There are many templates for how to engage a team in problem solving. Some are better than others. But often I see teams abandon a problem solving technique or process out of tiredness and boredom, rather that ineffectiveness. When I hear the anecdotal evidence for why it was abandon it usually lies at the feet of the leader for facilitating poorly. No matter what process or technique you use, here are some tips and traps about engaging a team in the problem solving process.
1. Use a problem solving process when you need strong ownership of an idea or an effort. Some leaders want to use a problem solving process for every issue they see. They wear out their teams with this type of thinking. Not every issue, opportunity, or problem calls for a formal team process to solve it. There are really only two criteria in my mind when you should use a formal process. The first is when you need strong ownership from every team member around an issue or obstacle. When you need everyone’s best effort on something then you better engage them in getting their arms around the problem at hand and how it might be solved. If you don’t need every team member’s best effort or ownership–then don’t use a formal process. You may only need some advice from a person or two on the team. Maybe the issue can be delegated out to others more suited for solving the problem. But just because you have a “hammer” does not make every problem a “nail.” Be wise in knowing how to steward problem solving processes with the right people over the right issues.
2. Use a problem solving process when you need great creativity. The 2nd criteria for using a formal problem solving process is when you need great creativity. The challenge is so big or complex that it is best to tap into all the minds on the team to get to the best solution. Sometimes you need a breakthrough idea or newness around an issue. Then a formal process involving a whole team could be a great way to go.
3. Do not use a problem solving process as a pass for good leadership analysis and thinking. Sometimes I see leaders use formal processes as a crutch for a lack of good leadership analysis. As a leader, don’t abdicate your role as an analytical thinker. Much of your role is about looking into the future and providing direction. To some degree you have to be able to peer into the future and anticipate possible roadblocks to the vision. Or you need to foresee possible opportunities that can be leveraged by the whole team. This takes think time on the part of the leader. This takes wisdom in knowing what issues are important enough to involve a whole team. The problem solving process is just one tool in your arsenal to help you lead. It is not leadership itself. Knowing how, when and with whom is critical to utilizing good problem solving processes in your leadership.
What are your thoughts? What has helped or hurt you in facilitating a process like this? What have you learned?
Tomorrow we will look at some very practical tips and traps in effectively leading a problem solving process.