Have you ever come to a meeting and found yourself disengaged in the first five minutes? The leader who called it thought the topic was important, but you couldn’t really relate; there are other people who have more enthusiasm and better answers for this topic. As a result, your participation is half-hearted, and your attention is focused on seemingly more important issues.
What was the turnoff?
All too frequently, leaders call meetings to address issues that they themselves have defined as important. That’s OK. The real disconnect can come when they use their own, unquestioned assumptions to define the starting point. If others can’t relate to how the leader has stated the topic, it is DOA.
Oftentimes, we fail to have impactful meetings because we are naturally wired to immediately look for solutions. This preference is heightened by the fast pace of business today. Individually, or in teams, we may initially get a sense of relief from solving something and we don’t see a reason to look for additional viewpoints, facts, or input. There’s a need to believe that we already know what the problem is; that we have a grasp of the important facts, and already see what needs to be done. We typically react to any extra effort as being a waste of valuable time when there are so many other things to do!
One of the fundamental skills of creative and innovative thinking is the ability to view problems, ideas, and information from a variety of objective viewpoints rather than being overly comfortable with the notion that:
1. There is a correct or best: way, viewpoint, answer, or definition of the problem
2. That everyone has the same viewpoint
3. That everyone values the same viewpoint
4. That the way a problem is initially stated is the best place to start working on it.
In any meeting, members may have firmly held, though differing, views of what a particular problem or opportunity really is. Taking them through a quick discovery process can reveal surprisingly different perspectives. Surfacing these different perspectives at the outset is crucial to being able to hold efficient and successful meetings. It helps properly orient the meeting participants to a common, shared understanding of the issue. It also enables the discovery of new ways of framing the challenge that offer more insight and value than what was originally considered.
How to problem find?
Starting the meeting by doing a quick discovery process can help avoid premature closure on limited, even incorrect views of the issue. It can prevent spending time and resources on a solution that may only address a symptom of the real issue. Mobilizing meeting participants to think of and express their perceptions of the real issue and gain consensus at the outset is hard work. The reward, however, is meetings with highly engaged participants collaborating and solving problems they agree are important. These meetings end with greater feelings of success and make a more meaningful difference to their organization.
To better understand problem-finding, below is an example of the output from a team who called a meeting to address delays and struggles in completing projects. The facilitator started things off by the meeting participants to think divergently on ways to articulate the issue they were facing. They offered the following five:
1. Unclear project specifications
2. The timelines are too short
3. Scope creep
4. The client keeps changing their mind
5. We focus too much on trying to keep clients happy
Each person was then directed by the facilitator to pick one of them that they considered the priority to address in the meeting.
After everyone had picked, the facilitator had each person explain – not justify or persuade –the reasoning behind their selection, while the others listened objectively. This resulted in an increased understanding of the different options and allowed for the point-of-view of their peers to be shared openly. They were then guided to agree on one of the five, the group chose “#3: scope creep”, problems as the starting point for the meeting.
It took a grand total of 10 minutes of meeting time to come to a collective agreement and get everyone’s engagement. The session ended with solutions and action steps, assigned responsibilities and timelines, and people left feeling good about the time they had spent together.
How to problem find in 10 minutes or less
1. The leader states the problem or issue in a simple sentence and indicates this is just a starting point.
2. Everyone is encouraged to share a different way to state the issue. Do not judge or evaluate any contribution, just accept them and add them to the list. Number each one as it is expressed until there is agreement that the list is sufficient (everyone is satisfied that there are good-enough options on the list).
3. Ask each person to pick one (or two if the list consist of more than 10) of the articulations that resonate most with his/her view.
4. The facilitator quickly goes through in order each of the items that were picked and asks, “who picked this one and why?”
5. Each team member describes concisely their rationale, without attempting to persuade or justify, until all items have been discussed. Others are objectively listening to the rationale to increase their understanding of the issue.
6. Finally, team members are asked to converge on the one formulation they want to take forward to address in the meeting.
Problem finding doesn’t have to be tedious, the more you use this process, the easier it becomes. Try it in an upcoming team meeting and let us know!
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Ellen L. Moran, Ph.D
CEO Leadership Dialogues
Building Solutions Through Insightful Conversations
VP Primary Researcher & Facilitator, Basadur Applied Creativity
Building Innovative Cultures For Over 40 Years