Tuesday, May 12, 2009 by Dave Blum

Last fall, Jen and I were driving along the Northern California coast on our way back from Monterey and discovered a sign advertising Arata’s Farm and their amazing “Hay Bale Maze”.  As a team building consultant who loves scavenger hunts and corporate team challenges, how could I resist a little team building exercise in little old Half Moon Bay?

Although I didn’t have my handycam with me at the time, I did find this short video on YouTube that pretty much encapsulates the experience. Check it out, then read on:

As you can see, the maze was pretty overwhelming: to be honest, I didn’t even know how to start tackling it. But Jen had a great idea:  “Let’s just follow the left wall.  It should eventually lead us out.”  Now, a part of me was thinking, “Well, that sounds awfully methodical. Where’s the fun in that?”  But for lack of a better plan, I agreed to Jen’s process–and by golly, it worked!  We solved the maze in time for lunch…leaving behind at last three other teams who were still going around in circles.

According to David Straus, author of “How to Make Collaboration Work”, Jen and I had employed a classic “algorithmic approach”.  Although it was a bit “systematic, rigid and time consuming”, it pretty much guaranteed our success.  The alternative strategy would’ve been to try a “heuristic approach”.  A heuristic means that you try a variety of different strategies in succession.  We might have tried jotting down some notes; or continually bearing right; or taking digital photos; or leaving bread crumbs.  The point is that a heuristic is “a strategy that is flexible and quick but doesn’t guarantee success.”

When faced with problems (and treasure hunt clues) to solve, what kind of approach to you tend to lean on: arithmetic or heuristic?

Personally, I’m just glad we made it out of the maze.  That hay was really getting to my allergies.