Give Teams Intriguing Puzzles to Solve: Part 2


Last week, we began exploring how leaders can drive engagement by giving their teams intriguing puzzles to solve.

Based on extensive leadership research lead by Liz Wiseman, a Top 10 Thinker, we have uncovered the three steps for setting a direction that invites people to solve hard problems:

  • Lay Down a Challenge (Ask the Hard Questions and Drop the Agency Speak)
  • Generate Belief in What is Possible (Take a Massive Baby Step)

Our focus this week is how to successfully lay down a concrete challenge:

Lay Down a Challenge

When an opportunity is properly seeded and people can see it for themselves, intellectual energy is naturally created. The next step is to focus that energy by providing a challenge in such a way that it creates a huge stretch for a team or organization. How can you achieve this level of stretch without breaking your team? In our research, we found that multipliers achieve this energizing stretch in three ways:

1.Extend a concrete challenge

2. Ask the hard questions

3. Let others fill in the blanks

Extend a Concrete Challenge

Teams who are not sure what they are aiming for will rarely hit the intended target. But when a concrete challenge is extended, teams know exactly how success will be measured. When the city of Boston wanted to redesign, their mission was to make information more accessible to the public. To concretely define the accessibility component of this challenge, a readability level standard was established. While the average reading level of their website content was 13th grade, the new standard was set to a 7thgrade reading level.

When you make a challenge concrete, it becomes tangible and measurable. As a result, the target is clear, allowing teams to focus their energy and assess their performance.

Ask the Hard Questions

Upon taking the position of Chief Security Officer for Michigan in 2011, one of Dan Lohrmann’s goals was to help prevent end user security breaches. Recent audits had shown that more than 6 percent of government breaches in Michigan could have been avoided by end users. He knew that one method to prevent these types of breaches was by implementing a successful cybersecurity awareness program.

Lohrmann wanted to reinvent awareness training and avoid the traditional “death by PowerPoint” presentations by engaging the technical resources inside his office, business program teams within Michigan agencies and the vendor community. He used an intriguing question that challenged the assumption that cybersecurity awareness training is not exciting. He asked, “How can we prevent security breaches by creating an awareness program that is engaging, interactive, relevant and fun?”

This question was the spark that prompted great ideas to be shared and, ultimately, resulted in the development of Cyber Awareness 2.0. This new program not only has received rave reviews and recognition, but more importantly it increased Michigan’s state employee participation in cybersecurity awareness training from less than 10 percent to 95 percent. Lohrmann, now with Security Mentor Inc., sees the power of asking these types of challenging questions as “putting people in a different frame of mind, and making the challenge seem doable.”

Lauren Lockwood, then serving as Boston’s Chief Digital Officer, lead the effort to redesign the website. One of the big questions she posed to the digital team was, “What is the point of a city website, and how can we design a website that better serves the people of Boston?” With this question, she also acknowledged that the right answer had not already been discovered. She explained that this “created an interesting puzzle for the team to solve and gave us freedom to try new approaches.”

Notice both Dan and Lauren used questions that dropped the more traditional “agency speak” and focused on intended outcomes. Questions that spark movement use simple language and avoid inside jargon. Multipliers ask hard questions that challenge people to not only think but to think differently, while dropping the “agency speak.”

Let Others Fill in the Blanks

Once you ask a hard question, resist the urge of answering it yourself – even if you have a potentially brilliant solution. Instead, ask the hard questions and invite others to fill in the blanks.

Donna O’Leary, Chief Information Officer for New Hampshire’s Health and Human Services, realized that “nobody likes to be told what to do.” She understands that her role as a leader is to focus on strategy and not to get tactical. She leaves the tactics up to the team, which shifts the relationship and shows that she respects their expertise. Donna uses an analogy of working with clay. She will start the process but “let others form the clay into a vase.”

When leaders successfully lay down a challenge, teams are intrigued – and become more engaged. The key is to shift the thinking from the leader to the team, which builds engagement and starts movement.

To sustain movement leaders need to generate belief by orchestrating early wins, which will be next week’s topic.


Jon Haverly is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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