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.
- 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.
- 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 problemsis 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.
- 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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Choices for Widening Choices
- Choosing is easy when you don't have much to choose from. That's one reason why groups sometimes don't
recognize all the possibilities — they're happiest when choosing is easy. When we notice this
happening, what can we do about it?
- Solutions as Found Art
- Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they
aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways.
Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
- Problem Displacement by Intention
- When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement
has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
- Tackling Hard Problems: II
- In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution,
and look at how we get from the beginning to the end.
- Strategic Waiting
- Time can be a tool. Letting time pass can be a strategy for resolving problems or getting out of tight
places. Waiting is an often-overlooked strategic option.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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