MacGyver thinking

Can You Actually Teach Someone How To “MacGyver” Problems?

Some people are good at “MacGyvering” whatever problems come their way. Others watch it and applaud. Yet, they don’t think they themselves could do it. 

In a previous nugget, I shared a story about a situation we encountered while camping with a YMCA Mom-Son “Adventure Club.” A MacGyver move saved the day. 

Here is another MacGyver story. Let’s see what we can learn from this example to answer our question: “Can You Teach Someone How To MacGyver Problems?”

A MacGyver Story

Our Mom-son “tribe” had an old trailer with our camping gear. I had offered to pull the trailer to the campground with my SUV. I picked up the trailer from the storage place. As I was leaving for the camping trip, I noticed the trailers’ taillights were not working. It was Friday evening and getting dark. My friends were awaiting my arrival with the gear. 

A trailer without lights was waiting either for a ticket or, worse, an accident. I stopped at a nearby gas station to find options to solve the problem. They might have a light with a magnet I could stick to the back of the metal trailer. They didn’t have anything suitable but recommended a Super Target nearby with an auto department. Yet, their auto section also had nothing that could work. 

I asked a store clerk. She said, “Let’s look in the bicycle aisle.” A battery-operated light with a strap designed to go around a bicycle handlebar seemed like a possible solution. The light had a red and a white light setting. Red would work as a make-shift taillight.

Back at the trailer, I had to figure out how to attach the light to the trailer. There were two thin handles on the back – too skinny to work with the light’s straps. I found a stick to beef up one handle and fashioned the light onto the handle-stick combo. My cooler happened to have a bottle opener attached to it with a short piece of thin rope. Voila, I had what I needed to secure the light onto the trailer and make it to the campsite safely.

The question is:

Can You Actually Teach Someone How To MacGyver A Problem? 

Great question! If so, how can we teach that?

Some people flat out say, “No, you can’t. It is an instinct, and you either have it, or you don’t.” 

Some people love “MacGyvering” and are great at it. I happen to be one of them (I even got a MacGyver award from our Chief). But I’m not so sure I am born with that. I believe my Dad deserves at least some credit for my MacGyvering skills. Often he built something out of things he had and could repurpose. I helped him with some of those projects and picked his “Let’s see what we have at hand to solve this problem” mentality.

Thus, I suspect the nature-versus-nurture debate concerning MacGyvering does not have a clear-cut answer. I think MacGyvering is teachable, at least to some extent

Here is how I go about teaching problem-solving (in fact, I do help businesses and organizations come up with training for solving problems far more complex than the example above):

  1. First, look at how the “expert MacGyver” tackles a problem in their field of expertise? What is the thought process? What actions are they taking to solve the problem? Document the process. See a flowchart below (this graph could be even more detailed, but you get the idea.)
  2. Then you can teach this thought process to others.
  3. Next, you give the trainees a similar but not identical problem and observe what happens.
    • Is the person able to solve the problem?
    • How far do they get with it?
  4. Adjust the training based on what you have learned in step #3.
Flowchart showing the MacGyver thought process for the story I’m sharing here.

Can You Use This Process With Anyone?

Probably not – yet, if you do it right, you can advance the MacGyver abilities of many more people than you might expect.

MacGyvering takes some imagination and creativity. It also takes the courage to try something and see whether it will work. You can’t be so fearful of making a mistake that you don’t move forward. 

How To Enhance Your Team’s MacGyvering Skills?

  • What can you do to encourage people you work with to take a stab at MacGyvering?
  • How can you discourage them from handing the problem over to you without even giving it a shot themself?

Here is how:

  1. Train them in MacGyvering using a training system.
  2. Give them a sense that making a mistake is okay (and if needed, tell them which types of errors they cannot risk making).
  3. Please don’t allow them to push problems your way without first taking a meaningful stab at them.
  4. Keep noticing how you solve these problems and document the process of your thoughts and actions.
  5. Amend the training system accordingly.

Key Takeaways

  • You can likely advance the MacGyvering skills of your coworkers/employees.
  • For that, you need to capture and document the “Expert MacGyvers” process of solving the problem – the flowchart above is an example of the simple example I am sharing in this nugget.
  • Then train people and observe the results. Amend the training as needed. Assure them that making some mistakes is okay and part of the process.

I’m Curious

  • Are you the Head MacGyver in your company or organization?
  • Who else is good at it?
  • To what extent are you willing to “bottle” your MacGyvering abilities and train others with them?

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