Coaching Area: Facilitating a group problem-solving session

Problem solving isn't as big a challenge as it's sometimes made it out to be. It simply requires a methodical approach: Gather the resources to identify the right problem, and employ your grab bag of tools to identify the best solution—preferably, flexible tools that will serve you in you a variety of situations. Throw in the willingness to learn from trial and error, and you'll quickly become an effective problem solver.

Even experienced business analysts and project managers can become intimidated by the prospect of solving difficult problems on their own. In fact, problems are nearly always easier to solve when we ask for help. To help you gain some experience in a short period of time we've compiled a six-step process for facilitating problem solving as a group.

Get the right people together (and no one else). Invite the most knowledgeable experts and the best thinkers to a meeting where you'll identify and solve the problem. As the facilitator, you don't have to know the solution in advance. You only need to gather the best-qualified people to define the problem and solution. If you fill the room with people who know the space where the problem exists—and who are good at generating ideas in that space—you can be confident that the answer will be in the room.

Identify the right problem. It's safe to assume that a problem that has merely been bandied about in informal conversations has yet to be fully defined, and that the root cause is still unknown. Many times, the initial problem statement only describes the symptoms rather than the root cause, or describes a number of sub-problems instead of the main issue.

Try using root cause analysis to be sure you've identified the right problem. This includes techniques like asking "Why?" five times, making a fishbone diagram to visualize the different areas where the root cause might be found, and so on. Be sure to explore every last hidden corner of the problem, and be as methodical as you can. Use any and all available tools to help the group visualize the issues.

Be a strong facilitator. Listen carefully, but keep the conversation focused on finding the root of the problem. Watch out for distracting, time-wasting anecdotes, stories, and needless rehashing of examples of the problem. Early in the discussion, you need to direct the conversation toward defining the problem, and not allow people to get distracted by prematurely discussing solutions. It's easy to spend endless time talking about the first likely cause and solution of the problem, but it will waste everyone's time unless you've identified the root cause. Once you have what you believe is the root cause of the problem, try to some test cases to validate the root cause. Ask situational "if-then" questions and test to see if the root cause you've identified produces the problem you're assessing.

Generate ideas for solving the problem. Once you've identified the root problem , review the solutions that have already been studied and tried. Understanding those attempts and their results is an important first step in the brainstorming effort. When the group understand what has already been tried, and the degrees of success, move on to generating new ideas.

A good approach is to give the group a minute of silent time to jot down their ideas. Ask them not to prioritize, evaluate, or filter their ideas, but brainstorm freely and write down all the ideas that come, however silly or unlikely. After they've compiled their lists, give them a few seconds to decide which one they like best. Then ask them to share their top ideas—not defend, promote, or expound upon, simply share. These will serve as a starting point for further brainstorming. Ask the group to prioritize this list of ideas, and decide which ones to explore first. Invariably, some ideas will rise to the top. This doesn't mean that the group can't explore other ideas that may occur along the way, but it will give them a focus to begin the discussion.

If the group can't come up with fresh ideas—perhaps insisting that they've already thought of everything—ask them to write down a single solution that they've already tried. Then ask them to write down at least seven other ways to accomplish the same result. This shouldn't take long, as the ideas will come quickly. Invite them to be as extreme and wildly creative as they want. For example, if someone says they've tried to solve a jaywalking problem by imposing a $75 fine, ask them to generate seven additional ideas, no matter how extreme:

  • Enclose all sidewalks with a tall fence that people can't climb over, with openings only at crosswalks.
  • Put crosswalks every 15 feet.
  • Build a tunnel under the road, or a bridge over it, and prohibit all pedestrian traffic on the road.
  • Close the road to cars, so that pedestrians can walk everywhere without being ticketed for jaywalking.
  • Let cars hit jaywalking pedestrians without consequences.
  • Assign security guards to shoot pedestrians who jaywalk.
  • Install crosswalks with flashing lights at common crossing points.

It's okay if the ideas are extreme. Sometimes thinking outside the box generates a creative flow that will produce a workable solution.

Evaluate the options. For every idea that the group generates, lead a structured discussion of its benefits, obstacles, weaknesses, and strengths. Be visual! Use different colors to write down the various characteristics of the solution. Write on a flip chart, using a separate column and color for each characteristic, so that the strongest solution easily stands out. Honor the group's instincts and intuitions. If the characteristics of a solution make it seem like the best one, but everyone believes it's too hard to implement, take time to find out whether or not it's feasible. On the other hand, if everyone feels an apparently weak solution provides the right approach, give it serious consideration.

Pull it all together and make a recommendation. At the end of the workshop, you should have defined the problem and discovered why it's a problem. You've identified a solution, and you know the risks and the obstacles to implementation. You've considered and rejected a series of unworkable ideas. Now, pull together the group's recommendation on how to move forward. Gather the information you've collected during the session and put together a recommendation on how to proceed.

Share what you learned. Find ways to share the insights gained during the problem-solving workshop with those who could benefit from them. Capture the lessons learned from the workshop; they may include insights about the organization, the problems it's facing, the people who participated in the meeting, the ideas generated, and better ways to discuss problems in future. Sharing what you've learned will help the organization address similar problems in the future, while helping you to develop your skills and become recognized as a problem-solver.

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