Problem Solving the Problem Solving Meeting
by Kevin Eikenberry
We go to meetings to share information, to report on project status, to make decisions, to get the free lunch, and because we were invited. (Sorry that I digressed). This is only a partial list -- there are many other valid reasons for holding meetings. Perhaps the most common and best reason for a meeting though is to solve a problem. A meeting is a great place to do this -- you get a variety of people with a variety of experiences, knowledge and perspectives together to ensure that the best possible solution is identified and that all of the important considerations have been taken into account.
The problem is, that while the venue and the people might be correct, often the process is flawed. It is flawed because one question hasn't clearly been asked and answered.
The Typical Situation
Have you ever been in a meeting where 20 minutes (or an hour or more) into the discussion of the problem, people start to realize that they aren't all working on exactly the same problem, or are already assuming certain solutions? Most people I have asked this question of over the years have nodded in the affirmative. It is that this moment that a meeting must stop - and clarification must begin.
It is also in these moments where frustration builds, rework begins, and meetings get a bad reputation.
The solution to this situation is to ask and answer the one question.
The Problem Solving Question
That question is: "What is the problem?"
It seems so simple. I mean, why would anyone ever start problem solving without truly knowing what the problem is? People don't do it on purpose, of course, they do it because:
- The problem is clear in their mind (or at least they think so).
- They assume everyone knows the problem exists.
- They assume everyone agrees that it is, in fact, a problem.
Unfortunately these reasons prevail too often.
So, what is the problem?
Getting a group agreement and understanding of the problem is one of best things you can do to improve the speed and effectiveness of group problem solving. But how do you do it?
The Problem Statement
You do it with a clear concise, well written problem statement.
A problem statement succinctly defines what the problem is. It is written to produce clarity of thought and to reduce the assumptions people make regarding the problem. At least as important as these reasons, a good problem statement keeps us from assuming a solution, before we even state the problem.
In academic circles, problem statements are often long (one or more pages), detailed (complete with lots of data and statistics) narratives. This is not what we need in a meeting. What we need is a short one or two sentence description of
- what the problem is
- who it affects
- when is it a problem
- where it is a problem
Your problem statement should not answer the "why?" question - as your problem solving process should lead you to a clear understanding of "why?" Remember the goal is to define the problem so that everyone agrees to the problem and its scope.
While the format may vary, here are a couple of example problem statements to help you get started:
- We (our team) don't have timely data to determine when to make the switch from "X' to "Y".
- Our turnaround time at the Madison facility is currently two weeks, which puts us at a competitive disadvantage compared to our competitors.
- Our enrollments for the summer program are 20% behind last year and 30% behind projections.
The final format of this statement matters less than making sure that it answers the questions above. Sometimes people state the new desired result in the problem statement as well (e.g. "currently the process takes four days and the desired time is two days"). This can be a valuable addition if this end goal is already known. Often at this stage we don't have enough information to know just how much improvement we can achieve.
A problem well stated is a problem half solved. By taking the time needed to gain agreement on a clear definition of your problem before starting the problem solving process, you truly have reduced the total time for your problem solving efforts drastically. This effort and discipline will improve your results noticeably, and immediately.
Kevin Eikenberry is a leadership expert and the Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group (http://KevinEikenberry.com), a learning consulting company. To receive a free Special Report on leadership that includes resources, ideas, and advice go to http://www.kevineikenberry.com/leadership.asp or call us at (317) 387-1424 or 888.LEARNER.