The Upside of Troughs

Posted 03.25.2011

Troughs This week I attended a conference where one of the keynoters was an interesting guy named Clark Aldrich. Clark is a designer of business learning simulations and knows a lot about how people solve problems. It turns out that one of the keys is you have to go through a lot of troughs to make progress.

When Clark is designing a business simulation game, he likes to set things up so the participants go through a lot of peaks and valleys in their problem solving experience. You know the drill. You solve a problem and then another one pops up. You get stuck on that for awhile and then you try a different approach that works. Much like real life, it’s the process of going into and out of the problem solving troughs that creates learning that lasts.

The big challenge that Clark deals with is that (this is more or less a quote), “In corporate America today there is very little tolerance for troughs so I have to really even out the peaks and valleys in the game.”  What caught my ear in that statement was the word “today.”  So, I asked Clark, from his perspective as a simulation designer, what’s different about corporate America today than five or 10 years ago. 

His answer was really telling.

Clark’s corporate clients used to ask him for two day business simulations that compelled the participants to work together to solve a lot of complex problems like the ones they faced in real life.  The best simulations, Clark told us, were the ones that ended on day one with the participants stuck in a big, hairy, seemingly hopeless trough. What invariably happened was the participants would leave day one feeling discouraged and befuddled, sleep on it and then come back to day two and pretty quickly solve the problem that hung them up at the end of day one. 

The key phrase there was sleep on it. Literally. By getting a night’s sleep after day one, the participants’ brains had a chance to work on the problem in the background. Connections were made over night and they came back to the simulation the next day with a clear idea of what to do next. 

These days, Clark’s clients are asking for simulations that can be done in an hour. Needless to say, you can’t build a lot of peaks and valleys into a 60 minute game. You certainly can’t give the participants the opportunity to sleep on something overnight.

One of the big themes in my book, The Next Level, is the need to pick up regular renewal of your energy and perspective and to let go of running flat out until you crash. Listening to Clark’s stories made me wonder. If we’re running so flat out that we expect significant learning simulation to be compressed into a 60 minute window, what hope do we have of actually renewing our energy and perspective in the real world?

When was the last time you allowed yourself the time to sleep on a problem? What difference did it make? What responsibilities do leaders have to encourage the renewal of energy and perspective for themselves and the people they lead?