How to Run an Effective and Engaging Problem Solving Session
You can even do it without causing anger or defensiveness, I promise.
Things go wrong. It happens.
Despite best intentions, despite how hard everyone’s working, despite the fact that you’ve got really good people on the team, things will go wrong.
In fact, if you think everything is going to plan, that might be the first sign that they’re really not. Check for the following:
1. Your people are afraid to tell you the truth, or
2. They tell you, but you don’t listen.
If either of the above are true in your situation, stop reading. This article isn’t for you. Instead, for a worst case scenario description of the path you may be headed down, pick up a copy of John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood,” his detailed account of the lies and deception behind Theranos.
But even if you’ve appropriately stretched your team, and even if you’ve maintained a trusting and open relationship with them, and even if they’re engaged and empowered, things will still go off the rails now and then.
Fortunately, most of the time, our mistakes don’t define us. How we recover from them does. How you respond to setbacks, not how you avoid them, will define your success as a leader.
So something has gone wrong. Analysis has uncovered a serious design flaw. A primary supplier has proven incapable. A major customer is dissatisfied with the service they’re receiving. Whatever the case, you need to get the team together to fix it.
How you facilitate this session can be the deciding factor in whether or not you recover. You already know better than to pound on the conference table and insist that everyone work nights and weekends until the situation is resolved. You know better than to point fingers or find a scapegoat. You even know better than to put on your cape and try to solve the problem yourself — it needs to be a team effort.
So what do you do instead? Here are five steps that will engage and empower the team in finding a solution.
Step 1. Make your intentions known.
The purpose of this meeting cannot be a surprise, so let everyone know your intentions ahead of time. People are already on edge about the problem, and will fill in the blanks themselves if you don’t provide context.
“He wants to figure out who messed up.”
Or, worse yet:
“I wonder who she’s going to fire.”
Head this off at the pass by being crystal clear regarding your intentions. In the calendar invitation, include something like:
As you all know, we’ve recently discovered an issue regarding XXXX. I’d like to get us together to start working towards a solution. To be clear, this is NOT about pointing fingers or finding blame. This IS about collaborating on determining next steps towards a solution. Mistakes happen. What’s more important is how we recover, and we’re going to do so together.
Since many people don’t read the text of calendar invitations, send this in an email to the invitees first. Then copy and paste it into the calendar invitation. At the start of the meeting, set the stage by reiterating these intentions. Being clear about the meeting’s purpose will help the team feel more open towards discussion the situation.
Step 2. Be fully present.
If at all possible, leave all electronics at your desk. No laptop, tablet, or phone in the conference room. Take notes the old fashioned way — with pen and paper. If you need the notes saved electronically, take a picture of them later and distribute them to the team.
If you absolutely must take notes with a device, project them onto the screen in the meeting room for everyone to see. There can be no question about where your head is at while you’re facilitating this discussion, and there can be no question about what you’re doing with your electronics in the meeting.
This will add to the engagement in the session, as your team will follow your lead. You might even make this clear at the beginning of the meeting:
This isn’t a typical status update meeting, and I’d like everyone’s full participation. I’ve left my laptop and cell phone at my desk, and I hope you’ll prevent those things from distracting you as well. We will be taking breaks every 30–45 minutes to check electronics, so you can make sure there are no family emergencies that you need to attend to.
Step 3. Focus on asking “forward facing” questions.
You’ve already promised that the point of this session is to focus on the future. To focus on how to recover from the mistake, not on the mistake itself. In this step, you live up to that promise.
As difficult as it may be, you have to avoid asking “backwards facing” questions. Questions that try to get to the root cause of what went wrong, or that try to find fault. Questions like:
Why did we make that decision?
How did we get that analysis wrong?
Who said we should do it that way?
No matter how gently or politely you ask these questions, the result will be the same. Defensiveness. People have very good reasons for the mistakes they’ve made. And when you ask about them, you’ll hear all of those very good reasons. Don’t believe me? Think about the last mistake you made. Did you screw up on purpose?
When your people are busy justifying their past behavior, they’re not busy thinking about future solutions. They’re just getting defensive, and can easily descend into responding emotionally rather than rationally.
Instead, ask “forward facing” questions that get everyone focused on resolving the issue. Questions like:
What should we do next?
How will we know when this problem is solved?
What’s the first action we should take when we leave this meeting?
What are we going to do? When?
You want everyone doing their best thinking in solving the problem, not responding emotionally or getting defensive about the past. The words you use and the questions you ask will have a big impact on this.
Step 4. Engage everyone.
As the facilitator, one of your primary responsibilities is to make sure that everyone present has the opportunity to contribute. Pay attention. Who’s participating in the discussion? Who isn’t?
Better yet, who wants to participate but isn’t getting the chance?
You need the best thinking and ideas in these sessions, not just the loudest voices. Some of the best ideas will indeed come from the personalities in the room that tend to speak up quickest and loudest, but not all of them. Make sure you’re making room for everyone to contribute.
You’ll be able to tell, if you’re paying attention. A flash of eye contact, or a change in body language is sometimes all you’ll notice, but seize on it when you do. The new guy in the corner? He’s been quiet since the beginning, but at a critical decision point he leans forward slightly and looks at you. That’s your chance. Ask him what’s on his mind.
If there’s someone you want to hear from but haven’t, try giving him or her a little nudge.
Jane, I know you’ve got some thoughts here, so before we leave this topic I want to make sure we hear from you.
Then let others talk. You’ve sent the message. Periodically check in with Jane by making eye contact, just to see if she’s ready to speak up. You’ve given her the heads up and time to formulate what she’s going to say. When she’s ready, she’ll share.
Step 5. Don’t judge. Not even a little.
Your attendees are anxious. No matter how well you’ve set the tone, there’s still some lingering doubt. You really just want to figure out who screwed this up, don’t you?
Every message you send to those in the room needs to indicate that you’re only interested in figuring out how to move forward. Every word you use, every emotion you express, every face you make. So be hyper self-aware.
When someone shares an idea, acknowledge it. Thank them. Don’t scowl, even if that’s just the face you make when you’re thinking hard. Don’t argue with the idea or point out its flaws. Don’t say, “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.”
Your objective in this session is participation, and getting ideas on the table. Your objective is NOT convincing everyone that you’re the next Elon Musk. You’re not. If you had a brilliant solution, you wouldn’t have needed this session to begin with.
Stay open, listen, and facilitate discussion. You’ll be amazed at how good your team can be when they’re not defensive or too busy protecting themselves. And they’ll be completely bought into the solution, because they created it. Once the group has settled on a path forward, step back and watch the magic happen.