The tale of the bent fork and a lesson in collaborative problem solving

You don’t really expect to be drinking white wine in balmy afternoon sunshine in mid-October in the Baltics. But luck (or global warming!) were on our side last month and that’s just what Lucy and I were doing one sunny Sunday afternoon.

Lucy had joined me on one of the legs of my ‘EU Adventure’, a personal travel challenge to visit all the EU member states before the 29th March next year (don’t mention the B word!). We’d had a busy couple of days tramping round Vilnius before a super early start to catch the coach to Riga. After walking round the city for a couple of hours we found ourselves a sunny spot and settled down for something cold, white and dry. I chucked my canvas bag on the spare chair next to.

Clunk

Hearing that my phone had fallen out of my bag I leaned down to pick it up. I couldn’t see it. I shuffled round in my seat. Still no sign of it. I doubled myself down and looked right under my seat. A dawning realisation. “Oh no!” In a ridiculous I-couldn’t-do-that-again-if-I-tried turn of events, my phone had slipped out of my bag and right down through a gap in the decking. Decking that was secured to the main city square and currently home to a few hundred Sunday diners. And there it sat, shining up at us, visible through a gap that not even a child’s fingers would fit through, never mind ours.

We sat there for a while, giggling in disbelief. Then Lucy took control, beckoned over the waitress and over the next 45 minutes or so what played out in a square in Europe was a textbook case study in how different people behave in a crisis.

Waitress: “If this had happened in two weeks’ time it would be OK because we take the decking up on 28th October.”* She leaves saying she’ll come back with equipment.

*This is not useful information to know but in all problem situations there’s always someone who tells you how things wouldn’t be this bad if something else had or hadn’t happened. Stay calm.

Lucy and table neighbour man 1 and table neighbour man 2 have a chat about how the decking is put together. I sit there and look at my phone in the manner of a golden retriever puppy who stares at the garden shed, not quite believing his ball has rolled under there and got lost*. Table neighbour man 2 wanders off.

*There’s always someone for whom it takes a bit longer for the reality of the problem to sink in, who just observes for a while.

Waitress returns with some knives and forks. She drops to her knees and frantically fruitlessly starts stabbing away at the gap. After a few minutes she discards the cutlery saying she has another idea and she’ll be back. She never returns.*

*Don’t worry, it’s nothing you did wrong – there’ll always be people who dive enthusiastically and then get distracted by something else (in her case waitressing, which was the job she was actually there to do and don’t forget business as usual needs to carry on when other problems are being solved.)

Lucy, table neighbour man 1 and I get down on our knees and take over the fruitless stabbing with cutlery. We lose a knife down the gap. Table neighbour man 2 returns and in the manner of someone trying to cut a dodgy deal pulls back his coat to reveal a screwdriver. “Brilliant!” says Lucy. “Oh my God, that’s a ridiculous idea,” thinks me*. Not wanting to be discouraging I say “Oh wow, that’s a good idea but these are Phillips screws and that’s a flat head screwdriver.” Never have I been so grateful for screwdriver knowledge.

*Be risk aware. Never set about solving a problem if solving it will just create an even bigger one! Like damaged public property…

By now we have attracted quite a lot of attention and people around us are watching us, amused, offering words of support and adding the odd pointless observation. “C’mon, let’s forget this and drink our wine,” I say. Table neighbour man 1 retreats, a disappointed look on his face. Lucy and I settle back in our chairs. I start running through the problem. “I’ve been uploading my photos to Instagram as I go, the phone is being upgraded on 3rd November and until then I have a spare handset. I’ll find somewhere to print off my boarding pass for getting home.”*

*Be realistic about the likely impact of the problem and if it’s not that big a deal (or if the problem is unsolvable) just move on to thinking about how to solve the ripple effect problems.

But sometimes, you just don’t want to give up. I got back down and started some more focused cutlery manoeuvres. I managed to get the phone stood up on one side with the aid of a knife on either side. I was trying to concentrate but Lucy was busy throwing ideas out. “When you talk at me I lose my concentration and drop it again,” I said, which was really just a polite way of saying shut up*.

*Try not to tell people to shut up, even if they’re your mate.

And I should have been listening because her idea was great. “You need a grabber,” she said, fashioning one from a fork. We had our solution but there was a final moment of jeopardy! Table neighbour man 1 was back but in his enthusiasm to help he kept knocking my phone over just as it had been leveraged into the upright position and pushing it further away from the gap. I was losing patience and as I opened my mouth I glanced at Lucy – she was shaking her head and giving me ‘don’t snap at him eyes’.*

*Manage yourself and don’t get cross with your most enthusiastic problem solvers, even if they are a bit chaotic occasionally!

Then it all came together and with one of us holding the grabber and the other two holding a knife on either side my phone emerged. We cheered, the tables around us cheered. We were momentarily immersed in that wonderful feeling of solidarity than comes from a successful shared endeavour. And table neighbour man 1 was so happy. He looked puffed up and proud and excited in a way that felt a bit out of proportion, really. And I was so damn relieved that 90 seconds earlier I hadn’t lost my cool and burst his bubble. We ordered two glasses of wine for us and a bottle for his table and we all sat enjoying the last remnants of the sun.

“I’ll write a blog for you when we’re back”, I said as we wandered off, “it will be about collaborative problem solving.”

Catherine Raynor is a director of Mile 91, a story gathering agency for charities and social change organisations. You can find her on Twitter at @catherineraynor and on LinkedIn and she’s particularly enjoying meetings loads of inspiring new people through Lucidity Network so feel free to connect with her.

If you’d like to meet inspiring people like Catherine – join the Lucidity Network. We open for new members a few times a year. Join the waiting list today and you’ll be the first to know when it’s open for new members.

While you’re waiting why not join the Lucidity Community Facebook group for practical advice and support for solving problems and getting better results. 

One thought on “The tale of the bent fork and a lesson in collaborative problem solving

  1. Lovely!

    The bolded comments and the narrative texts carry you forward through the story — you must get to the conclusion. Thank you both, I am glad that you were able to share that experience and then with us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *