Solving the Problem Solving Problem

The meeting started like a hundred others before. There were five people sitting around the conference table, like they always did, trying to solve a problem that had popped up in the last few weeks. If you could watch and listen from another room you wouldn't find major arguments or conflicts. These people had worked together before and from all outward appearances were pretty effective as a team.

After nearly an hour though, they seemed at a stalemate. People had begun to describe possible solutions to the problem and an agreement was no where to be found. The longer they talked, the more disagreement there seemed to be. Finally Susan, the newest member of the group, asked a na´ve question, "Are we all trying to solve the same problem here?"

They scoffed, both mentally and through their body language ? and Tom, the old veteran of the team, spoke for everyone else when he said, "Of course we are solving the same problem. Where have you been for the last hour?" Since the meeting time was over, and people had other meetings to attend, they hastily scheduled a continuation for later in the afternoon.

Drew, the team leader, couldn't get Susan's question out of his mind though, and so after his next meeting he stopped by her desk. Since she wasn't there, he went to his desk and dropped a quick email to learn why she asked that question.

When Susan got the email she wrote back saying that a mentor had taught her something about problem solving several years before and that as she watched the meeting progress the words she had learned kept coming up in her mind. Then she typed the phrases that she kept thinking about, phrases that had been burned into her mind by her mentor:

"Many problems go unsolved by groups because people aren't working on the same problem."

"A problem well stated is a problem half solved."

"What problem are you really trying to solve?"

She then explained she had been taught to always start problem solving by writing a problem statement and she through that experience had learned problems were typically solved much quicker. She closed by typing, "If we had started by writing a problem statement this morning, we would likely not need to meet again this afternoon." As she re-read the note before clicking "send" she erased the last sentence.

As people arrived for the second meeting Drew was already there. On the flipchart he had written in red marker ? "What is the problem we are trying to solve?"

He re-started the meeting by asking everyone to write down their answer to the question. People groaned and shot quizzical looks his way, but everyone wrote. They started quickly, but if you were to ask them later, it took them longer to write this statement than they had expected.

Once everyone was looking up again, Drew asked them to read their statements. After each person had done so the room got really quiet. Tom broke the silence by saying what they were all thinking ? that Susan had nailed the issue with her question in the morning - they weren't all working on the same problem.

Action Steps

This scenario ? at least the first half of it ? takes place in organizations every day. Too frequently, people want to rush to a solution and in doing so waste time, resources and the equity in their relationships by battling over solutions to different problems.

Of course people are working on very similar problems. For example, let's say the meeting was called to discuss the cost overruns on the new project. Everyone wants to solve it, and so they come to the meeting with their own biases and slant on the situation, which leads them, without a clear statement of the problem, to search for solutions from their own perspective.

Intelligent, capable and motivated people then become stalemated because they didn't all start with the same question.

You can avoid this in your next problem solving meeting (and everyone there after for the rest of your life), by starting at the true beginning. Resolve to start your next problem solving question by asking, "What is the problem we are trying to solve?"

Get everyone's input, and come to agreement on this first. This initial discussion, especially the first few times people do it, will expose many symptoms and even some possible solutions. Write them down, but don't let those ideas distract the conversation until a clear statement has been formed, agreed to, and written down.

Once you have it written down, it becomes your north star, your guidance system, as you search for and find solutions to the real problem.

The Rest of the Meeting

After the surprise beginning, the afternoon meeting went very well. There were some challenges in hammering out the problem statement, but people were amazed at how fast they came to agreement on the best next steps once that was done. Everyone, that is, except Susan.

The next time Susan walked into the conference room, she smiled as she saw, scrawled on the white board, "A problem well stated is a problem half solved." The statement had been circled, and in writing she thought was Tom's, someone had written "Don't Erase."

Kevin is Chief Potential Officer of The Kevin Eikenberry Group (, a learning consulting company that helps Clients reach their potential through a variety of training, consulting and speaking services. Kevin publishes Unleash Your Potential, a free weekly ezine designed to provide ideas, tools, techniques and inspiration to enhance your professional skills. Go to to learn more and subscribe.

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