Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 18;   May 5, 2010: Problem Not-Solving

Problem Not-Solving

by

Group problem solving is a common purpose of meetings. Although much group problem solving is constructive, some patterns are useless or worse. Here are some of the more popular ways to engage in problem not-solving.
A Lockheed L-1011 Tristar aircraft like the one flown by Eastern Airlines flight 401

A Lockheed L-1011 Tristar aircraft like the one flown by Eastern Airlines flight 401. On the night of December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades on approach to the airport in Miami, causing 101 fatalities. As is the case in most disasters, the outcome was the result of multiple contributing factors, including the design and operation of the autopilot. Still, one of the contributing factors was the problem-solving approach used by the cockpit crew when they discovered that the landing gear indicator light would not illuminate to indicate that the landing gear were down and locked. Believing that the autopilot was guiding the aircraft, the crew focused essentially all its attention on solving the indicator light problem, and did not realize until too late that the autopilot had disengaged. In a now-classic example of Rearranging the Deck Chairs, group dynamics — abetted by cockpit control system design flaws — led the crew to focus on a less-important aspect of the overall problem of landing the aircraft safely. Photo by U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration courtesy Wikimedia.

The purpose of many meetings is solving specific problems. We bring people together to collaborate because we seek contributions from a variety of sources, and because we hope people will think in new ways. Usually, it works.

But creativity can be misdirected. Just as we can combine our talents, skills, and knowledge to solve problems, we can collaborate to avoid solving those same problems.

If we educate ourselves in advance about the common approaches to not-solving problems, we can more easily recognize these patterns, even when we're participating in them ourselves. Here are a few of the more common ways groups avoid solving the problems they believe they're solving.

Even though these tactics are group phenomena, I've given the name Oscar to the obstructor, and the names Paul and Pam to proposers of solutions.

Yes-but
When Paul proposes a potential solution, Oscar says, "Yes, but…" and then reveals additional information that rules out Paul's proposal.
One motivation for Yes-But can be Oscar's sense that since he's stumped by the problem, solution by the group — or by anyone else — reflects badly on him.
Deflecting
When Pam proposes an approach, rather than addressing it or commenting on it, Oscar raises another problem, possibly unrelated to Pam's idea, thereby deflecting the group from considering the proposal.
This technique Just as we can combine our talents,
skills, and knowledge to solve
problems, we can collaborate to avoid
solving those same problems
is especially useful when Oscar doesn't immediately know how to apply Yes-But. When he can't see anything wrong with Pam's idea — or when he simply doesn't understand it — he can still deflect the group's attention.
Rearranging the deck chairs
Sometimes the group collaborates in addressing something that's either unimportant or irrelevant or both. This special case of Deflecting is sometimes known as "Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic."
Groups that often do this might be lacking in leadership, but replacing the leader rarely helps. It's usually a group dysfunction.
Diversion
In Diversion, Oscar (or somebody else) uses anger, conflict, humor, or other techniques to focus attention anywhere but on the proposed solution. One favorite: "What's for lunch?"
This approach is useful when Oscar can't think of another irrelevant problem for people to consider.
I'm so smart
People dedicated to this pattern apply their intelligence — creatively — to demonstrating their intelligence. For instance, Oscar might withhold key information until needed to disprove the viability of a proposed solution. Or he might "info-dump" — emit a stream of information at such a rate, so filled with jargon and acronyms, and so disorganized as to be indigestible. In that form, the pattern might be called "You can't catch up to me."
This style of participation in group problem solving is best treated as a performance issue.

If talking about these patterns in your team — outside the context of a problem solving session — doesn't make your next session much more productive, your team might have a serious group process problem. Try solving that problem first. Get help if necessary. Go to top Top  Next issue: Unwanted Hugs from Strangers  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenBVCCUbquWEmYCTTWner@ChacDYMKjhZwOFESDXVgoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

Helping each otherWhen We Need a Little Help
Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
Wheelchair basketballBonuses
How we deal with adversity can make the difference between happiness and something else. And how we deal with adversity depends on how we see it.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnnoyance to Asset
Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
Phoenix caissons being towed to form a Mulberry harbor off Normandy, June 1944Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: III
Project risk management strategies are numerous, but these ten strategies are among the most common. Here are the last three of the ten strategies in this little catalog.
A globe puzzleVirtual Brainstorming: I
When we need to brainstorm, meeting virtually carries a risk that our results might be problematic. Here's Part I of some steps to take to reduce the risk.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenWilSIvwoVbORSsKFner@ChactFaOABVzzwOOqXmIoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.