Puzzle Break Skills: Working with Ambiguity

May 13, 2021 by Nate Martin

One of the most common things our corporate customers tell us they appreciate about our team building experiences is that they allow their teams to feel vulnerable without stigma. That might seem like a strange thing to want at first, but it’s one of the best benefits of using escape rooms as a platform for team-building. It’s not by accident either – we design our experiences with the intention of putting people in a vulnerable position by not giving them enough information at the outset. The common technical term for this process is called “working with ambiguity”, and if you’re still on the fence about why this would be something people would want to experience, allow me to explain.

What does working with ambiguity actually mean? At Microsoft (where I spent 7 years on the Windows team), being able to handle ambiguity is considered a core aspect of being professionally successful – some of the qualities they list include the ability to decide and act without having the total picture, being comfortable with uncertainty and the ability to shift gears and accommodate change. At its root, all of this lingo is about your ability to handle situations where you don’t know what to do to succeed. It’s a learned skill, and not one that comes naturally to most people. And it’s invaluable.

If there’s one thing I’ve seen proven true in the last year, it’s that unexpected problems can arise for which we have no easy solutions. In these situations, many people feel a desire to show confidence even when they’re panicking internally. We’ve all been there. Most often this is motivated by a fear of being seen as unprepared or otherwise not up to the task; quite often as well we fear the resulting loss of respect from our peers or employers, risk to our career advancement or even loss of a job, whether that’s a realistic concern or not.


Saying “I don’t know” in the workplace can be terrifying. In a Puzzle Break escape experience, it’s just the first step to solving a problem!

Saying “I don’t know” in the workplace can be terrifying. In a Puzzle Break escape experience, it’s just the first step to solving a problem!

The result of this is often a work culture where people are reluctant to ask questions, seek assistance or admit to not knowing a solution. This has the kind of outcomes you would expect; problems that could have been solved with a little bit of outside help cascade into larger and oftentimes more expensive crises as the people responsible scramble to figure out a solution without ever letting on that they don’t know what to do. In the same vein, people can get stuck on an approach or strategy they expected to work or wanted to work after it’s already been shown to not be effective – sticking to standard operating procedures when standard operations have broken down, essentially. Not good.

In contrast to this, in a carefully engineered Puzzle Break escape experience you begin with little or no information about how to solve the objectives you need to complete. Most importantly though, this is expected: our guests come in knowing they won’t know what to do, that they are expected to experiment with the clues and puzzles in the room, and that failure is part of the Puzzle Break process. Rather than dreading this experience, they relish it.


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This is in no small part because we create an environment where failing is safe! Nobody judges our guests for trying out theories that don’t pan out – neither our staff nor their teammates in the very same boat. Creating a rewarding environment where people can be not just willing to experiment but excited for the opportunity is the first and most critical step to fostering a culture of comfort with ambiguity in your workplace. Imagine if your team at work looked at the uncertain and unexpected as an exciting opportunity!


We carefully craft many of our puzzles so that no single person can solve them alone. This forces teammates to ask for help from their team, and drives communication to share failures and successes.

We carefully craft many of our puzzles so that no single person can solve them alone. This forces teammates to ask for help from their team, and drives communication to share failures and successes.

The second half of Puzzle Break’s approach to this process is teaching people how to have a healthy approach to uncertainty – it’s not enough to just get people over their apprehensiveness! We don’t want people charging headlong into the unknown, as that can be as bad or worse than doing nothing at all. Instead, we teach them how to approach ambiguity tactically. This means we carefully craft Puzzle Break escape experiences around skills like communicating with their teammates when they’re stuck on something; evaluating the information they have to find the optimal solution; supporting their teams by sharing their expertise with others; and perhaps most importantly, managing time to find a solution quickly. The clock is always ticking, in the escape room and in the workplace!

Hopefully you have a better idea now as to why our clients appreciate it when we plunge them into uncertainty (and reward them for it). If this sounds like something your team would enjoy, you should give them the chance to experience it for themselves. If this sounds like something your team would dread doing? Then they should definitely experience it for themselves

-Nate

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