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Blog

Creating Problem Solvers By Learning To Follow

Librada Estrada

Over the last six months I have been coaching, along with another adult, my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind Team. It’s an extracurricular activity that is completely student driven. It’s for students in kindergarten through college.

What this means is that the kids have to select the problem they will be addressing, identify the solution and learn to work with each other as a team. Through the process they learn critical thinking, creative problem solving, and thinking outside of the box. They present their solution in eight minutes at a regional competition. From there the winners move onto state. It's an international competition.

My job as co-coach was to make sure that they followed the guidelines of the competition, had a place to meet, and to provide them with some structure so that they could keep moving forward. It also involved us being sounding boards to the kids without giving them solutions. It sounds pretty simple, right?

Well, it was and it wasn’t. Since this is my second year doing this, it was a “little” bit easier. I had an idea of what to expect.

I found myself frequently using skills I developed as a supervisor, facilitator, coach, mentor and team member to work with a team consisting of elementary students.

Are you creating problem solvers or problem bringers?

When was the last time that you created an environment for your staff where you only acted as a sounding board, followed where the team led you and only reminded them of the guidelines?

How more effective would individual staff learn to be? How much more would they learn to rely on each other instead of looking to you, their leader/manager, to solve the problem for them?

It reminded me of a question I was once asked—are you creating problem solvers or problem bringers?

Followership is a skill to develop

The competition is trying to create problem solvers. The rules emphasize that the solutions and ideas must all be student led.

The biggest challenge personally was learning to be a good follower in service of the team. I had to remove my individual leadership hat more often than not so that I could support each team member to develop as a leader within the team. There were several things that helped me be a better follower.

Step into a new role. It requires you to let go of leadership and to embrace followership. Doing so will help you gain comfort in supporting someone else’s idea. As leaders we are used to standing out, having the answers and being competent. We sometimes forget we need to take a step back to support the growth of our staff and that this is part of the role of a good leader.

Encourage each member to lead the team at different points. Doing so gives them a feel for what leading involves. It provides staff with an opportunity to step into your shoes.  You are able to experience areas that your staff excel in and also identify some spots for potential growth. It helps them gain confidence that yes, they can be a leader as well.

Let them make mistakes. Several times my fellow coach and I had to step away and let the team learn by implementing their ideas. Often it’s not enough to say something won’t work. You have to let them experience success and failure. It provides your team an opportunity to try it their way and to learn what works and what won’t.

Ask open-ended questions. These are the best types of questions to encourage a different way of thinking. You don’t limit the responses you get. Any time the team asked me a closed-ended question I had them reframe it into an open-ended question. You help set an expectation that you don’t have all of the answers and you encourage them to have a different type of conversation.  

Let go of having all of the answers. Somehow you come to believe that you have to have a response all the time. Be okay with saying I don't know. Ask frequently what do other team members have to say. 

Encourage improvisation. When ideas are discussed it is very easy to begin with identifying what won’t work or by shutting them down. Encourage the team to build on each other’s ideas by practicing improvisation. Working with what has been provided encourages following a suggestion or train a thought for a moment to see what is possible. And, it helps team members be more open to proposing things that are not necessarily 100% figured out. You shift the environment and help staff perceive you in a different way. 

When the competition came to an end the team could confidently claim that the play was their work because they had brainstormed the solutions, written the entire narrative, and designed and made the costumes and props.

Your turn: What do you do to grow problem solvers?

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