Democracy in Problem Solving
Have you ever sat down with two or three colleagues, and attempted to logically break down a problem? Or have two of you tried to create a presentation slide together in front of a single screen, trying to choose the most appropriate structure, text and visual elements?
Hard going, isn’t it? We usually have different mental images or constructs of the break down (or presentation slide). For instance, you may visualize sales broken down by geography, while your colleague may visualize a break-up by product category. Both of you are equally convinced that your view is the right one. If a resolution is sought through rational discussion, inevitably there is give and take. Both approaches may be correct; neither may be clearly superior. And what emerges from this consensus, is a right, royal mess. In fact, any of the individual views unopposed may actually be better than the group consensus one.
Does this mean business problem solving should ideally be an undemocratic procedure?
The answer is not an absolute ‘No’, but a qualified ‘Not Entirely’.
The classic Issue-Based Problem Solving process involves the following six basic steps:
Problem Definition > Problem Structuring > Solution Generation > Solution Evaluation & Choice > Preparing for Implementation > Implementation
Some of the steps are iterative / loopy (eg. Steps 2 and 3, and Steps 4,5 & 6).
There are parts of the process where perspectives provided by a larger group are absolutely vital. Equally, there are parts where the group destroys value, and where a single, capable problem solver should be trusted to ‘go it alone’.
Where (and How) People Help
A) In Problem Definition (Step 1): Perspectives are hugely important right at the beginning, when the problem solver has to decide which problem really needs solving for. A common error is to bypass the first step. The first problem definition that comes to mind or the most obvious pain point is sought to be resolved. If attrition is high, a solution is sought for “How to reduce attrition”. There could be other ways of looking at this situation – some may be broader definitions (“How to improve organization culture, or employee satisfaction), some may be narrower (“How to minimize the impact of attrition”), some could be tangential (“How can we recruit people whose values best match our organizational DNA?”).
At this stage, pass the hat around. Get in as many perspectives as possible. You never know who’s going to come up with a view that you may not have thought of, but once you hear it, you realize its value. And sitting alone in your room or cubicle, trying to think up different angles of approach is a very poor substitute for just talking to people.
B) In Solution Generation (Step 3): You are hardly likely to come up with all the nice creative ideas yourself. Someone may actually come up with an idea that forces you to re-look at your structuring of the problem (this is where the process gets loopy!). The important thing here is to provide people a frameset for idea generation. If you get people into a room and brainstorm on a vague, generic problem statement (How do we reduce attrition), you are quite likely to get the same old tired ideas. Brainstorming is much more effective when you give people a tighter box to think in (“Can we come up with 5 ideas for identifying people who are likely to leave, in advance”). Out of the box, is really not looking at the sky above, but looking inside a different box, drawn outside. The more these boxes, the more the ideas.
C) In Choosing between Alternative Solutions (Step 4): An individual can figure out the pros and cons, and impact on various parameters of each solution option, but an appropriate assessment of risk, understanding of nuances and anticipation of potential obstacles ahead requires a larger group. In the end the final selection may be by an individual or by the group as a whole, but the value lies in the debate that precedes the selection.
D) In Preparing a Solution for Implementation (Step 5): This requires refinement of the orginal idea. Resist the temptation to treat an idea in its raw form as a finished product. Treat your first solution plan as a draft instead, and get reactions. You do not need to take all viewpoints at face value – what you are looking for is the germ of truth that lies behind the critique. Does someone believe this plan will not work because it conflicts with other priorities of people down the line? Well, how can you refine you plan to address that issue? And so on.
Where You Should Fly Solo
In Problem Structuring (Step 2), multiple voices in creating the initial structure erode value and can more importantly erode faith in the value of collaboration. The structure breaks down the problem, links together all the drivers and elements, guides the lines of analysis / ‘work-streams’ and directs efforts based on impact / materiality. Here, one reasonably capable problem solver beats a group hands down, because a consistency of vision and a unity of conception across the entire problem space are important. The give and take in a consensus process destroys this unity.
A group can still help in refining an initial structure drawn up by one person, in some cases even completely changing the initial structure. Even in such a case, I find that having taken the effort to do it one way, people are surprisingly open to a rational suggestion that changes the viewpoint. The group too refrains from frivolous suggestions when they see the conception as a whole. If the initial structuring is good, most people usually can see ‘which part of the structure’ addresses their individual viewpoint. But not when people are collectively applying their minds for the first time.
Going back to the presentation you were putting together jointly – it is much better if you or your colleague individually takes a first shot at the PPT. The other team member can always add value after the first draft is ready.
Therefore, democracy in problem solving - certainly, but not entirely.