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:
- The Solving Lamp Is Lit
- We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving
before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
- 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.
- Project Improvisation and Risk Management
- When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks
and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
- The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
- Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both
enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps
to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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