put the “I’ in Team.

To keep your own workplace stress under control, you may have to be the “I” that says, “We are all trying to fit on this bird feeder when we know it can only hold one of us at a time. I’ll be happy to jump off. What can I do on the ground to keep the seeds safe?”


eve said...

As usual, you bring a good perspective. Who knew that instead of spending money on training, we could just go outside and watch the animals. Good post!

Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter, MRW said...

What a vivid story! Love the pic of the squirrels with the laser lights!

Your point is well taken - sometimes we MUST insert ourselves directly into a problem - by claiming "I" see the obstacle, and I may have a better way to surmount it, everyone wins. Often the solution is relatively simple but goes unrecognized or is muted because of individuals' fear in articulating their thoughts.

As another example, I have an executive client who recently told me his fearlessness in speaking out early in his career when he saw process or productivity inefficiencies spurred his rise through the leadership ranks, propelling his career.

I say, "Take the risk" of inserting your "I" into Team! Both your team and your career may reap the results.

Marcia Robinson said...



Maybe instead of watching them, we could ask them to teach a class!


Marcia Robinson said...


Congrats to your client for being bold! Great example of what can happen when we insert the "I' in team.


Marianna said...


You are so right about stress creating an "ad hoc" (reactive) manner to team work. It's a skill to be able to recognise and act upon those moments of inspiration when problem-solving versus the reaction cause by desperation (and stress).

On a personal note - yours is not the first blog I've landed on this week where the animals have imparted a lesson! You are right, perhaps they need to teach a class or two...but in their way, they are. Kudos to you for telling the "tail"!

P.S. I see you "know" my cyber-friend, Jacqui. Small world!

Marcia said...

Hi Marianna,

Although we are supposed to be the "higher" beings, I agree we can learn a lot from the animals!

cv said...

The problem can be only handled when you handle the pressure well! you bring a problem when you can't handle risk..anyways thanks for sharing this with me!

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John Papers said...

Can you write more about "When the Problem is a Lack of Problem Solving Skills!"..? I am making a list of the "When the Problem is a Lack of Problem Solving Skills!"..