Situational Problem-Solving

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 68 (June/July 2003)

Many people by now have some problem-solving methods available to them; some even have a few of our own Project Renaissance methods for solving problems. Yet with nearly all of us, when we run into our own difficulties, we tend to fall back into discussing it in pretty much the same ways as groups of people do everywhere else, and this almost never leads to solutions.

One really needs to identify and specify each problem, then formally run a problem-solving process to solve it, unless one is more comfortable staying stalled where one is (most people actually are!). I’ve seen many programs and groups, even those that are principal advocates of creative problem-solving procedures, fall into the same wallow. Years ago I used to watch my own thinktanks doing this, and I discovered that it took quite an effort to move them into actual problem-solving processes. But I believe that is much if not most of what it takes to move ahead.

I believe that those firms will be the most successful whose decision-people use formal problem-solving methods on issues and questions and problems and opportunities. Their subtle awarenesses of the firm’s situation, maybe in one 2- to 3-hour session per week, using a rotation of formal facilitated problem-solving methods (I nominate “Windtunnel” for starters), will help that firm burst right through the ceiling.

Further, I’ve reason to believe that Socratic Method in its various forms (see Winsights articles Nos. 52555657 and 62) is a basic human necessity. One should be drawn out at length, in depth and detail, on issue after issue after issue; that’s a huge part of our growth as human beings (even though most human beings go to their graves without ever having really been heard by anyone on anything). Regular mutual use of Socratic Method, drawing one another out on their subtlest awarenesses concerning matters of the firm and its possibilities, not only will be super for the enterprise, but as a working practice will let more and more people grow with that Socratic experience.

Such Socratic Method has impact on one’s very intelligence — as you might have guessed from all the geniuses that emerge when the Method is practiced, compared with usual results. In “Higher Horizons 100,” an experiment in Hartford, Connecticut, public schools a half century ago, randomly selected students gained 20 points I.Q. in one semester when a situation was set up which caused teachers to listen to what they had to say, differently from how they listened to their other students (even though they were certain that they hadn’t “let on” or handled those students any differently. In the summer of 2002, another university experiment found that students who were made to feel rejected and unacceptable had their I.Q.’s drop by 20 points in just a few weeks’ time.

People live longer and in better health, their immune systems buoyed, when they are experiencing actually being heard by others, or by a meaningful audience. Both the late George Burns and Bob Hope have broken the centenarian mark. Nobel Laureate Stephen Hawking, the great British astrophysicist, has lived forty years longer with his neurodegenerative disease than anyone was supposed to be able to, with a lot of very bright people standing by to capture and relay his slightest thought to an eagerly awaiting world. (Your own research department could be producing its own Stephen Hawkings that same way — without the wheel chair. Perhaps you could each take turns in the starring and support roles! Or your own marketing department could be achieving the equivalent…)

Specific suggestion

When someone in your presence ventures some grand suggestion, usually someone else voices an objection. Instead of arguing “yes, but—” or objecting to the objection, how about making a point of collecting each objection. List the objections on a notepad, or on a flip chart if more than three people are involved or if this is at some sort of official meeting. Determine which objection is the biggie to tackle first, then go straight into a formal problem-solving on that. Never leave yourself stalled-out or stalled-down.

You need — we all need, I think — to make it a reflex to turn each difficulty, every objection, into a formal problem-solving. We know how to problem-solve. We just haven’t bothered to actually apply it to our own problems when they come up, much less to do so reflexively. That, I believe, is the step needed for further success.

Dynamic Format is a system of highly visible or noticeable cues through which one — or the whole group — can productively guide an entire group meeting with unusual efficiency. Dynamic Format is the answer to the question of how even in large groups, most or all participants can experience a lot of meaningful “air time” with Socratic Method, enough for each to get the Socratic Miracle Effect going for him. In keeping with this current discussion, I would like to propose an additional new provision for Dynamic Format:

Any time you observe a question, problem or difficulty in objection or discussion that is not being picked up on as a problem to process, hold up two index fingers about shoulder-high in front of you. That will not only be a good reminder but a good attention-seizing gesture. To signify:

Formal problem-solving can usefully be done on this topic, at this point, starting with either or both of these questions:

  1. What are some of the many good ways to solve this problem? And/or
  2. What are some of the many good ways to turn this difficulty into a major advantage for us?

It’s best if participants also have had some working experience with and knowledge of basic “brainstorming.” (You might also find some use for the “Support-First” rule in Dynamic Format — if you observe anyone’s idea getting trashed before it is first supported, clasp your hands above your head for a few moments looking wistfully upward… )

Summary of Brainstorming Rules

Brainstorming is characterized by an intentional temporary burst of creativity, generating as many answers or entries as possible, saving all the judging and choosing until later. One has to be willing to make wrong and even silly entries to get to the best and greatest ideas.

In most brainstorming groups, the best ideas show up near the end of the session, and the more ideas are generated or the longer the session runs, the better the ideas become. Brainstorming helps to overcome the reflexive squelching we all too typically do of our own ideas, having long since internalized the reflexive criticisms of others. It gets ideas out on the table where they can be properly examined for merit, rather than just reflexively consigned to the void.

  • Speak first, think later.
  • Don’t hold up things to object, judge or argue; just go ahead with the next entry.
  • Express and record all entries, the more the merrier.
  • If it occurs to you in the context, express it; save the judging for later.
  • Let flow too rapidly to have time to judge or to think whether something should be said; just let it rip.
  • Be willing to be wrong or even silly. Historically, what turn out to be the best ideas are the ones that were greeted with a burst of laughter for seeming absurd. Be alert to that burst of laughter as potentially a great idea in disguise.

Three Project Renaissance procedures relate closely enough to Brainstorming for these rules to apply there pretty well also. The three related forms are basic FreenotingWindtunnel, and the Final Exam review process.

Windtunnel is a very good procedure to segue into for formal problem-solving of the main or most interesting items turned up by brainstorming of the above two questions, though many others will work well in that role also. The important thing is to take a stalling-point into actual problem-solving so you don’t stall out.

This could be a very large and major topic, for which we aren’t yet even beginning to scratch the surface. Somewhere in all of this loom some very major and basic questions about human development; about success marketing; about personal and corporate goals-setting; about whatever effort and enterprise; and possibly about other issues even more basic than that. We very much would welcome your thoughts and perceptions and observations in this context.