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.
When addressing the problem of effective group problem solving, some of these same tangles arise, but the place to begin is still "what." Top Next Issue
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's
think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal,
but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
- 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: Focus on the Question
- When group decisions go awry, we sometimes feel that the failure could have been foreseen. Often, the
cause of the failure was foreseen, but because the seer was a dissenter within the group, the issue
was set aside. Improving how groups deal with dissent can enhance decision quality.
- Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of
errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept
- Power Distance and Risk
- Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report
problems and to question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such
encouragement helps to manage risk.
See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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