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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. U.S. Air Force photo courtesy Wikimedia.

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

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

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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

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