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 sensibleto 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.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Bois Sec!
- When your current approach isn't working, you can scrap whatever you're doing and start again —
if you have enough time and money. There's a less radical solution, and if it works, it's usually both
cheaper and faster.
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: II
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to the differing assumptions
of the parties to the conflict. Here's Part II of an essay on surfacing these differences using a tool
called the Johari window.
- 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.
- Problem Displacement and Technical Debt
- The term problem displacement describes situations in which solving one problem creates another.
It sometimes leads to incurring technical debt. How? What can we do about it?
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.