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:
- Backtracking in Incremental Problem Solving
- Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or
iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
- How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences
- When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest
status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy.
In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.
- 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.
- Conway's Law and Technical Debt
- Conway's Law is an observation that the structures of systems we design tend to replicate our communication
patterns. This tendency might also contribute to their tendency to accumulate what we now call technical debt.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
- And on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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