Problem-solving leadership May 2011

During the past week I had the pleasure to attend the Problem-solving Leadership course in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Johanna Rothman, Esther Derby, and Jerry Weinberg led through the course, generating some insights from their more than 100 years of professional experience. Here are some ideas I would like to share hoping to motivate some of my readers to attend the course as well – I heard there were some places in the August course left.


Right from the start Esther, Johanna and Jerry made clear that we were supposed to self-organize. When we entered the room we found a classical classroom setting with desk facing the front of the room in two rows. “Do you think this is a classroom setup that maximizes learning?” was enough for us to take action. With these expectations set, we were reminded of our abilities and the reasons our companies sent us there. No belittling, no one told us what to do. Instead we self-organized while the course went along. And most of the insights didn’t even need several words to come up.

Immediately after the opening we grouped together in learning groups. We wrote our learning objectives on a sheet of paper, and had to find a group of six that we felt worth learning with. Ivana Gancheva, Olav Maassen, Jason Little, Artur Pop, and Siva Harinath were in my learning group. Besides that we were asked to pick a learning partner with whom we reflected the whole week. I found Griffin Jones a perfect match for these morning discussions.

House of cards

In the first series of exercises we got together in our learning groups. We were asked to build several objects from cards. Afterwards we were told that most of the exercises had been solved before in less than 30 seconds – given the right out-of-the-box thinking to solve them. Unfortunately none of us brought this thinking style with her or him.

During the debrief for these exercises, we developed the MOIJ model which Jerry Weinberg discusses in Becoming a Technical Leader. The concept is to observe the team on their motivation, organization, information, and stickiness level, and to take actions by changing the motivation, the organization, the information, or by jiggling the system. The Satir Change Model concluded the debrief.

Observation Processes

After a brief introduction to observation processes we got back in our learning groups. We got one problem to solve while a second group observed us, and then got to observe the other group solving their problem. As a side-topic we got two different styles of problems: a closed problem with one right solution, and an open problem, where many possible solutions exists. The closed problem was to draw a map of the United State with all the capitals for each state. The open problem was to come up with a Top 10 of vacation locations. Reflecting on the overall course, most of the problems we had to deal with were open – and in retrospect more fun to solve. One of the lessons that I want to include into my daily work.

Verseworks simulation

During the whole Tuesday we dealt with the Verseworks simulation. In the morning, after six of us became observers, we elected a president for our start-up. In the afternoon we got the task to lead our start-up through a successful period of four hours, eventually making money for our venture capitalists.

The work setup included a hard-working area, a creative working area, as well as a market place, the bank, and a prison. One of the amazing things that happened during solving this problem, was that the observers became quickly out of sight. Even though they were standing close to us, we were so deep into the simulation, that we stopped noticing them consciously.

After four hours we eventually made some money with our little start-up. Jerry scored us during the payoff as one of the Top 25% of the Verserworks simulation they had run. Though we never got any money paid as employers. So better stay out of the start-up business if you are looking for quick money, I guess.

In the evening I was happy to refrain from becoming an observer earlier. The observers worked hard on their report. They had collected six times four hours of observation material, and were asked to prepare a one hour report for us on the next day. The observer team worked hard until 3am in the night on that. Really impressive. This also showed the next morning. when we faced the pure observational material – including my own statement that I needed a break from working in the mine after twelve minutes. That was hard work, you can tell.

Problem design

After the Verseworks simulation we were asked to combine two of our learning groups and come up with a problem for the other combined group. We had to first solve the problem of the other group. That gave us much time to reflect and improve our problem during dinner break. We solved the first problem in 36 minutes – thereby becoming subject to be cursed as a cheaters. The exercise was debriefed in a fishbowl. Participants and problem designers sat one after the other in a fishbowl, fed by questions from Johanna, Esther, and Jerry. The reflection was very deep.

In the evening our problem was last. We had spent most of the morning on the design of our problem. We had many discussions about that. The discussions went along the question for more details, and more about the objective. During this back and forth we realized that our preference for details and objectives was partially motivated by our Myers-Briggs types. Just after splitting up into separate groups we were able to overcome our constant strive for either details or objectives. That gave us new forward momentum.

Our problem was to create a goat farm. We separated the group into two: one design team and one build team. The design and the build teams were not allowed to communicate verbally directly. The funny thing that happened during this simulation was that the build team was way ahead of the design team. When the design team found out they needed a barn, and they should use the table for it, they already had it in place since five minutes. This happens all too often in software development as well.


One of the conclusions for me is to integrate more open problems in my classes. Thus far I already have some of them in place, but the difference between open and closed problems showed me that solving open problems is way more fun. Also the right problem statement – ideally on a single piece of flipchart – helps to focus the team.

During the past year we have already come up with many open problems for Weekend Testing. At the end of the year I collected most of them on to serve as a resource for more test generations to come.

Another thing I found out about myself is the curiosity for jiggling the system. During our goat farm simulation I had the team face jiggling situations as a baby goat escaping due to the lack of a fence, or a wolf trying to catch a goat during the night while a barn was missing. These were jiggles that helped the team get new momentum and focus. Though, I will have to watch myself come up with new jiggles in daily work.

Jerry summarized the class in a final fishbowl of the three teachers stating

This class has put the “fun” back into “dysfunctional”.

I had a pleasureful week at PSL. I am aware that some of the insights will maybe kick in in a few months from now. But I hope that my immediate summary report brings you motivation to attend the course as well.

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3 thoughts on “Problem-solving leadership May 2011”

  1. Thanks for this summary, Markus! I can see why everyone raves about PSL. Unfortunately my company is not about to send me, but someday hopefully I can rake together the time and $ to get there on my own – sounds completely worth it. Meanwhile I really appreciate your sharing so many exercises you’ve come up with over the past couple years.

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