How To Have An Effective Problem-Solving Session

The Problem-Solving Session produces transformative outcomes because it’s an innovation-driven process; we don’t try to cognitively hammer out solutions. Instead, we create an environment that entices the solution to reveal itself. This process upgrades the ability of a group to solve problems utilizing a unique blend of cognitive and creative skills.

The following is a partial list of specific needs that would benefit from the use of a Problem-Solving Session:

  • Obtaining input from key individuals with regard to a specific problem, such as a systems and procedures upgrade.
  • Enabling managers and supervisors to operate from a unified strategic perspective.
  • Fostering earlier ownership for issues across departments and disciplines.

Step One: Laying the Groundwork. As in all work sessions, the first step is to establish an agreement with the group regarding your role and theirs. Emphasize that you are responsible for the process — structuring and guiding them through the session — but they are responsible for content.

Step Two: Identify the Problem. The next step is to identify the core problem that will be at the center of the session. Begin by writing your understanding of the problem on an easel. Then, guided by the group, edit your description of the problem to the satisfaction of the group. Don’t strive for perfection — it isn’t necessary at this point. Your goal is to get general agreement that the problem statement is in the ballpark of reality. In a normal situation, try not to spend more than five minutes on this step. Sometimes it helps if the group attempts to simplify what appears to be a complex problem by breaking it down into a set of smaller problems that might be easier to solve.

Step Three: Reframe the Problem. As mentioned previously, the Problem-Solving Session depends as much on creative thinking as on cognitive skills, such as the ability to analyze data and form rational and logical conclusions from that data. The process for resolving problems, therefore, includes a number of creativity exercises.

The first is the What-If Exercise. This exercise allows the group to uncover different facets of the problem and, in the process, some possible solutions, by turning the core problem into a “What if … ?” statement.

Once the group has agreed on the core problem, ask the participants to take five minutes to write as many interpretations of this problem (or its solution) as possible, without any discussion among themselves. They have only five minutes for the exercise. At the conclusion, ask each participant to share his or her list.

Step Four: Ask for Solutions. Once you’ve conducted several rounds of the What-If Exercise and have identified some of the roots of the problem you are addressing, you can make your first request for solutions. Instruct the group to write three possible solutions to the problem, without discussion. Give them five minutes for this exercise.

When their time is up, go around the room and display one solution from each person. When all of the solutions have been displayed, ask the group, “Do we have a solution to the problem?”

If any group indicates that they’ve found a solution, display it, with the group’s editorial input, and determine whether there is consensus. If there is agreement that a solution has been found, you can proceed directly to Step Six: the Action Plan.

Step Five: Expand the Search. A solution rarely presents itself from the first request. More likely, a series of creativity exercises — including the vitally important Question Exercise — will be necessary before the group can identify a solution or solutions. Ask each participant to write the word Questions at the top of a sheet of paper and respond to the following: What question do we need to ask ourselves at this time? Give the group three minutes then take one question from each person. Without addressing the questions instruct the group to write a better question. Give them one minute. You now have a list of many questions that are related, in varying degrees, to the problem. Asking for a better question is a key element of this exercise. Board these questions. Resisting the urge to address any of them, push the group into a third round. You’ll notice that the questions become more solution-oriented and that Information Gaps begin to sprout. With each series of questions, the group moves closer to the solution.

Step Six: The Action Plan. As with the Issues Management and Innovation sessions, it is vital to capture all of the Information Gaps, Conclusions and Next Steps from the session into an Action Plan. This provides transparency and responsibility and ensures ownership of issues. 

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