The Monthly Challenge: How to Solve Tough Problems and Build Collaborative Teams at the Same Time

A friend of mine we’ll call Tom was a partner at a big consulting firm. One day, he showed up at one of his client’s offices and heard this:

Sorry, Tom. We’re going to have to cancel your retainer—at least for a little while.”

Now, to a consultant, those are about the worst words you could ever hear from your client. It’s the equivalent being laid off. Except in this case, it didn’t just mean Tom was getting laid off. It also meant his entire team of 15 consultants was getting laid off.

The Problem

So, he knew something must be seriously wrong to warrant that kind of reaction from a Fortune 100 company. And he was right. It was serious. His client was going to miss its quarterly profit estimates, and not just by a little—like enough to raise major concerns on Wall Street.

His client explained all the gory details about why their profits were off so much. And, in his 20-year professional career, Tom had never even heard of a company having this particular problem.

So, he knew his client needed help. Packing up his team’s things and walking away just seemed like the last thing his client needed. Clearly, the company needed to find people who’d been through this before so they could find their way out of it. But it was the kind of problem companies don’t publicize. So finding examples was going to be difficult.

The Solution

That’s when Tom told his client about their “Monthly Challenge.” It was a friendly competition among the consultants at Tom’s company. Every month, all the partners are presented with a particularly challenging client problem, without naming the client. Then they’re encouraged to take their teams out for a lunch or dinner, talk about the problem, and come up with recommendations.

Think about that. Just for that hour, tens of thousands of consultants are working on exactly the same issue. But with only an hour, they don’t have time for research or analysis. All they have time for is to share a few stories and brainstorm ideas. The stories they share are about when they encountered similar problems in the past, what their client did about it, and how it turned out. Then, whichever team has the best solution gets recognized in front of the whole company.

That kind of competition is really genius. The client with the problem gets the collective brainpower of the entire consulting company working on their issue. The consulting team supporting that client gets to deliver a solution and move on to the next challenge. But the competition also helps foster more collaboration and better working relationships among the consultants. The lunch or dinner events are an opportunity for team members to stop working on their separate parts of their client engagement and all work together on one issue.

Psychologists have known for a long time that this is one of the quickest ways to create human bonds. And that’s important because this consultancy has employees spread out across dozens of countries around the world. Most of them will never see each other, or ever even work with the same client. But because of the monthly challenge, they get to add a common set of consulting challenges and solutions to draw on and learn from.

The Result

So, Tom immediately posted his client’s problem to every partner as a monthly challenge. Within 48 hours, tens of thousands of consultants started working on it. Within three weeks, they identified two non-competing clients that experienced the same issue as Tom’s client and had three creative solutions offered from across the globe. Tom presented the solutions to his client and worked with them to implement the best one.

Now, Tom’s client still had a tough quarter. But it wasn’t nearly the debacle it would have been without his help. And Tom never heard another word about needing to cancel his retainer.

The Lesson

The lesson, I think, out of all this is that establishing a regular time and place to swap stories about current business challenges is just a really good idea. And you don’t need to be in the consulting business to benefit from swapping stories with your coworkers. No matter what business you’re in, it’s sure to lead to new ideas and a more collaborative organization.

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Source: Lead with a Story: How to Craft Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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Comments

  1. Well said Paul, here’s to swapping stories and serving each other to find solutions to challenges in doing so! I love the Monthly Challenge idea and resonated with it deeply. I’m prepping for Seth Godin’s altMBA program and the reading is so inspiring and illuminating in Collaboration rather than Competition. May I highly suggest A Beautiful Constraint for anyone who hasn’t yet read it? Here’s to also telling a “new story” let’s collaborate rather than compete. <3

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