Action Learning, Problem Solving and the Pizza Man


Solving complex problems requires diversity of experiences and authentic courage among group members. As a matter of fact, the more difficult a problem, the less valuable is expertise and familiarity and the more valuable is deversity and freshness of perspective.

Recently, an engineering firm, commissioned to develop an innovative, cost-cutting process for a government department, established a task force to work on the problem. The team leader, Bill, introduced the group to action learning and encouraged the engineers and scientists to use this approach. Progress, however, was slow and new breakthrough ideas were not emerging. It was now Wednesday afternoon and the final proposal was due within 48 hours.

Bill wanted to keep the group working through the evening, and suggested that they order out for pizza so they could continue wrestling with the project for a couple more hours. When the pizza man arrived, Bill made a startling request. Noting that his group was composed only of internal engineers who had similar experiences and viewpoints, he decided that a different, fresh perspective was needed. “How about joining us for the next hour and earning a big tip?” he asked the pizza man. “I will call your boss and get his approval. All you need to do is listen to what we are doing. If there is anything that you do not understand or you see wall charts that don’t make sense to you, all you have to do is ask questions.”

This sounded good to the pizza man, although one can imagine the surprise and frustration felt by Bill’s colleagues, who probably muttered, “We have only a couple more days to work on this project, and now we are going to waste an hour with a pizza man!?” The pizza man sat down. After several minutes of listening and observing, he decided he would have to earn his tip. He noticed a chart on the wall and asked why an arrow went from point A to point F. The person who drew the arrow gave an exasperated response, “For reasons 1 & 2.” But then another member said, “Oh, I thought it was for reason 3.” A third member chimed in, “Well, if reason 3 works, why don’t we simply go from point A to point D?” The group realized that the pizza man’s “dumb” question had caused them to examine some unchallenged assumptions they all had been making.

After the pizza man left, the group began with clean flipchart paper and a determination to look outside the box. Over the next two days, they incorporated many new ideas that emerged from their own fresh questions and a courage to ask them. Their breakthrough project was submitted to the government, which resulted in a $35 million savings over the life of the contract. Thanks to the pizza man!

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