Four Tips to Help Your Team Avoid Jumping to the Wrong Solution

“If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.”   –Albert Einstein

Think back to the last time you were part of a team charged with solving a problem. During that first meeting, did you Change management techniquesspend more time:

  • Defining the problem to identify the root cause behind the failure, or more time
  • Talking about potential solutions?

In our culture we often leap to solutions before we’re absolutely sure what it is we need to fix. It’s a fact that most of us are pressed for time. It’s also true that time is money.

However, it’s a lack of clarity and understanding about how to resolve our challenges that leads to frustration and wasted resources every time.

4 tips to identify the most viable solution

  1. Forget hierarchy and title.
  2. Use a facilitated approach to team problem-solving.
  3. Promote a balance of divergent and convergent thinking.
  4. Ask why 5 times to identify the root cause.

Forget hierarchy and title:  Include the people who are closest to the work. Although this might seem obvious, teams often include leaders only or members from just one function, instead of a cross-section of individual contributors who are closest to what is going on and who are invaluable to identifying a solid, cost-effective solution.

Use a facilitated approach to team problem-solving:  Encourage your teams to think beyond the first ideas that extroverted team members may quickly offer. Fact is, some incredibly valuable ideas may exist in the minds of the more introverted members of your team as well and they may never see the light of day. Also, an observation or comment from a quiet team member may spur a new idea from another.  The best resource I have ever found to facilitate problem-solving is Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. He provides easy-to-use tips and tools to collect diverse points of view, create a shared framework of understanding, and develop viable solutions.

Promote a balance of divergent and convergent thinking:  Create a team norm that prohibits comments like, “yeah, but that won’t work because …” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work…” or any other negative comment that would cause the discussion to come to a close before you have opened it to all the possibilities. Then, begin your initial problem-solving sessions with divergent thinking to allow people to offer up any facts and ideas that come to mind.Decision-making model for organizational change

Because we are so pressed for time, it’s natural to want to jump quickly to solutions. The problem is that in doing so, we limit the scope and quality of our decisions. In his book, Sam Kaner illustrates how to leverage both divergent and convergent thinking. Both are critical. Both are necessary.

Ask why 5 times to help you identify the root cause of your problem:   Sakichi Toyodo developed the 5 Whys Tool at Toyoto Motor Corporation to help his teams identify the root cause of an issue and come up with the best solution. Now the tool is used within Kaizen, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma.

I heard the following anecdote* during a workshop. It illustrates how the National Parks Service harnessed the power of the 5 Whys Tool:

The Problem:  The Jefferson Memorial stones are deteriorating. The initial solution was to haul up new stones from a quarry in the South to replace them. A costly, time-consuming process, which would involve closing the memorial for months. The team got the right people in the room, used divergent and convergent thinking to brainstorm and evaluate possible solutions. During the process, they asked why five times:

Why #1:  Why are the stones deteriorating?  Because we are cleaning them so often with abrasive chemicals. Potential solution:  better cleaning process.

Why #2:  Why do we need such abrasive chemicals?  Because an abrasive cleaner is the best way to clean off the pigeon droppings that have recently increased. Potential solution:  eliminate the pigeons.

Why #3:  Why all the pigeons?  Because they flock to feed on all the spiders. Potential solution:  kill the spiders.

Why #4:  Why so many spiders?  Because they are attracted by all those tiny flying insects called midges. Potential solution:  kill the midges.

Why #5:  Why all the midges?  Because they are attracted by the monument’s lights during their twilight swarming period.  The Best Solution Turn the monument lights on two hours later.

The final solution was cost-effective and simple. Just think of how much money might have been spent if the team had not taken time to understand and define the problem that needed to be resolved.

So, the next time your team is charged with solving a problem–where will you spend the bulk of your time during that first meeting?


*Source unknown


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