Escape Room Adventure:  Personal Example of Distributed Decision Making

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

My ex-wife and her partner recently organized an outing to a local Escape Room, and invited all my kids and I to join in.  I have worked through these group brain teasers a few times in the past, and they are always very fun.  This instance was no exception.  Through great team work, and universal involvement in both data collection and decision making, we were able to work through a hardest escape room the establishment had to offer, in under the 60-minute limit, with only 1 clue from the external moderator!  Great job, team!

After the buzz and fun wore off, and I was thinking about the adventure the next day, I realized that it was a great example of a Distributed Decision Making process and organization.  So, as is often the case for me, I am able to draw from experiences in my “Life” to apply value and validation to my thinking about “Work.”

Distributed decision-making is any process where the decision-making authority is distributed throughout a larger group.

In case you are not familiar with escape rooms, they all have some basic characteristics:

  • You and your group are “locked” into a room or set of rooms, and given a fixed time (usually an hour) to find the secret way out.
  • There are a set of mostly serial clues that need to be put together to enable your escape.  For example, there may be a set of letters scrawled on the wall that are the combination to a lock.  Inside the locked box, is another clue or key.  And so on.
  • There is a moderator watching the whole thing via video cameras.  If your team gets stuck, you can ask for a clue that will enable a key step forward.

There are usually between 4 and 8 team members.  These are generally all part of the same party (especially in times of COVID.)  But, in the past, I have done escape rooms with people on the team I just met.

So, now to the core of my premise….

As I think about our family Escape Room exercise, I see many of the positive characteristics of Distributed Decision Making.  As I mentioned, the members of our team were dividing up and making decisions in sub-groups.  The makeup and decision making seemed a bit random, but it was quite effective.  Here are some of the characteristics of our adventure’s decision making:

  • The decision making teams were self-organizing.  The size and makeup of the teams were decided by the team members based upon the problem/task at hand.
  • Within the teams, the decisions were made generally on a consensus basis.  However, it seemed that generally, there was one leader of the decision-making process.  (In this case, the decision-making model was a blend between Distributed Decision Making and Consensus, as defined in this summary article.
  • The teams were organic, in a literal sense:  They grew, shrank, were created and removed, as the situation warranted.
  • When inputs from others were required (outside of the sub-team), this happened naturally.  For example, it took a demonstrated consensus among all members of our team, before the moderator would provide an explicit clue, to get us “unstuck”.
  • There was no ego evident on any of the subteams, when it came to decision making.  All members were empowered to contribute, and whomever figured out the clue first, seamlessly took over the decision making authority.

It was really fun and satisfying to watch this organic, distributed decision making in play.  And, to see how efficient it really was — even though it seemed at times a bit chaotic.  This is a good model for how organizations can distribute some of the decision making for the business.  Of course, in a situation where not everyone on the team are family and/or friends, there may be a bit more structure required, e.g. to designate/elect who is the “decision maker” on each subteam, the overall dynamic does seem to be replicable in a business environment.  (There are several great discussions on how to add in this layer of limited formality, including this one from the education space.)  I certainly realize the a small family outing is not a true analog to the (often complex) human dynamics in a larger professional setting, I still firmly believe it has some lessons to apply.