Tell me if this sounds like how your organization approaches problem solving. Once a problem emerges, a responsible executive or manager calls a meeting. At the table are key people who have relevant knowledge and experience. The meeting organizer describes the problem. The next step is for people to announce their suggested solutions to the problem – what they feel should be done.
The next step in the process is for individuals to advocate for their own idea. They describe why they proposed what they did, and why they believe it is the best idea on the table. Now, depending on the meeting facilitation skill of the organizer and the degree to which they feel their own idea is better than all others suggested, the subsequent rounds of advocacy can become increasingly intense.
Consensus does not seem to be emerging, and people advocate for their own ideas with increasing ferocity. In this situation, extraverted persons (or those with higher organizational rank) have a decided advantage. Ultimately, the introverts begin to shut down, and stop contributing to the discussion. You DO make a decision because you must . . . but the one we selected is not one the entire group REALLY believes in. The one person whose idea was selected leaves the meeting content, but many of the others present do not feel the process was honest and objective.
After the meeting, the unbelieving members of your team don’t enthusiastically support the effort, and in some cases even demonstrate passive-aggressive behavior that actually undermines the chance of success.
Sound too familiar? If so, you can take at least some solace in the fact that you are probably not alone. In today’s fast-paced world, it seems that we tend to value people who can face problems and solve them quickly and effectively. Time is money (so they say) so we instinctively feel the need to dive in and take action whether it is right or wrong.
Creative Problem Solving – PROBLEM FORMULATION
What we need instead, is a PROCESS that guides teams through a series of facilitated steps to help them better understand what is behind the problem to be solved, so they can generate more effective solutions. Here is a graphical representation of one such process used by Procter and Gamble at their innovation center.It is designed to specifically slow down problem solving by inserting a whole new set of steps not evident in the case example that led off this article. It is the region of the pie chart depicted in orange called “Problem Formulation.” While it represents a full third of this physical pie, it should represent about 50 percent of the total amount of effort and time!
Why so many steps?
Some of you are thinking that this seems wasteful and unnecessary. Let me try to make the counterargument.
In the problem-solving description I included at the top of this article, we see that different people launched their own suggested solution based on how THEY individually see the problem. In most organizations, this is greatly influenced by what functional role one plays in the organization. If the problem is to grow sales revenue, the engineers may feel that the key point is about sales force effectiveness and training: “If our sales people could just explain our product features better, we would sell more.” From the sales perspective the problem may have more to do with having the WRONG product features or perhaps too high a cost. Operations people may feel the product specifications are too complex and exacting, thus driving up costs. All perspectives are perhaps “truthy” but all are heavily colored by the different perspectives of each group, each of which is relying on different facts –- anecdotal or empirical — that inform their view.
What we need is a process that carefully considers a new set of facts, ones that inform all the participants similarly–so that we are all developing solutions from the same final perspective. In some cases we need to broaden our view (beyond our own parochial viewpoint) and in other cases we need to make our view more granular to better appreciate the subtleties behind each layer of the problem.
Another problem is that we form opinions based on our individual world views. We believe certain things to be “true” based on our cumulative life experiences, but sometimes what we hold onto as “truth” may in fact not be.
We may believe, for example, that customers would prefer lower prices. We may have had many clients even say these words to us. This seems like an incontrovertible fact that needs no further debate. However, if we showed customer a product or service offering that had several important new features or attributes, they might actually be willing to pay a much higher price if they believe greater value was provided.
Developing deeper understanding of the problems in all its facets and layers is perhaps the most important step.
Here are some guidelines that may help:
- Rely on diverse teams. Eclectic groups are likely to bring new and fresher insights and perspectives to bear. So mix them up by age, gender, race, rank and function. Always include some people who are “outsiders” and are not as likely to be blinded by conventional organizational wisdom.
- Get outside of your organization. Most of the time, answers and ideas don’t lie inside the walls of our company. Don’t assume you KNOW what your customers want. Go out and talk with them. Observe them if you can. Listen with empathy. Speak less and listen more. Look for deeper insights into what is behind their actions and words. Visit competitors, suppliers or even companies outside your market or industry. Every organization I have ever visited does something better than the way I would do it. Learn from others and copy ideas that bring you internal value.
- Engage in divergent thinking. Linus Pauling was asked once how he comes up with a good idea. His answer was “Simple. Start with a lot.” We just completed a wonderful creative problem-solving workshop for senior executives at Xavier University around the question of how we drive future growth. After spending one day in problem definition, we generated over 200 ideas, which, over two days we filtered down to about 12 key ones. And finally, these were condensed to about 6 ideas, which we are now developing plans to move forward. This process helped make everyone feel we considered their ideas, not to mention a seeming universe of possibilities, and in the end everyone felt we had a few killer ideas with great value and promise.
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