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The Shiny Problem: Focusing Your Team through Key Questions and Agency Commitment

As part of the review of blogs from the last two years, this has been one that I want to bring forward! It is a topic I talk with teams about frequently, and it is worth revisiting!

As a SART coordinator, one of my major gripes was around the problem of what I began to refer to as shiny things or the shiny problem. All teams experience this issue, whether you are rural, urban, new, experienced, or any other descriptor. When working with teams that are engaging in difficult processes (like negotiating the mean of terms, trouble shooting systems difficulties, etc.), the shiny problem especially comes into play. So, you may be thinking, “What exactly is the shiny problem?”

The shiny problem: when a team begins to lose focus and wants to chase (or chases) after seemingly exciting and large projects or ideas that are unrelated to the current tasks and needs of the team. AKA they see something shiny and sparkly and want to chase it.

Example: You are working through developing protocol and a team member starts to talk about how important it is to start doing monthly case review.* Other team members suddenly jump on this idea and want to begin spending more time on case review. While case review is important (!), this is a large undertaking and can easily distract the team from the task at hand—protocol writing.

Most humans are susceptible to the shiny problem. It’s just how we roll. Focus on mundane and difficult tasks is truly hard for the human brain to sustain; research suggests that we can only focus our attention for approximately 20 minute intervals. So, the real question is: how do you deal with the shiny problem on your own teams? Here are my two strategies that work in most situations:

  1. Ask key questions! Key questions are neutral and open-ended questions that explore an issue by guiding people through the reasoning behind and/or implications of the choice. Through using neutral, open-ended questions you may discover the shiny is actually necessary or you may uncover other issues at play within in the team. Using the example from above, you could ask the team members questions like:
    • What draws you to the idea of case review during protocol development?
    • How does case review enhance or hinder our current process?
    • Can you tell me more about what you hope to get out of case review at this time?
  2. Get folks to commit to the shiny! My preferred way of doing this when someone says, “I want…!” or “Why don’t we…?” is that I first explore the concept through some neutral/open-ended questions. If it seems like a good fit (or, even if it doesn’t but they won’t let it go!) for the team’s work, I ask the team to fill in the blank, “To get that, I/my agency will…” This places the work back onto the team and increases sense of ownership over the work. The commitment strategy can also work to diminish the power of the shiny—it might not seem so great if a team member or their agency has to commit more time/money/resources. Back to our example, if a team is intent on doing case review, you could pose the following to the team to fill in individually or collectively:
    • To finish the protocol, I commit myself and my agency to ___________.
    • To begin doing case review and to support case review as a team process, I commit myself and my agency to ___________.

If no one or only a small group is willing to commit themselves or their agencies to the work required, you can place it back on the team. Assure them you can always pick the shiny up at another time, and then, you can get back to the task you are trying to accomplish.

Coordinators are often expected to do a lion’s share of the work with few resources to accomplish the tasks. This gets even more complicated when team members (or you!) begin to experience the shiny problem. Remember, the shiny problem is totally normal! But, you do need to able to refocus on the tasks at hand. The two strategies of key questions and commitment—either individually or as a combo—are tools that promote exploration of ideas and ultimately, increase participation and accountability on behalf of the team and their agencies without shaming, humiliating, or shutting others down.

Questions? Other strategies you use? Comments? All are welcome! Leave ‘em below!

*For more on case review, please check out SVJI’s Case Review Guidebook!