The biggest problem with collaborative problem solving is the collaborative part.
Many new leaders became leaders because they know how to get things done. This individual ability to solve problems, applied in a team environment, can become a weakness as the new leader pushes strongly for a solution that others resist.
I have been that new leader who pushed too strongly too early in the process. That approach rarely worked for me.
As I began working to develop better collaborative problem solving skills, I read How to Make Collaboration Work by David Straus, and I learned an approach for reaching better group decisions. Straus’ basic premise is that collaboration follows six predictable steps or stages.
Personally, I apply what Straus teaches by asking six questions of both myself and others as we work to solve problems together. Over time, I have found that the approach works well.
If possible, I suggest using the questions in the order listed here. If you are already engaged in a collaborative effort that has gotten stuck, you can use these questions to identify where you got off track and to get the discussion moving forward again.
Is there a problem?
I might see a problem. Others might not. Before we can reach an agreement on the best solution for the problem, we have to agree that a problem exists.
How do you define the problem?
How you solve a problem hinges on how you define the problem. If you define it one way and I define it a different way, we will never agree on the solution.
What are some possible causes for the problem?
Once we agree that there is a problem and that we both define it the same way, we can analyze the causes. If we assign different causes to the problem, we will not be able to agree on how to solve it.
What are some different ways we could solve the problem?
This is the brainstorming and creative stage. We want to identify as many possible solutions as possible so that we can pick the best one rather than the first one that we identify.
What would a successful solution look like?
Most of the problems we solve using this process could be solved in many different ways and every solution will have its own set of benefits and drawbacks. At this stage of the process, we agree on the criteria we will use to evaluate the possible solutions. For example, if we must trade quality or time in order to save costs, how much quality or time are we prepared to sacrifice to save money?
Which of the possible solutions best fits the solution criteria?
Finally, we can wrestle with deciding which solution best fits our agreed upon criteria.
This series of questions helps people to identify hidden assumptions or conclusions they might bring to the table that would hinder reaching a conclusion that everyone can accept. The process can sometimes get messy, and it can take some time. The benefit in sticking with it is that the time you invest in the process will pay you back in faster and better implementation due to better buy-in, commitment, and enthusiasm.