Category: Problem Solving

Building Consensus in a Team

Building Consensus in a Team

Consensus is a point of maximum agreement so action can follow. It is a win-win situation in which everyone in the team feels that he or she has one solution that does not compromise any strong convictions or needs. To reach consensus, team members share ideas, discuss, evaluate, organize, and prioritize ideas, and struggle to reach the best conclusions together.

A good test for consensus is to ask the question “can you support this decision?” If everyone can support it, the team has achieved 100% consensus.

Consensus is not always the best strategy. In some cases, reaching consensus does not result in a better decision or outcome. For example, team members are capable of unanimously agreeing on a completely incorrect solution to a problem. But generally, reaching consensus remains a highly desirable goal.

To make consensus work, the team leader must become skilled at separating the content of the team’s work (the task) from the process (how the team goes about doing the task). But the process should get the most attention.  A facilitative leader helps a team to solve its own problem.  The problem-solving process is as follows:

  1. Identify the problem or goal.
  2. Generate alternative solutions.
  3. Establish objective criteria.
  4. Decide on a solution that best fits the criteria.
  5. Proceed with the solution.
  6. Evaluate the solution.

Everyone involved in the process should understand exactly which step is being worked on at any given point. When team members sense a problem, they are usually reacting to symptoms of the problem. But they are the side effects of the real problem which usually lies below the surface.

Help Your Team Select a Solution

Help Your Team Select a Solution

“After every storm the sun will smile; for every problem there is a solution, and the soul’s indefeasible duty is to be of good cheer.” – William R. Alger

After your team generated solutions for the problem, the next step is to select one or more solutions from the possibilities. The team has to do a final analysis to come up with one or more of the best solutions to the problem. This blog discusses that final analysis, as well as a tool for selecting a solution called Paired Comparison Analysis. It also discusses analyzing potential problems that may arise with a selected solution.

Related: Problem Solving Outcome Based Team Building Activities

Doing a Final Analysis

For each potential solution, the team must weigh the potential advantages and disadvantages. They need to consider the compatibility with the priorities and values of the team. Consider how much risk the solution involves. Finally, the team must consider the practicality of the solution. The team may find it helpful to create a map for each solution that addresses all of the relevant issues.

Consider the potential results of each solution, both the immediate results and the long-term possibilities.

In the final analysis, the team will refine their short list and keep re-refining it until they determine the most effective solution.

Paired Comparison Analysis

The Paired Comparison Analysis tool is a method of prioritizing a small number of workable solutions. The first step for using this tool is to list all of the possible solutions. Label each potential solution with a letter or number.

Next, compare the solutions in pairs. Decide only between those two which solution is preferable. Assign a number to indicate the strength of the preference for each option. For example, problem solvers could assign a “3” to items they strongly prefer, a “2” to a moderate preference, or a “1” to a mild preference.

This first round continues two at a time until all of the solutions are ranked. Then all the ranks are added together to obtain a priority score for each item. The top score is the preferred solution.

Analyzing Potential Problems

The team must think forward to the solution implementation. They need to ask how, when, who, what, and where in relation to implementing the solution. Does the imagined future state with this problem solution match the desired state developed earlier in the process?

Brainstorm for potential problems related to the solution. Consider how likely potential problems might occur and how serious they are. These potential issues can then be evaluated by the team as needs and wants along with the other criteria for evaluating the solution.

Sometimes this analysis can uncover a potential hardship or opportunity that changes the criteria, problem definition, or other aspects of the problem solving process.

Generating Solutions for Team Problems

Generating Solutions for Team Problems

“There is a beauty and clarity that comes from simplicity that we sometimes do not appreciate in our thirst for intricate solutions.” – Dieter F. Uchtdorf

It is important to generate as many solutions as possible to the problem before analyzing the solutions or trying to implement them. There are many different methods for generating solutions. This blog begins with some ground rules for brainstorming sessions. Then it presents several idea-generating techniques, including free-association style brainstorming, brainwriting, mind mapping, and Duncker Diagrams. We will also be looking at additional tools and information to consider when generating solutions as part of the creative problem solving process.

Related: Problem Solving Outcome Based Team Building Activities

Brainstorming Basics

In order to come up with a good idea, the team must come up with many ideas. The first rule of brainstorming is to come up with as many ideas as the team possibly can.

Some of the ideas will not be good. If the team starts analyzing the ideas while they are generating them, the creative process will quickly come to a halt, and they may miss out on some great ideas. Therefore, the second rule for brainstorming sessions is to defer judgment.

Allow creativity and imagination to take over in this phase of the process. The next rule for brainstorming is to come up with the wildest, most imaginative solutions to your problem that the team can. Often the team might not consider a solution because of assumptions or associational constraints. However, sometimes those solutions, even if they do not end up implementing them, can lead them to a successful solution. So along with deferring judgment, allow those ideas that might be considered crazy to flow. One of those crazy ideas might just contain the seeds of the perfect solution.Finally, use early ideas as springboards to other ideas.

Basic brainstorming is a free-association session of coming up with ideas. Use the other team member’s ideas to trigger additional ideas. One member of the team should make a list of all of the ideas.

Brainwriting and Mind Mapping

Brainwriting and Mind Mapping are two additional tools to generate ideas.

Brainwriting is similar to free-association brainstorming, except that it is conducted in silence. This method encourages participants to pay closer attention to the ideas of others and piggyback on those ideas.

Before a brainwriting session, create sheets of paper with a grid of nine squares on each sheet. You will need as many sheets as there are participants in the brainwriting session with one or two extra sheets. Plan to sit the team members in a circle or around a table. Determine how long the session will last, and remind participants that there is no talking. Remind participants of the other rules for brainstorming, especially deferring judgment.

For the session itself, state the problem or challenge to be solved. Each participant fills out three ideas on a brainwriting grid. Then he or she places that brainwriting sheet in the center of the table and selects a new sheet. Before writing additional ideas, the participant reads the three ideas at the top (generated by a different participant). The hope is that these items will suggest additional ideas to the participants. The participants should not write down the same ideas they have written on other sheets. This activity continues until all of the grids are full or the time runs out. At the end of the activity, there should be many ideas to consider and discuss.

Mind mapping is another method of generating ideas on paper, but can be conducted alone.

The problem solver starts by writing one main idea in the center of the paper. Write additional ideas around the sheet of paper, circling the idea and connecting the ideas with lines. This technique allows for representing non-linear relationships between ideas.

Duncker Diagrams

A Duncker diagram generates solutions by creating possible pathways from the present state to the desired state. However, the Duncker diagram also addresses an additional pathway of solving the problem by making it okay not to reach the desired state.

Duncker diagrams can help with refining the problem as well as generating ideas for solutions. The diagram begins with general solutions. Then it suggests functional solutions that give more specifics on what to do. The diagram can also include specific solutions of how to complete each item in the functional solutions.

For example, Michael wanted to address the problem of his job being too stressful. He is responsible for managing up to 1500 work hours per month. He cannot find a way to complete all of his tasks within a desired work week of no more than 45-50 hours per week. He has over 10 years’ experience in public account and is interested in moving into industry. However, he is so busy, that he does not even have time to look for a new job.

The present state and desired state statements are:

  • Present State: Job requires more demands on my time than I am willing to dedicate to a job I do not really care about.
  • Desired State: Work a job I care about with adequate free time to spend with family and pursuing personal interests

The Morphological Matrix

Fritz Zwicky developed a method for general morphological analysis in the 1960s. The method has since been applied to many different fields. It is a method of listing examples of different attributes or issues to an item (or problem), and randomly combining the different examples to form a solution. Depending on the number of issues or attributes identified, there can be quite a large number of possible combinations.

The Morphological Matrix is a grid with several different columns. The problem solvers enter a specific attribute or issue about the item or problem at the top of each column. Then for each column, problem solvers generate a list of examples for that attribute. Once there are many different ideas in the columns, the solutions can be combined strategically or randomly. While some combinations naturally are incompatible, problem solvers should not rule out ideas until they reach the analysis phase of the problem-solving process.

As an example, let’s look at the traffic problems experienced at a new elementary school. The administrative staff of the school has identified the problem statement as: “Get approximately 500 students to class safely, on time, and with no more than a five minute wait for parents and drivers in the neighborhood.” A few sample attributes to this problem are safety, timeliness, pedestrians, and drivers.

This matrix can help identify different considerations of the problem. It can also help formulate comprehensive solutions to complex problems.

The Six Thinking Hats

Dr. Edward de Bono introduced a concept for thinking more effectively in groups in his book, Six Thinking Hats. The premise of this idea is that the brain thinks about things in a number of different ways.

The identified different categories of thought are assigned to a color-coded “hat,” as described below. The hats provide a structured way to think about different aspects of a problem.

  1. White hat – Facts and Information: This hat includes Information collected or identified as missing.
  2. Red Hat – Feelings and Emotion: This hat includes feelings, including gut reactions to ideas or items identified in another area.
  3. Black Hat – Critical Judgment: This hat includes details about obstacles to solving the problem or other negative connotations about an item or idea. Since people are naturally critical, it is important to limit black hat thinking to its appropriate role.
  4. Yellow Hat – Positive Judgment: This hat is the opposite of the black hat. It includes details about the benefits of an idea or issue, or thoughts about favoring an idea. It is still critical thinking and judgment, as opposed to blind optimism.
  5. Green Hat – Alternatives and Learning: This hat concerns ideas about new possibilities and thinking about implications rather than judgments. Green hat thinking covers the full spectrum of creativity.
  6. Blue Hat – The Big Picture: This hat serves as the facilitator of the group thinking process. This hat can be used to set objectives both for the problem solving process and the thinking session itself.

The six thinking hat methodology allows a deliberate focusing during problem solving sessions, with an agreed-upon sequence and time limit to each hat. It ensures that everyone in the team is focused on a particular approach at the same time, rather than having one person reacting emotionally (red hat) while others are being objective (white hat) and still another is wearing the black hat to form critical judgments of ideas.

The green hat is the main thinking hat for generating solutions in the problem solving process. The other hats can be used as a reminder of the rules of productive brainstorming sessions, such as limiting critical judgment (positive and negative – yellow and black hats).

The Blink Method

Malcolm Gladwell popularizes scientific research about the power of the adaptive unconscious in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell’s premise is that in an age of information overload, our decisions based on limited information are often as good as or better than decisions made with ample critical thinking.

In the examples and research Gladwell presents, experts and average subjects alike are better able and happier with choices made through what he calls “thin-slicing,” or coming to a conclusion with limited information. An example presented is the case in which many experts identify a statue as a fake, when the museum that spent money on the statue did not identify it as such with weeks of research.

Gladwell also presents the cautions of the adaptive unconscious. Our power to make effective decisions by tapping into this power can be corrupted by personal likes and dislikes and stereotypes. Rapid, intuitive judgment can have disastrous consequences, as presented in his example of an innocent man shot on his own doorstep 41 times by New York policemen.

Gladwell summarizes the dilemma between when to tap into our unconscious, and when to use a more critical approach as thus: “On straightforward choices, deliberate analysis is best. When questions of analysis and personal choice start to get complicated – when we have to juggle many different variables – then our unconscious thought process may be superior.”

Analyzing Your Team’s Problem Solving Solutions

Analyzing Your Team’s Problem Solving Solutions

With many different solutions in hand, the problem solvers in your team need to analyze those solutions to determine the effectiveness of each one. This blog helps you consider the criteria or goals for solving the problem, as well as distinguishing between wants and needs. This module also introduces the cost/benefit analysis as a method of analyzing solutions to the problems your team has to solve.

Related: Problem Solving Outcome Based Team Building Activities

Developing Criteria

Return to the information the team generated when they defined the problem. Consider who, what, when, where, and how that the potential solution should meet to be an effective solution to the problem.

When developing criteria that possible solutions to the problem should meet, also consider the following:

  • Ask questions such as “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” or “Wouldn’t it be terrible if…” to isolate the necessary outcome of the problem resolution.
  • Think about what the team wants the solution to do or not do.
  • Think about what values should be considered.

Use the answers to these questions as the starting point for team’s goals or problem-solving criteria.

Additionally, the criteria for an effective solution to the problem should consider the following:

  • Timing – Is the problem urgent? What are the consequences for delaying action?
  • Trend – What direction is the problem heading? Is the problem getting worse? Or does the problem have a low degree of concern when considering the future of the circumstances?
  • Impact – Is the problem serious?

It is important to think about what the circumstances will look like after a successful solution has been implemented. Use your imagination to explore the possibilities for identifying goals or criteria related to the problem.

Analyzing Wants and Needs

The creative problem solving process is a fluid process, with some steps overlapping each other. Sometimes, as the process provides additional information, the team needs to go back and refine the problem statement or gather additional information in order to effectively solve the problem.

Wants and needs seem like a fundamental aspect of defining the problem. However, in order to analyze the potential solutions, the wants and needs for the desired state after the problem is solved must be very clear.

Needs are items the potential solution absolutely must meet. If the potential solution does not meet a need requirement, the team can disregard it from further analyzing.

Wants are nice to have items. The team can provide a weight to each item to indicate its importance. For each potential solution, the team can provide a rating for how well the solution addresses the selected want. Multiply the rating by the weight of the want to score the potential solution.

With scores for each item, it is an easy matter for the team to rank the potential solutions in order of preference.

Using Cost/Benefit Analysis

Cost – benefit analysis is a method of assigning a monetary value to the potential benefits of a solution and weighing those against the costs of implementing that solution.

It is important to include ALL of the benefits and costs. This can be tricky, especially with intangible benefits (or costs). Some benefits or costs may be obvious, but others may take a little digging to uncover. For example, imagine you want to replace three employees with a machine that makes stamps. A hidden benefit is that you may be able to use large feed stock instead of individual sheets, saving materials costs. In the same example, you would not only consider the salaries of the employees, but the total cost for those employees, including benefits and overhead.

The value assigned to the costs and benefits must be the same unit, which is why monetary value is suggested. The valuations assigned should represent what the involved parties would actually spend on the benefit or cost. For example, if people are always willing to save five minutes and spend an extra 50 cents on parking closer, they are demonstrating that time is worth more than 10 cents per minute. The considerations should also include the time value of money, or the value of money spent or earned now versus money spent or earned at some future point.

To Solve The Problem First Define The Problem

To Solve The Problem First Define The Problem

“There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope.” – Bernard Williams

One of the most important parts of the creative problem solving process is to identify the problem. In this blog we will explore why your team needs to clearly define the problem before they can solve it. We will also introduce several tools to use when defining a problem and writing a problem statement.

Related: Problem Solving Outcome Based Team Building Activities

Defining the Problem

Defining the problem should be the first step in your team’s creative problem solving process. When a problem comes to light, it may not be clear exactly to your team what the problem is. The team must understand the problem before they spend time or money implementing a solution.

It is important to take care in defining the problem. The way that your team defines the problem influences the solution or solutions that are available. Problems often can be defined in many different ways. The team must address the true problem when continuing the creative problem solving process in order to achieve a successful solution. The team may come up with a terrific solution, but if it is a solution to the wrong problem, it will not be a success.

In some cases, taking action to address a problem before adequately identifying the problem is worse than doing nothing. It can be a difficult task to sort out the symptoms of the problem from the problem itself. However, it is important to identify the underlying problem in order to generate the right solutions. Problem solvers can go down the wrong path with possible solutions if they do not understand the true problem. These possible solutions often only treat the symptoms of the problem, and not the real problem itself.

Four tools your team can use in defining the problem are:

  • Determining where the problem originated
  • Defining the present state and the desired state
  • Stating and restating the problem
  • Analyzing the problem

The team may not use all of these tools to help define a problem. Different tools lend themselves to some kinds of problems better than other kinds.

Determining Where the Problem Originated

Successful problem solvers get to the root of the problem by interviewing or questioning anyone who might know something useful about the problem. The team should ask questions about the problem, including questions that:

  • Clarify the situation
  • Challenge assumptions about the problem
  • Determine possible reasons and evidence
  • Explore different perspectives concerning the problem
  • Ask more about the original question

Defining the Present State and the Desired State

When using this tool, your team will write a statement of the situation as it currently exists. Then they will write a statement of what they would like the situation to look like. The desired state should include concrete details and should not contain any information about possible causes or solutions. They should then refine the descriptions for each state until the concerns and needs identified in the present state are addressed in the desired state.

Stating and Restating the Problem

The problem statement and restatement technique also help evolve the understanding of the problem. First the team writes a statement of the problem, no matter how vague. Then they use various triggers to help identify the true problem. The triggers are:

  • Place emphasis on different words in the statement and ask questions about each emphasis.
  • Replace one word in the statement with a substitute that explicitly defines the word to reframe the problem.
  • Rephrase the statement with positives instead of negatives or negatives instead of positives to obtain an opposite problem.
  • Add or change words that indicate quantity or time, such as always, never, sometimes, every, none or some.
  • Identify any persuasive or opinionated words in the statement. Replace or eliminate them.
  • Try drawing a picture of the problem or writing the problem as an equation.

Analyzing the Problem

When the cause of the problem is not known, such as in troubleshooting operations, your team can look at the what, where, who, and extent of the problem to help define it.

What? – Use “what” questions both to identify what the problem is, as well as what the problem is not. “What” questions can also help identify a possible cause.

Where? – “Where” questions help to locate the problem. Use “where” questions to distinguish the difference between locations where the problem exists and where it does not exist.

When? – “When” questions help discover the timing of the problem. Use “when” questions to distinguish the difference between when the problem occurs and when it does not, or when the problem was first observed and when it was last observed.

Extent? – Questions that explore the magnitude of the problem include:

  • How far vs. how localized?
  • How many units are affected vs. how many units are not affected?
  • How much of something is affected vs. how much is not affected?

Examining the distinctions between what, where, when, and to what extent the problem is and what, where, when and to what extent it is not can lead to helpful insights about the problem. Remember to sharpen the statements as the problem becomes clearer.

Writing the Problem Statement

Writing an accurate problem statement can help accurately represent the problem. This helps clarify unclear problems. The problem statement may evolve through the use of the four problem definition tools and any additional information gathered about the problem. As the statement becomes more refined, the types and effectiveness of potential solutions are improved.

The problem statement should:

  • Include specific details about the problem, including who, what, when, where, and how
  • Address the scope of the problem to identify boundaries of what you can reasonably solve

The problem statement should not include:

  • Any mention of possible causes
  • Any potential solutions

A detailed, clear, and concise problem statement will provide clear-cut goals for focus and direction for coming up with solutions.