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Choosing a Long-Term Problem

One of the first coaching challenges is helping the team choose a long-term problem that will keep its interest for the next several months. The first tip is that the team should choose – not the coach. Besides the fact that it is their responsibility, it also give the team ownership and greater commitment.

  1. For each membership, one team in each division may solve each problem. If your school has several Division I or II teams, there may need to be negotiation among the teams to determine which team solves each problem. Your team may not be able to solve its first choice, so you should focus your efforts on helping them identify a first and second choice.

  2. Some teams know from Day 1 that they want to solve either the structure (balsa) or vehicle problem, and are not even interested in reading the other problems. If your team has a preference for one of these highly technical problems, the process of choosing is simple.

  3. Other teams know from Day 1 that they do not want to solve the structure or vehicle problem. That narrows down the options, but means that you will need to help them work through the decision process.

CAVEAT: Consider working only on spontaneous until you are certain all team members are committed. If a team member drops out before the team discusses the Long-term problem, he or she may be replaced. But once any ideas are talked about, everyone involved in that discussion is officially a part of the team (and can’t be replaced) even if they nominally drop off the team.

Before you start any decision-making,

  1. Read through the problem completely (not just the synopsis) and look up the words in the Program Guide Glossary. Make sure everyone understands the requirements of the problem.

  2. It is a mistake to think that a problem is only dramatic or technical – every problem involves a skit or presentation and either requires or allows a technical component. Have the team point out the dramatic and technical elements of each problem.

  3. Make sure you have done a skills and interest exercise.

Some techniques for helping the team decide on a long-term problem:

  1. Compare the requirements of the problem with the interest and skills assessment that you did during one of your first few meetings. See if there is an obvious match between your team’s interests and the long-term problem descriptions.

    • Do you have team members who are very musical? There may be a problem requiring a song or dance that appeals to your team.

    • Does your team already know that they want to do a puppet show or create their solution with a particular style? One of the problems may be more conducive to that style than the others.

    • Alternatively, the requirement for a song or dance (or some other requirement) may enable the team to eliminate the problem from consideration.

  1. Have a time-limited brainstorming session where the team comes up with initial ideas for all five (or fewer, if they have eliminated one or more problems) problems.

    • At this point you are just looking for a theme – essentially the same level of detail as the problem synopsis.

    • Do not let the suggester get into a lot of detail about the solution.

    • You basically want to come up with “short answers” that the team could give when someone asks what their solution is about. For example, “Our solution is a cooking show where three birds are judged on how tasty and healthy they are.” (A Wild, Winged Wonder solution that won third place at the 2001 World Final)

    • Often, there is an “AHA!” moment where a team member suggests an idea that everyone loves, and the decision is made.

  2. Evaluate the ideas, narrowing down the options until one problem emerges as a consensus favorite. We can tell you that voting is rarely a satisfactory way to choose the problem, because some team members will feel that they were forced to accept one of the problems.

    • Your team may end up not using any of the ideas that come out of this initial idea generation session. But the exercise will help narrow down their choices if they are unable to come up with anything creative for any of the problems. Or, the team may come up with an all-new idea that combines elements of several others.

    • Have the team identify the things that are important in a solution (must be something that other teams wouldn’t think of, must be able to finish it by March, must be able to be done with seven team members, must work in a specific space, must fall within budget, etc). Then, evaluate the ideas based on these criteria.

    • Take the “finalists” to the next level, trying to flesh out some of the requirements. Again, there may be a consensus that one of the problems appeals to the team (or not).

    • Start working on two different problems (if there aren’t too many teams at your school). It won’t take long for the team to naturally gravitate toward one of them.

    • Some teams use a “sales pitch” approach, dividing the group into subgroups and having them work on a sales pitch for the rest of the team on why one problem should be selected. Or, make that a homework assignment – have team members come to the next meeting with a “pitch” for his or her favorite problem. This approach should be used with caution because it may give too much power to the strongest personality on your team.

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