3 Strategies for “Problem" Solving Collaboratively
July 1, 2016
How familiar is this scenario to you?
It’s a half hour til quitting time on a Friday when you get a call from Sam, your team lead saying, “Pat, we need you to come to conference room 1050 right now. I just got an email from Nancy who is upset about how our new program is impacting them and they want us to respond, RIGHT AWAY.”
As your mind churns ahead through what issues Nancy could possibly have with this well planned and expertly executed program that you and your team spent many months on, you locate some note taking material and stride down the hall mumbling, ‘just another day in paradise’. Already in 1050, your other team members look a bit twisted, some with furrowed brows, others sitting defensively with arms crossed, most likely considering how this already late meeting will derail their evening bike rides or delay their enjoyment of an ice cold beer.
As Sam reads Nancy's email, your mind immediately starts scrolling through solutions somewhat in defense but also in problem-solving mode, reacting to what you are hearing. Just as Sam wraps up, you’re confident you have an idea that you believe will save the day and make Nancy happy. But before opening your mouth, you might be dismissing an important question to ask yourself, “I believe this solution addresses what I'm hearing the problem is, but is this the same problem everyone else is hearing?”
When we are asked to process an issue presented to us as a problem, it is natural to instinctively and subconsciously go into problem-solving mode. Then based on our own personal experiences and filters through which we have deciphered the information, we tend to come up with solutions based on what we perceive the problem to be. If we happen to also take the issue personally, we may come poised defensively which adds another layer to our solution which may or may not be constructive. So, depending on your experience and level of involvement with the ‘problem’ at hand, all involved may have a different take on what the problem is or, whether it is even a problem at all.
Take these three steps to determine, define and constructively tackle issues turned problems that may require collaborative input.
1) Determine if the issue is really a problem requiring broader input. Since our filters vary in regards to what could be seen as a problem, if you are presented with an issue ask yourself, 'what is the impact of this issue' and, 'who really needs to be involved to resolve it'. Some issues aren't really problems and you might determine you can resolve them yourself. If you think the issue (now likely a problem) is more complex requiring broader input, think carefully about who to invite to resolve it.
2) Once the group has been chosen, clearly define what the problem is. Per the example above, after the scenario has been described, have all participants write what they believe the problem is on a piece of paper. Have each person pass their response to the person on their right (or left) and have each person read what their colleague wrote aloud. Ask one person to facilitate by writing these on a whiteboard or flip chart. Responses will range from “Nancy is ticked off” to, “we have to adapt the program to adjust for this scenario in the future”. Some responses will likely include some type of resolution. But, only until the group collectively decides what the problem really is, can it be addressed effectively. Write the final and agreed upon ‘problem’ on the whiteboard or flip chart, visible for the rest of the meeting.
3) Tackle the problem by offering only constructive comments. Many problem-solving meetings last much longer than they need to because it is natural to want to be heard. But your meeting invitation isn’t also an invitation to air every thought you have. As good as it might feel to get these thoughts off your chest or vent to contribute, resolutions are easily delayed by circular conversations and opinions that don't address the real problem (see #2).
On a late Friday afternoon, this could be particularly mind-numbing. So make a rule that only constructive comments are allowed which answer the questions, ‘does this comment move the conversation forward’ and, ‘how does this comment address the problem we have identified’.
We spend the better part of each day making decisions. When we have defined a more complex decision making opportunity ('problem') that requires broader input, creating some structure around the process will get you there faster and home sooner.