[ This first appeared in The Huffington Post on April 8, 2017 ]
Problem solving is an integral part of all business organisations. Companies spend a lot of money in building capability in this domain. Most put in place elements that help to build and sustain it—capability development, top management support, coaching, a structured approach, communication, rewards and recognition, performance management and so on.
However, beyond all these are things that are often not discussed yet make a quiet contribution in enhancing the problem-solving capability of team. The reason why these don’t get discussed is because people are not aware of them or don’t think them to be important. Here are five things that when implemented properly promote problem-solving.
Learn to get distracted
Problem-solving can be an intellectually draining exercise. Have we not seen instances when despite all the focus on a problem we are not able to get insights? We seem to be stuck and the problem-solving effort does not seem to be moving anywhere. This is where distraction helps.
In our endeavour to be inclusive we tend to put together a large team—which sometimes becomes a liability for problem-solving.
When your focus is on a single problem your conscious mind is working on it. However, when you take a break and focus on completely unrelated matters, the unconscious mind continues to work on the primary issue even without your realising it. Later, when you retrain your attention on the problem, you are often surprised by your own fresh insights,
So, why does it happen? The answer lies in “incubation theory”. What really happens is that when you take your focus off the problem and work on something completely unrelated, the mind is less constricted and it finds associations which are often inaccessible when you are concentrating hard on a problem. Distraction also enhances your mood. So, if you were feeling low during the problem solving process, it helps to get back your mojo.
So if you are solving problems I recommend taking regular breaks and doing something completely different, whether it’s watching a movie or going for a walk or creating a painting.
Keep an eye on team size
The size of the team involved in a problem-solving effort is critical. In our endeavour to be inclusive we tend to put together a large team—which sometimes becomes a liability. A few years back I was amazed to see a problem-solving team with 18 people. There was so much confusion. Not only did the project get delayed but there were many differences among the team members.
When you think about team size for problem solving, keep in mind the following:
The first one is Brook’s Law enunciated by Fred Brook in his 1975 book: The Mythical Man Month. Brook’s Law says: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” So don’t ever try
Lawrence Putnam, another legendary figure in software development, studied 491 projects at a large number of companies. He found that teams of three to seven people required 25% of the effort of groups of nine to 20. Clearly, once the team size grew larger than eight people, it took a very long time to get things done.
The third is you need to keep an eye on the communication channels in a project team. To find this use the formula n(n-1)/2. So if your project team has six people, it has 15 channels. Similarly, an eight-person team will have 28 channels and one with nine people will have 36!
A team is supposed to be a cohesive group where each member needs to know what the other is doing. So if the number of channels is too big it’s a problem. Hence my recommendation is that a core team for problem solving should be small—ideally no more than seven people.
Walk as you work
If you are thinking about aligning with a senior leader or with a set of four to five people, try a walking meeting. The fresh air and sunlight makes the participants feel energised, improves their thinking and enhances their creativity. The best part of these meetings is that they are focused since people are walking and can’t go on endlessly. Since the people walk together it eliminates hierarchy and helps to remove potential hesitation. This together with the outdoors environment makes people relaxed and freer to discuss issues and challenges. I personally find these walking meetings to be great for aligning with senior leaders, help to break barriers or to bounce of potential solutions. By the way walking meetings were a favourite of Steve Jobs.
It matters how you sit to discuss problems
Problem solving is not a one-person job. It’s best executed by a cross-functional team that works cohesively. A key but silent enabler for collaboration is how teams hold their meetings. For example, when people sit in right angles, it does not provide an opportunity for teams to interact with each other. When teams sit in two rows facing each other, it creates an “us versus them” mindset. When teams sit in a row, the people in the centre tend to dominate and take more credit, while those at the end feel neglected. Instead when teams sit in circles it fosters collaboration and members feel a greater sense of belonging. The beauty about circular seating is that since everyone sits at the same level and there is no head table— it eliminates hierarchy. They are more engaged and involved in the discussions and not afraid to speak their mind or issue challenges—which is essential for a problem-solving exercise.
The power of green
Greenery can work wonders for the creativity of a team. Research done by Dr Roger Ulrich found that people who work among live plants and flowers generate 15% more ideas. Don’t worry—you don’t need to invest big for this. Simply placing plants and flower-pots in the workplace does the trick. It mimics a natural environment and this enhances creativity and generates better problem-solving ideas.
By the way, I have tried all the above and see a positive impact. Let me have your views!