Every manager, director, and VP I know has taken a team to an escape room at least once. An escape room is the perfect duration for an outing, and it offers teams the chance to cooperate and solve problems in a fun setting. In spite of the popularity of this type of outing, very few managers connect the dots on how the patterns of success within escape rooms match those in the business world.
I encountered a perfect example recently. Playing the Vampires room at Mindtrap Escape (Montgomery, IL, USA) with a team of five, I ran into a scenario that perfectly mirrors a costly process failure that could occur in any industry. I'll change details of the puzzle to avoid spoilers - Mindtrap has great games that garner awards somewhat frequently (TERPECA nominations, USA Today ranking) so enthusiasts may be likely to play this game at some point in the future.
As we're progressing through the game, we encounter a set of five keys slotted into five locks on five doors. The keys are stuck in place- none can be removed from their locks.
Joe is the first to check out the puzzle. He pulls on each of the keys- nothing happens. He turns each of the keys one at a time, and when he turns the fifth key, the room's lights dim for a second and he hears a chime. He turns that key several times and the same exact thing happens each time- dim lights and a chime. After a few minutes at the doors, Joe steps away.
Seeing Joe move on with no solution, Max jumps onto the puzzles. "What did you find about these?" Max asks. Joe replies "The keys turn in the locks, but only the one on the end does anything. It dims the lights and makes a chime noise. We must need something else."
Max turns the key and watches the light dim. He checks the rest of the room to see if something happens elsewhere while the key is turned - nothing. He holds the key in the turned position for a few seconds. Also nothing. Finally, Max gives up too.
At this point, I see that the puzzle has stalled, so I jump in myself. I call to Joe and Max. Joe explains what he observed about the keys, and Max explains a few of the other things he tried with them. I turn the key myself a few times and watch the same reaction the others had seen. At this point, I'm stuck.
We finally use a hint. The voice over the walkie talkie comes back with a quick response. "Have you tried starting with the door on the far left?" I look at the door on the far left. I had never inspected it carefully- Joe had tried it and found nothing, so I had focused on the "interesting" door with the chime. Carefully, I go to the door on the far left and try the key. I turn it to the left- nothing happens. I turn it to the right, and something different happens - I hear three chimes ring in the distance. A minute later, we had solved the puzzle.
So... What went wrong? Three reasonably bright people got stuck on a puzzle that shouldn't have caused us this kind of trouble. In a world without hints and nudges, we may have been stuck for a long time.
At the most basic level, our team introduced a bad assumption and didn't challenge it. It's the exact problem that catches the world's biggest businesses off guard. When we get it wrong, we lose five minutes. When they get it wrong, it's tens of millions of dollars. Cases like this happen in the news all the time. In 2017, Chase paid $4.6 million USD for a mistake in their annual screening reports. In 2018, Citibank had to pay $335 million USD in restitituion for a failure in their interest rate calculation. I can guarantee you Chase and Citi have plenty of smart people involved in their processes, yet obstacles and fines like this are something big businesses sometimes treat as unavoidable.
We can correct our mistake. I can guarantee you the next time I'm going through an escape room, I'm going to pay special attention to the assumptions we're taking for granted. And I can guarantee you that I'm taking it back to my day job, as well. When my team inherits anything, whether it be a query or a process, we shouldn't take for granted that it's accurate.
This was just one tiny example. In general, any time a team gets stuck for a long time or needs to resort to a hint, there's probably some broader life lesson that can be attached to the scenario. A few escape room businesses offer debriefs to the teams to help them take meaningful lessons back to the office, but ultimately managers should be watching the small moments throughout and paying attention to the little stories and their analogies to real world problems.
I'm a lover of all things related to puzzles and mysteries. My day job is managing a data-driven detective agency in a corporate setting, and I also regularly write about puzzle experiences on my website and in various publications and develop puzzle-based projects in my spare time. I've solved over 600 escape rooms around the world, including a challenge I completed to solve at least one in each of the fifty US states in a single year. I've been collaborating as a member of the ERChamp program team since 2022.
I started PuzzleDrifter.com to capture my experiences with escape rooms and other puzzle events and adventures. I started GlowingKey.com to develop projects like the LeoFrame custom diorama souvenir and custom puzzle designs, as well as many more future initiatives to come.
Greetings from Traverse City, MI! Now that we have had a week to recuperate, we’re ready to give you a recap of our twelve state, thirty-five escape room marathon that we completed in just sixteen days!