How To The Lead Problem Solving Process In Teams

How To The Lead Problem Solving Process In Teams

Knowledge work is about solving problems. High performing teams, and their leaders, are tasked with tapping into their creative thinking and generating new and valuable solutions to various problems faced by the company and its customers. We know that. But unfortunately, when you ask most teams and team leaders what they do to solve problems, they have some pretty generic answers. They “put their heads” together or they “brainstorm.” Whatever method they use, it most often means calling people into a conference room and throwing out ideas as quickly as possible.

And despite being widely employed, that rarely works—at least by itself.

When you study the methods of some of the world’s most prolifically creative companies (and when you examine the research on creative thinking) you discover something pretty quickly. Creative thinking isn’t a meeting; it’s a process. Brainstorming, or any other method of rapid idea generation, is a part of that process, but it’s not the entire process. In fact, the real work begins many steps beforehand. It’s not one meeting; it’s three.

Research suggests that the best decisions are made when you break up meetings into smaller meetings held separately. In a classic study in social psychology, researchers recruited participants for a decision-making meeting with a twist. After the groups had come to a decision, the researchers told participants to hold the meeting again, and make a decision again. The groups were not given any feedback on their first decision or given any instructions about needing to come a different decision than the first meeting. But most of the groups did. Moreover, the second decision was typically much more inclusive of ideas discussed and overall more creative than the first decision reached. One possible explanation for this is a quirk of human behavior to chase consensus. When we’re in meetings, we tend to rally too quickly around the first idea that seems to gain momentum—partly because we want to get everyone to agree and partly because we just want to get out of the conference room. Meeting participants sacrificed genuine debate and deliberation for quick consensus. Breaking up a large meeting into several smaller ones with a different goal helps prevent that harmful tradeoff.

So, when you need to think creatively with your team to solve a problem, don’t schedule one long meeting. Schedule three over the course of several days: a problem meeting, an idea meeting, and a decision meeting.

Start With A Problem Meeting

The purpose of the problem meeting is exactly what it sounds like: to discuss the problem. Often when we first encounter a situation, we’re actually looking at the symptom of a different, underlying problem. The goal of this first meeting should be to step back and determine what problem, if solved, will have the most benefit. In doing so, we’re looking to recruit as many people who might know something about the issue as we can and making sure they are given time to share their perspective. Tactics or methods like Sakichi Toyoda’s “Five Why’s” method or Kaoru Ishikawa’s “Fishbone” diagram can be useful here. But what’s most important is that this meeting stay focused on discussing potential causes of the problem, as well as constraints. Yes. Constraints. While we might associate creative thinking with boundless ideas and wandering minds, there’s a wealth of research suggesting that constraints actually enhance our creativity. Moreover, constraints will provide the criteria by which solutions will later be judged.  Instead of thinking “outside of the box,” you want to use this meeting to decide which box to think inside of. The best version of that box is a simple question: “How might we __________?” with the blank being the root problem you’ve discovered. Such as “How might we increase sales without increasing marketing expenses?” or “How might we reduce miscommunication across departments?” Asking as an opened ended question reminds people that multiple possibilities exist—our job isn’t to find the “right” answer, it’s to find all of them and then choose the best one.

Then Call An Idea Meeting

Once the problem is explored and the question written, we can call for the idea meeting. This is the meeting that most resembles brainstorming (and we have some tips for how to facilitate this meeting in the next section). But before you start spouting off ideas, make sure you’ve got the right people in this virtual room as well. Depending on the problem, this may or may not be the same attendee list as the problem meeting. In the problem meeting, we asked “Who knows something about this issue?” But now, we also need to make sure we’re including a much more diverse group of participants. In addition to adding new attendees because you’ve discovered the root cause and noticed it affects more people than you first thought, you’ll also want to ask, “Who is typically excluded from these conversations?” and invite anyone who is often excluded for the wrong reasons. Once it’s time for the meeting, open with a brief round of introductions. If you have the right attendee list, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll have people from different teams on the call. So, make sure everyone is familiar with the background and relevant experience of everyone else. Then, briefly outline the problem you discovered, its constraints, the problem question (“How might we __________?”), and the ground rules for discussion. Depending on your team and the problem, those ground rules might change. But at a minimum you should have guidelines in place that encourage everyone to speak up, to minimize distractions, and to keep any criticisms focused on ideas. The end goal of the idea meeting isn’t to arrive at a final solution (that’s what the next meeting is for). But, once you’ve got a large list of ideas, it might be worth spending some time narrowing down or combining options. To make the decision meeting easier and better.

End With A Decision Meeting

The final meeting, the decision meeting, doesn’t need to be separate meeting held on a different day—unless of course the attendee list between the two meetings would change dramatically. But there should be some kind of break (bio break, lunch break, nature break) between this and the idea meeting. Doing so provides the mental reset needed in the avoid rallying around whatever ideas might have gained momentum during the idea meeting and provides everyone with a fresh perspective on the list of available options. In addition, taking even a short break provides many people the opportunity to excuse themselves if they were part of the idea meeting, but don’t need to be around for the decision itself. Rather than jumping right into the list of ideas, start the decision meeting by reviewing the problem question and the constraints or any other criteria that will be used to judge an idea’s merit. If there’s a large list of options, consider an initial round of voting just to eliminate ideas that don’t meet the criteria—but avoid using that voting round as a way to “rank” the remaining ideas. If the list isn’t too large, then move right into discussing each idea in turn. Don’t just talk about strengths and weaknesses of the idea, but make sure everyone considers what the process of implementing the idea looks like as well. My favorite question to ask of each idea is “What would have to be true for this idea to work?” to make sure everyone considers the environment around them when deciding on an idea’s novelty and usefulness.

Often by the time each idea is discussed in turn, the group has already found one option or combination of options stands out. If not, that’s okay. Continue the discussion with the goal of continuing to eliminate ideas. If you can’t reach consensus, that’s okay too. In fact, it’s often a better idea to seek commitment rather than consensus. If a few people still disagree with a decision when it’s made, that’s a good sign that you’ve actually examined all relevant issues. If they don’t, it’s possible the consensus is actually the result of a blind spot or echo chamber effect and not the brilliance of the idea. But you do need to know everyone who is affected by the decision leaves the meeting feeling heard and willing to implement the idea (even if it still wasn’t their first choice).

Taken together, these three meetings ensure you’ve fully examined a problem, generated multiple solutions, and arrived at one of the best possible solutions. It might seem like a logistical hassle to schedule three different meetings with three different attendee lists. It is a more work than just jumping on a video call and spit balling ideas. But in the long-term, it will likely save time and effort compared to spit balling—since the most likely idea generated in those meetings is usually just “we need to discuss this further, let’s schedule a follow-up meeting.”


About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

2 thoughts on “How To The Lead Problem Solving Process In Teams”

  1. Thanks, David. To “suspend” decisions in early conversations usually keeps the first idea from becoming the only idea.

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