A Simple Way to Guide a Problem Solving Discussion

I guess it has happened to you as well that you were burning your time in a meeting that went nowhere. The participants got lost in a problem, and the whole thing felt like kneading mud with your feet, digging yourself deeper and deeper. In most cases, you can freely choose from at least two responses to a situation like that. One is to mentally exit the meeting, start playing with your phone or answer e-mails. The other option is taking the lead and turning the meeting into a worthwhile conversation that focuses on finding a solution to the problem. You can do that by asking some questions that direct the attention of the participants to the critical elements of effective problem solving. The process is rather simple, but it doesn’t mean that it would be easy.

Fostering common understanding

People tend to assume that they understand the problems they experience. However, the understanding is often gained only from their own viewpoints. They may not be aware how the problem affects the other participants, what their needs would be, what their fears are, and what kind of risks they envision. The professional or functional perspectives may also be very different, if members of other departments are present at the meeting. To proceed one step forward in the discussion, you can summarize what has been said so far, point out where there is an agreement, and also note where there are differences in opinion or needs of the participants. That will allow your colleagues to confirm, modify or add to your understanding. If further clarification is necessary, or you don’t fully understand something, you can ask some questions to complete the puzzle. The aim is that participants start solving the same problem. And it is essential that you move on to the next step as soon as you reached a common understanding.

Defining the desired outcome

It is quite typical that team members jump immediately to their own solution suggestions from a partial understanding of the situation. Others don’t even want to start thinking. Some simple questions can help re-focus the attention and energy of the participants from the problem to the solution. Ok. So what would be a desired outcome for us? What is our goal here? What would we be satisfied with as an end result? What would be just one step/level up for us in this difficult situation? What do we want to achieve in 6 month? If we are capable of setting a goal that is acceptable for all the stakeholders, we have already made a huge step forward.

Identifying possibilities

In response to certain problems, there are several solution possibilities we can choose from. The more options a team can come up with, the more likely it is that you will be able to find one that is ideal or at least acceptable for everyone concerned. This is kind of a brainstorming session where a seemingly bad or naive idea can lead to the birth of a great suggestion. What options do we have? What could we do? What else? What similar situation did any of us face in the past and how was it solved? Who could we get help from? What advice would you give to someone in a similar situation? What would XY (someone we all respect) suggest? If we had no limitations at all, what would we do? As soon as you have collected all the options you could possibly come up with, you should filter out the ones that are not going to work for some reason, and boil it down to the most promising and realistic ones.

In other cases, you don’t have to select from various options but need to set up a series of steps that will lead to the solution of a problem. Sometimes you can only define the next step, or the first few. What steps do we need to take? What would be the first couple of steps? What could we do next?

Commiting to action

If you close a meeting without coming to an agreement about some sort of action, the time spent on that meeting is likely to have been wasted. The only exception is when the next step is to collect more information or involve other people. But it isn’t really an exception because in that case, that’s the action step. Which option are we going to choose? Which of these should we try out? What steps are we going to take now? When do we start? Any commitment should include a clearly stated action step, one or more people responsible for the action, and a mutually agreed deadline. What exactly will be done? Who volunteers? By when do you think it can be completed?

As a matter of fact, the guiding approach described above is very similar or identical to coaching or technical problem solving methodologies. In our view, the model itself isn’t really important, but the way of thinking, and actually taking the initiative to make a meeting effective. If you follow this procedure or a similar one, you will most probably add a lot of value to the team and the whole organization.

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