We’ve all been in meetings that just went round and round in circles. You have a problem. You are surrounded by your team, your experts and yet no-one really knows how to fix the issue. Or what about when you are mid way through the meeting and you realise that not all of the team are working on exactly the same problem, or some are already assuming certain solutions? It is in these moments where frustration builds, rework begins, and meetings get a bad reputation. So, what can you do? How can you encourage your team to creatively problem solve together without damaging egos and ensuring that the best possible solution is found?
Step 1 Define the Problem
Before the meeting, prepare an introduction to the problem. This could be quite brief if you want the team to define the problem during the meeting, or quite in depth if you want to save time. Of course if you want the team to define the problem, you’ll do most of this step after you start the meeting (Step 2). Incidentally, I prefer defining the problem with the team, it’s more inclusive and helps the team to take ownership of the problem.
Either way, before your team can start to problem solve, they need to know the exact problem. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Defining “What is the problem?” is possibly the most important and difficult step. If not done correctly though, during the meeting each person will:
- Think that the problem is clear
- Assume everyone else knows that their idea of the problem exists
- Assume everyone agrees that it is, in fact, not just a problem, but THE problem that you are discussing
This can lead to going round in circles, poor communication and to bad feeling within the team during and after the meeting. With a background in lean six-sigma, I prefer to have a real problem statement, even though they can be so difficult to write. As well as being concise and clear, a problem statement should help create that sense of ownership for the team, and describe the problem in measurable terms (money, time, customers / personnel affected, processes / regulations broken, or other important metrics). It should not: assign blame, assign cause, offer a solution, or be too broad! The problem statement should cover:
What the problem is
Who the problem affects
When the problem occurs
Where it is a problem
(You will look at the How and Why in the next steps.)
Step 2 Prepare the meeting
Only invite the persons absolutely necessary to solving your problem. Without exception, there should be a specific role for every attendee. In turn, they should have a purpose related to the problem and / or you expect that they will contribute directly to its solution. Tempting as it may be to include everyone, the meeting will be far more productive if everyone present plays a strategic role. A time will come to present to the company at large; around the same time as when you implement the solution. At the moment though, peripheral personnel do not belong in the meeting. Send out your meeting invitations, using doodle or similar to agree on a time and date. Make sure you allocate enough time for the brain storming and that your team will not be distracted with other deadlines or pressures during the meeting. As part of the invitation, include the brief problem description or problem statement and ask that they bring any documentation or evidence which might help to analyse and solve the issue.
Step 3 Start your meeting
Begin the meeting by explaining the reason for the meeting (the brief explanation or the problem statement) and how long you expect the meeting to last. This one act will go a long way toward communicating that you yourself are disciplined, you expect discipline from them in turn and that you respect your team’s time and commitment.
Then define the rules of the meeting. This helps to prevent bad feeling and communication issues and will prevent at least some loss of time. Incidentally, research from Epson and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) has found workers waste two hours and 39 minutes in meetings every week, and it’s costing businesses an estimated £26 billion a year!
- Identify who is going to be responsible for what during the meeting (taking meeting minutes, being the “speaker” / “facilitator”)
- Decide how you are going to make decisions and how you are going to communicate in general: parliamentary style (majority rules, but everyone gets a say) or an open floor debate etc.
- Ban complaints, assigning blame and defensive comments during the meeting. I find this helps people to be more productive if they are not trying to explain why something happened in their area or feeling as though they have to shift responsibility. Instead try to keep optimism in high supply.
Then define the problem, either from the problem statement you created earlier, or get your team to define it. Once this is done, check that everyone agrees with the problem statement.
Step 4 Analyse the problem
Once you’ve got an agreed definition, the rest becomes easier. First define a timescale for this stage of the meeting. Hopefully, everyone has brought with them the documentation and supporting evidence you requested in the invitation. The facilitator / speaker (as well as you) should encourage everyone to participate, at least until everyone has gotten past their initial reservations. Once this is done, the facilitator may need to keep order! Use the Five Y approach to ask the “Why” question as many times as is necessary to get to the bottom of the problem. Support the “Why”s with “How”s and encourage the team to explain their thought processes. Use control and run charts and statistical software where necessary, but be aware that this kind of analysis along with pre-prepared PowerPoint presentations etc, can stifle creativity.
Instead, with the group, assess, evaluate and analyse the validity of the possible route causes. Use flip charts, white boards, post-it notes, different coloured pens, to categorise, group and connect the possible causes. Use Blu-Tack or sticky tape to hang the sheets around the walls. Slowly remove post-its or ideas off the board or even the sheets themselves as the team agrees that it is not a root cause. Expand and then make new headings or lists to condense / refine the ideas. Allow no possibility to be ignored / dismissed and prevent others from pouring scorn on / laughing at the crazier suggestions (some of the best ideas come initially from crazy ideas – and additionally people will not participate if their suggestions are openly criticised). Diplomatically combine or include the weaker ideas within other themes to avoid dismissing or rejecting contributions.
Step 4 Establish criteria
Once you have got an agreed route cause, define exactly what criteria will define what a solution will look like. This should go much quicker than the previous stage. What exactly are you trying to achieve? What exactly will it look like when the problem is solved? Be as specific as possible, using techniques like SMART objectives etc. Some of this can be expanded on from the problem definition stage, the rest of it will come from your team.
Step 5 Generate possible solutions
Once again, as per the analysis stage, define a timescale for the solution generation stage. Continue to encourage everyone to participate; during the random collection of ideas the facilitator must record every suggestion on the flip-chart and post the sheets around the room again. At the end of the time limit or when ideas have been exhausted, connect and link the random solutions.
Using the post-its and flip charts again, SWOT analysis or similar, develop and prioritise the possible solutions into a more finished list:
- Estimate the costs involved and the time taken.
- Identify the solutions that are most likely to succeed.
- Identify the maximum improvement possible with each solution.
- Identify what might go wrong.
- Give each possible solution a score.
- Agree on a final solution.
Step 7 Assign actions
Now that you have a solution, you can identify the actions that must be taken to solve the problem, the person responsible for implementing each tactic and the deadlines. This is general meeting fare, but it is why having selected the right personnel to attend the meeting in the first place is key. It will be these persons that are responsible for putting in place the solution. Develop a contingency plan (just in case) and arrange to meet again to review the results. You could even open a shared database or similar to allow each team member to keep current with progress.
Getting your team away from the usual PowerPoint / Excel based meeting is at first difficult. Your teams will not necessarily be comfortable breaking out of their usual routine and may be hesitant at first to suggest ideas and be creative. You’ll need a lot of energy and a lot of time initially, but once the routine is broken, the possibilities for creativity are endless! Less time will be wasted talking and re-talking and instead more concrete solutions will be found. Once your team has got the idea, you’ll be able to step back and leave them to it, simply monitoring the progress and watching as your team looks at the problem instead of the solution.