We already covered quite a lot of ground when it comes to assuming a leadership position and building a positive team environment. But there is still one topic missing: how can you bring the best out of the group efforts? How can you stimulate people to solve problems together and to join forces towards a common goal?

This article will cover the subject of collaborative problem solving, and we will explore its many dimensions and particularities. While there are certain situations where individual decision making is recommended, there is a wide body of research that shows group decisions as superior to individual ones. Groups usually bring more background information, different perspectives, and a broader range of solutions to the problem at hand.

While there are many components to analyze in collaborative problem solving, we will focus on three during this article:

  • Analyzing the Problem from the Perspective of the Group
  • Managing Conflict within a Group
  • Creating an Environment for Continuous Learning

Analyzing the Problem from the Perspective of the Group

People have different approaches to problem solving. Some prefer to go with their guts and solve the problems as they come without looking at the big picture or at possible consequences of a choice; others – like me – prefer to conduct a more detailed analysis of the different possible scenarios and to try to forecast the most likely implications of each decision.

Bringing together people with different attitudes definitely has its benefits, but you should keep an eye for the conflicts that might arise. People who rely on their guts might simply become annoyed by the level of details demanded by the more rational fellows. These, on the other hand, might not like the quick decisions made by intuitive people and decide to become less active in the project.

It is important to understand that there are both risks and benefits to group problem solving. However, if the situation is managed properly, the benefits usually outweigh the risks.

The 7-Steps Divergent-Convergent Method for Problem Analysis

We already discussed several brainstorming techniques for managing risks in a project. Brainstorming, however, is just one of the steps in solving problems collaboratively, so let’s discuss a more general framework to address the issue. But before, I would like to make a quick remark. As the leader of your team, it is your responsibility to provide an established method for solving the challenges your project faces. If you use a different method each time you get together to discuss an issue, it will take time for your team to adapt and the members might feel a bit lost. Therefore, a recommended practice is to develop a unified framework that is both broad enough to be useful in most future situations and practical enough to be easily implemented. This standardization also addresses the problem of different perspectives, since all the members are aware of the steps involved in the process.

While there are many variations and possibilities to create a framework for collaborative problem solving, I am particularly fond of a 7-steps divergent-convergent approach presented by this Project Management Book. The figure below details the steps, and the following discussion explains each one.

The Divergent-Convergent Diagram
Step 01 – Identifying the Problem

Identifying the problem is the most critical part of problem solving because it directs all the following project efforts. If a rocket is not perfectly aligned at the launching time, there is almost nothing the crew can do to fix the situation. In competitions such as Bobsleigh, the beginning is the most crucial moment. The same is valid for our projects: if we don’t start right, we will not finish right.

Step 02 – Identifying the Real Cause of the Problem

What is actually causing your company to lose money? Is it low demand (i.e. the market’s “fault”) or a bad product (i.e. your fault)? How can you identify it?

Looking for the source of the problem is a process that might require some time and the analysis of several sources of data. Regarding our previous question, how can you identify if it’s the general demand that is low or if it’s a flaw in your product that is making people run away? Looking at the competitors’ situations is a good start. How are they doing in the market? Are they successful? If yes, then chances are high that the customers are leaving you because they don’t like your product or service. If you want to dig deeper into the cause of it, look at past data from your company. At which exact moment did you experience losses in the number of customers? After which update? What does your competition have that you don’t?

Looking for the real source of the problem is much more efficient if you have multiple perspectives, so group decision earns a plus point here. Different heads eliminate the confirmation bias of an individual decision maker.

Step 03 – Setting the Prerequisites for Your Solution

What does the final solution for the problem look like? When will you achieve it? The prerequisites of a solution define exactly that: the ideal conditions of solving the problem at hand. In our previous example, we can think of several intermediate and final requirements for the solution: broadly speaking, our problem will be solved when we implement a product that not only solves the previous flaws but also meets the demands of the market. The discussion about how to create a highly effective work breakdown structure might prove itself useful in identifying the different components of the problem and in establishing a precise end-point to the process.

Step 04 – Generating Alternatives

This is the time when brainstorming is most useful. Once you specify where you want to go, it is time to start thinking about how to get there. Naturally, creativity is something that requires time, and the creative process might even seem inefficient to some. This step, however, is extremely important in solving problems, since one among the alternatives generated will be the base for the future work. Therefore, you should really spend some time here to make sure that you have a very relevant (doesn’t need to be exhaustive though, that’s impossible) list of alternatives from which you can choose the best one for the moment.

Step 05 – Selecting an Alternative among the Options

If you don’t have good options, you will not have a good solution. Now it is time to scrutinize the alternatives created by using the prerequisites defined earlier. You might want to look at both qualitative and quantitative components of an alternative, and search for the one that offers the highest benefits at the lowest costs. Evidently, this is not an easy step: there is a lot of uncertainty going on, and it is simply not possible to know for sure which alternative is the absolute best to solve your problem.

Step 06 – Performing a Risk Analysis and a Cost-Benefit Evaluation of the Alternative

This is why the next step involves performing a risk analysis and a profit vs. cost evaluation of the selected alternative. It might be the case that, after looking at the risks involved and at the potential profits, the team decides to go back and choose another possible solution. This is totally fine and is part of the process, but you should also consider what made you choose the wrong alternative in the first place. Maybe you overlooked a critical component? Maybe you did not consider the consequences and the costs in details? If you want to improve your problem solving skills, it is not enough to correct wrong decisions. You have to look back and identify why the wrong decision was made, which data was missing, and how you can fix it to improve future decision making.

Step 07 – Create a Plan of Action

Once you have chosen which alternative to pursue, it is time to create an actionable plan to implement it. I explore in details the art of creating a work breakdown structure in a separate article, and the process can be used here as well.

How to Manage Conflict within Your Project Team

Any group working on the same project is destined to fight. Conflicts might happen early in the course of the project, or they might come in more advanced stages. It’s not an “if”, but a when” matter. So what should you do when they appear? Should you simply run away and try to avoid all types of conflict? Should you just assume a totalitarian approach and impose yourself as the boss and holder of the right opinion? Hopefully I don’t even need to answer these questions for you. But while many people see conflict as something negative to the health of the project, I would like to propose a way to look at conflict as a positive step in collaborative problem solving. What if you could use conflict to boost the performance of your team? Wouldn’t that be great?

The two main problems that conflicts cause are (1) making the wrong decision, and (2) damaging team relationships. While making the wrong decision is quite straightforward to solve – you just need to carry a rational analysis of the consequences of the action -, managing the relationships is a bit harder. This happens because, well, if there is conflict in the problem solving process, there will inevitably be a losing side. The key is to find a way to work together with your team in order to show to everyone why certain decisions are made, as well as to maintain a good relationship among all team members.

So before we move to the right way of dealing with conflict, let’s have a look at the wrong way of doing it.

4 Wrong Ways of Dealing with Conflict
4 Wrong Ways of Dealing with Conflict
Avoiding or Moving Away from the Conflict

This happens quite often. When people see they will not win the argument, they sometimes just walk away. It’s the “I prefer leaving rather than admitting I was wrong” mindset. From a leader perspective, the issue is a bit broader: you might not only want to avoid your personal conflicts, but you may also choose to withdraw from conflicts in your team. If two people disagree on something, walking away and not acknowledging that there is a conflict is one of the worst ways to deal with it. If the conflict is an actual problem – and not just a discussion about whether cats are better than dogs -, walking away will just postpone the matter until you can’t hide anymore. The problem is: if you can’t hide, it means the problem has become really big. So, instead of running away at the first sign of conflicts, acknowledge their presence and work together with your team to solve them.

Hide or Smooth Over the Conflict

While this might be a suitable short-term solution, prioritizing relationships over decisions will cause you to do suboptimal choices. Camouflaging conflicts is the practice of “focusing on the positive side” of the relationships instead of looking at the whole picture. Even though this hides the problem, it doesn’t solve it.

Forcing the Solutions of Disagreements

This is one of the main differences between leaders and bosses. The boss will normally approach the conflict as something negative and, if no agreement is reached, will impose his or her own opinion grounded on the fact that “he (or she) is the boss”. The boss might do it through raising his voice, laughing at your idea, or just the argument that he is the decision maker.

Hopefully, the destructive nature of such approach is as clear for you as it is for me. Forcing a decision impacts negatively both components of conflict: it does not ensure that the right decision will be made, and it for sure damages the relationships in the project team.

Accepting a Lose-Lose Solution

If not everyone can have it, then nobody will have it. This approach usually involves reducing the solution to give both parts of the conflict a “fair share”: both of them don’t get exactly what they want, but in the end they are somewhat satisfied because the other side didn’t get it either. Despite sounding “fair”, this approach is as bad as the previous one in a sense that it also impacts negatively both components of the conflict: there is no guarantee that relationships will be improved, and the results will certainly be suboptimal.

The Right Way of Dealing with Conflict – Confronting It

Now that we know what not to do, it is time to talk about what to do when there is a conflict to solve.

The first step is to try to prevent the conflict. And I’m not talking about a laissez-faire approach of letting your team move by itself in the hope that if no active actions are taken, no real conflicts will arise. I’m talking about actively setting up the environment in order to maximize the chances of “conflictless” collaborative problem solving. Have a look at the article on how to build a positive team environment in order to get great insights on how to manage your project environment.

If, despite your efforts, the conflict still happens, it is your job to acknowledge it. Make it clear to people why there is a conflict, what is the subject or decision related to it, and how people are dealing with the situation. Normally the disagreement will be about some aspect of the project, and not about the people working on the team. Therefore, acknowledging the problem will help you detach it from the personal level and avoid hurting people.

Once the conflict is acknowledged, it is time to position it in the context of the project. Which components of the project will be affected by the decision at hand? Do you have to solve the conflict now or can you wait for more information before issuing an ultimatum?

We already agreed that forcing a decision is not helpful at all. So on what should you focus if not on positions? My suggestion is to try to understand the interests of each part. What are they looking for? If people are asking for more memory on the computers you are about to buy, why do they need it? Is it a sensible argument? Interests, goals, and requirements will give you a better understanding of what each side is trying to achieve with the decision at hand. This, in turn, will help you manage the conflict more efficiently than before.

Once you have a good understanding of the problem, it is time to discuss the alternatives. We already discussed it earlier in this articles, so I will not go through everything again. The process is pretty similar to the steps 04 and 05 in the divergent-convergent framework for problem solving.

Ok, I know it all sounds wonderful in theory, but the problems start when we move to practice. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but there is not much more I can do here apart from discussing the general guidelines for dealing with conflicts. I simply cannot provide a detailed guideline to each and every specific situation you might encounter. This is why conflict management relies a lot on experience and on observing how the team behaves while working together. You must deeply understand the members of your team before you are able to provide a solution that fits all sides.

Creating the Environment for Continuous Learning

Continuous learning makes the third pillar of our successful collaborative problem solving framework. This concept has two sides: it encourages people to take more risks, and it helps learning and improvement through mistakes.

Creating the Right Culture for Continuous Learning

The speed and the efficiency with which people learn depend not only on themselves as individuals but also on the organizational culture that permeates the project team. If you punish every failure of your team members, do you really expect them to try something new? If you shout every time they give a different idea, do you really expect them to actively contribute during team meetings?

Here are a few guidelines that project managers can follow to speed up the process of continuous learning:

  • Be accessible to your team and welcome new ideas and opinions.
  • Ask for the opinion of your team members when discussing topics related to the project.
  • Serve as a model of curiosity and humility.
  • Encourage everyone to participate, despite the mistakes they might do during the process.
  • Eliminate people’s fear of being punished because of their mistakes.
  • Praise the team members when they are successful in accomplishing a task or when they offer valuable input to a situation.

The idea of continuous learning is kind of a consequence of what we already discussed. Having a good set of ground rules, listening actively to your team members, and promoting honest discussions are just a few among the many key elements that define an effective culture for continuous learning. Here are a few other components that you want to keep in mind:

Notice and Question Assumptions

This is really a skill for life. Learning how to question assumptions and how to properly address them brings you a much more complete understanding of the reality around you. I’ve experienced that myself, and I would never choose to remain ignorant to this skill. In the context of project management, questioning assumptions is about questioning the basis of your information. What are the statements on which you are grounding your analysis? What is the evidence behind each statement? Are your assumptions in accordance to your data?

Make Learning a Conscious and Recurring Activity

Many people think that learning is restricted to school and university. There is a time in life when you “study”, and there is a time when you “work”. What they are missing is the fact that these can (and should) be integrated into a broader concept of “learning to improve yourself”. Whether at university or at work, learning for self-improvement is the most effective way of learning new things. My own example comes in handy again (no, I’m not a narcissistic person). In high school, I would learn just for sake of entering university. I’ve spent 11 years of my childhood and adolescence studying every single basic field of science to literally flush it away of my mind after the final exams. I don’t really regret that, specially because regretting too long over the past brings unnecessary pain, but I wish it had been different. In any case, I am lucky to have learned my lesson early in life, while still in my early 20s. Now everything that I study, every single article I read, every post I write, everything is for the sake of developing a better version of myself day after day. I am learning consciously, and this makes all the difference.

Stimulate Creativity and Provide a Structured Approach To It

A structured approach to creativity, really? Are you serious? Hell yeah. Creativity is not a single event in our days. We don’t wake up and *poof!* “Now I am creative!” You might wake up and have a great idea right after opening your eyes, but this is just the tangible manifestation of days and months of apparently uncreative effort. The creative *poof* (or eureka, if you prefer), is just the tip of the iceberg. It is, however, the part that gets the most attention. And if you know a bit of psychology, you know that this conditions create the perfect scenario for the very interesting availability heuristic. In one sentence: the availability heuristic says that we judge the likelihood of an event based on how easily we can retrieve instances of similar situations from our memory. So if we just receive information saying that creativity is a magical moment, we will hardly ever see it as a laborious process. The truth, however, is that we must be disciplined and consume a lot of information before we are capable of producing valuable insights on our own.

Question the Goals, Scope, and Plan of the Project

Last but not least, you should always go back and take another look at the goals, scope, and plan of your project. There is a well-known saying: “Every new information modifies a decision.” Continuous learning presupposes reviewing early decisions once you have gathered more data in the course of the project.

Final Words

And with this article we are done covering the three most important aspects of how to effectively manage a team. There is much more to discuss, I know, but these are the most fundamental skills you must incorporate before moving to other topics. Hopefully the article was helpful and see in the next post!