Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 37;   September 15, 2010: Group Problem-Solving Tangles

Group Problem-Solving Tangles

by

When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling these threads can make discussions much more effective.
Then-Capt. Elwood R. Quesada who became commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command in operation Overlord

Then-Capt. Elwood R. Quesada, assigned to intelligence in the Office of the Chief of Air Corps in October 1940. He became commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command, where he established advanced Headquarters on the Normandy beachhead on D-Day plus one, and directed his planes in aerial cover and air support for the Allied invasion of the continent. His innovativeness was essential in producing the success of Allied forces in their progress across Western Europe following D-Day. It provided a clear demonstration of the importance of close air support at a time when the Allied high command was embroiled in debate as a result of long-standing tension between advocates of close air support and advocates of interdiction and strategic bombing. These positional debates can be interpreted as exhibiting the politics of leader choice. Although the debates were mostly resolved in favor of the importance of close air support, the consensus flipped back to the strategic side following the war, until Korea raised the issue once more. Modern doctrine has since settled on the importance of close air support. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

When groups solve problems collaboratively, discussions sometimes develop chaotic patterns of considering what the solution must do, when it must be completed, how much it will cost, who will lead the work, what additional information is required, and on and on.

Chaotic wandering through this tangle can set in almost before the group realizes it. And once the chaos comes to their attention, disagreements about how to manage it become the next obstacles. Here are some suggestions for dealing with the tangles.

Focus first on options for "what"
The "what" of a candidate solution is its essential concept — the strategy it embodies. For each candidate solution, devise a few words or phrases that capture its essence. Then without evaluating the solution's merits, without considering costs, schedule, or any of its other attributes, move on to the next candidate.
The effort of crafting concept statements for candidate solutions has a high and immediate return. It creates consensus about what each candidate is, it stimulates thinking about new candidates, and it brings clarity and definition to the next steps of the discussion.
Consider the politics of leader choice
Sometimes people contend for the leadership role for a solution; sometimes they run from it. Ownership of the solution effort can generate analogous responses. In either case, the opinions about solution attributes voiced by candidates for leader or owner might be more closely related to their agendas with respect Using rough estimates to
rank order candidate solutions
is probably not sensible
to leadership or ownership, than they are related to the attributes under discussion.
Examine the contributions of leader or owner candidates and their advocates very closely. Accepting their comments at face value might be unwise.
Use budget and schedule considerations as screens
The costs and timelines of candidate solutions are usually difficult to project with any accuracy at this stage of the discussion. Estimation errors generally don't allow for comparison of different solutions, except when the differences are very dramatic.
Using rough estimates to eliminate candidate solutions can be an effective way to focus the field of candidate solutions. Using these same estimates to rank order the surviving candidate solutions is probably less sensible.
Consider the politics of bottlenecks
Shortages of particular skills are the usual cause of bottlenecks. If a candidate solution requires contributions from people who are required elsewhere, selecting that solution likely will place the effort in direct contention with other efforts.
Sometimes the people with rare skills enjoy or seek the contention; sometimes they abhor it. Any discussion of solutions requiring rare resources is therefore fundamentally political. Unless you have what's needed to entice, enlist, secure, and defend your claim to the people with rare skills, pursuing solutions that need them might be risky.

When addressing the problem of effective group problem solving, some of these same tangles arise, but the place to begin is still "what." Go to top Top  Next issue: The Politics of the Critical Path: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXFQZaeqtNmOeubQLner@ChacHubWTnCHMPbeDtcMoCanyon.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:

The Scream, by Edvard MunchComfortable Ignorance
When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work, our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
A hearing in the U.S. Senate, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is responding to questions about appropriations.What Makes a Good Question?
In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
2nd. Lt. Henry Martyn Robert, U.S. Army (center)What, Why, and How
When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
Six kids on a PlayPumpThe Questions Not Asked
Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchDesign Errors and Groupthink
Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs, because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental causes of design errors.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cargo containers at a port of entryComing May 31: Unresponsive Suppliers: III
When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers are a special case. Available here and by RSS on May 31.
A blue peacock of IndiaAnd on June 7: The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate. Available here and by RSS on June 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenBBOUVCprlGyexAphner@ChacHNamgLKzFOJEcKxUoCanyon.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

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for 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.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
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.