Effective Problem-Solving: Using What We Know

Includes updates on the Windtunnel method

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 72 (January 2004)

By now, many or most people have available to them at least one or more workable methods for solving problems. Some even have known to them 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 these in pretty much the same ineffectual ways as groups of people do everywhere else, and this almost never leads to solutions.

You really need to:

  1. notice when a situation becomes a problem for you;
  2. identify and specify the problem; and
  3. deliberately use a formal problem-solving process to solve it

— unless you are more comfortable lying stalled where you are. Most people are more comfortable lying stalled where they are, including even in the creative problem-solving field itself.

I’ve seen many programs and groups who are leading advocates of various creative problem-solving procedures. I’ve watched them fall into the same wallow. They may be very good at coaching other people through THEIR problems, but seemingly helpless once confronted with their own problems.

Years ago I used to watch our own Project Renaissance thinktanks tending toward this same wallow. I found that it took quite an effort then to move even our own people into actual problem-solving processes, though nowadays they do so with alacrity. But noticing, specifying, and solving problems are much or most of what it takes to move ahead. A nice, tight formula for success?….

The firm which has its decision people use formal problem-solving methods; the firm that uses such methods systematically on issues and questions and problems and opportunities and subtle awarenesses of that firm’s situation; the firm whose decision people invest even one 2- to 3-hour session per week together in such systematic solution-finding — that firm will burst right through the ceiling.

I recommend for that weekly session a rotation of at least a half dozen or so different problem-solving procedures (literally hundreds are available!) to keep these sessions fresh.

For your firm’s first session or so, I now strongly recommend the newest version of Windtunnel, as described further on in this article. The Windtunnel method is less than three years old as of this writing [2004], but already exists in about forty different forms because it is proving to be so very useful. The earlier version of Windtunnel was published here in Winsights No. 55, a few months after we invented it. Windtunnel, a facilitated way to think out loud, is an easy, idea-productive, high-energizing way to get people started into problem-solving. It serves as a complete system in its own right but also combines wonderfully well with other problem-solving methods. We strongly recommend that you start your firm’s series of problem-solving sessions with a round or so of “Windtunnelling,” especially with the version whose description begins on page 2.

Beyond particular techniques, basic Socratic Method generally is a fundamentally practical issue and a fundamentally human issue. EVERY human being NEEDS, as a hugely important part of his or her development and growth as a human being, to be drawn out at length, in depth and detail, on issue after issue after issue. Most human beings, however, go to their graves without ever REALLY having been heard by anyone on anything. This is not only an extreme waste of human living but of the human resources of your firm, and of its unnoticed strategic advantages.

Nearly every creativity method and creative problem-solving method is a form of Socratic Method. To understand Socratic Method casts all problem-solving and all creativity procedures in a different and much clearer light. To educate yourself in Socratic Method, examine these Winsights articles: Nos. 33, 52, 55, 56, 57, and 63. To understand how to get everyone in your firm or in your group being Socratic to one another and being heard and drawn out in enough detail long enough when air time is normally so limited and costly, see Dynamic Format in the “CPS Techniques” section. I strongly recommend that at some point you DO educate yourself in Socratic Method; you will be astonished at what it can do for you, and for your enterprise.

Regular mutual use of Socratic Method, drawing one another out in depth on their subtlest awarenesses concerning matters of the firm and its possibilities, not only will enable your enterprise to excel spectacularly well, but as a working practice will develop some truly marvelous and brilliant human beings around you, and will give you yourself tremendous leverage on affairs.

Socratic Method builds one’s very intelligence

  • Its use 2300 years ago in late classical Greece, and again a few hundred years ago in Europe, resulted in tiny populations of those times producing more world-class geniuses than we have today from among Earth’s seven billion people, even with all our Information Age technologies and advantages.
  • In the 1950s, in Higher Horizons 100, an experiment in Hartford, Connecticut, Public Schools randomly selected students, who gained 20 points I.Q. in a semester when their teachers were led to listen to what they had to say, hearing them differently from how they heard their other students even though the teachers reportedly went to great lengths to treat everyone equally. Cutting in the other direction, in the summer of ‘02, another university experiment found that by making students feel rejected and unacceptable, their I.Q.s dropped 20 points in just a few weeks’ time.
  • People who are heard out on matters important to them live longer and in better health. As might be expected, their immune systems are buoyed when they are experiencing being really heard, especially by a meaningful audience. Frantic as the world of standup comedy is, two of its leading members, Bob Hope and George Burns, both lived to longer than one hundred years. Nobel Laureate Stephen Hawking, the great British astrophysicist, has lived forty years longer with his Lou Gehrig’s disease than anyone was supposed to be able to. A lot of pretty bright people have been standing very close, to capture Hawking’s slightest nuance of thought to an eagerly awaiting world. That is powerful. Your own research department could be producing its own Nobel Laureate, its own Stephen Hawkings but without the wheel chair — perhaps you could each take turns in the starring and support roles. Or you can get an equivalent performance in your marketing department….

Keying in on specific problem opportunities

Here are some specific suggestions to move your group or enterprise into success:

When someone in your presence ventures some grand suggestion, usually someone else quickly voices an objection. Trying to support “rules of creativity,” someone else then tries to argue down the objection….

Instead of arguing “yes-but” or otherwise objecting to the objection, here is a more productive path. Make it a point to collect each objection. List the objections on a notepad — or on a flip chart if more than three people are involved or if this is some sort of official meeting. Determine which objection is the biggie to tackle first, and go straight into a 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. Most of us 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.

Formatting the discussion

Dynamic Format is a system of highly visible, 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 as to how even in large groups, most or all participants can experience a lot of meaningful “air time” with Socratic Method — enough to dig up and bring forth their subtlest or deepest awarenesses in any context.

Complete directions for Dynamic Format are given in the CPS Techniques section of this website.

In keeping with this current discussion, I propose an additional new provision for Dynamic Format — any time that you observe a question, problem or difficulty, in objection or discussion, that is not being picked up on as a problem to specifically process and solve:  hold up two index fingers about shoulder high in front of you, palms away from you. That will not only be a good, quick reminder but a good attention-getting gesture. That gesture will signify:

…That 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?
  2. What are some of the many good ways to turn this difficulty/objection into a major advantage for us?

Whatever further problem-solving process you may eventually use, at first these two questions might best be answered by means of classic “brainstorming,” generating as many possible different answers as you can within a limited (5-20 minutes) intense period of time. As many possible answers, right or wrong without regard, just getting as many ideas as possible expressed and recorded.

(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, as if your clasped hands were an umbrella against the objections being rained down…..)

It’s best if participants also have had some working experience with and knowledge of basic “brainstorming,” the procedure invented a half century ago by Alex Osborn. “Brainstorming” is ancestor to the current Osborn-Parnes CPS method and program, to Freenoting, and to Windtunnel as detailed a few paragraphs further along. Here, in summary, are some of the very basic groundrules or principles of “Brainstorming”:

Summary of Brainstorming Rules

Brainstorming — as many idea responses as one can possibly come up with in a limited period of time — helps us to overcome the reflexive squelching we all too typically do of our own ideas, not only everyone else’s! Brainstorming helps us overcome the reflexive criticisms that others long have made of us that we’ve internalized. It helps us to get ideas out on the table where they can be properly examined for merit, rather than just reflexively consigned to the void.

Brainstorming is,of course, characterized by an intentional temporary burst of focused creativity, generating as many answers or entries or ideas as possible, deferring all 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 sessions and groups, the best ideas show up near the end of the session, and the more ideas generated or the longer the session runs, the better the ideas become. A summary of the “rules”:

  • Speak first, think later.
  • Don’t take time 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 and record 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. History and research both show that what turns out to be the best ideas are usually the ones that were greeted with a burst of laughter because they seemed so absurd. Be alert to that burst of laughter as potentially a great idea in disguise.

Three Project Renaissance procedures are descendants of “Brainstorming” and are close enough to it for the above “rules” to apply to them also. The three related forms are Freenoting in the Teaching & Learning Techniques section; Windtunnel as expanded upon below, and the Final Exam review procedure (Winsights No. 52). Windtunnel, whether the original one in Winsights No. 55 or the version set forth below, may indeed be fairly characterized as “brainstorming — with attitude”!

Whether you use any of these, or some other formal problem-solving method altogether, the important thing is to seize on and take stalling-points into actual problem-solving so you and your enterprise don’t stall out.

A Focus for Windtunnelling

Brainstorm many entries, answering either or both those two questions:  What are some great ways to solve the problem identified by whatever objection; and what are some of the many great ways to turn some of the objections voiced into an actual great advantage? Out of the many, pick the “biggie,” or at least the one which would be most interesting to solve.

On what you’ve selected, you can then either run Windtunnel as a complete problem-solving procedure, or use Windtunnel to get a lot of the matter done and then let it lead into other forms of creative problem-solving method, for completion.

  • What was the most interesting objection or problem thus far? Please write it out, get it as concrete as you can.
  • Form pairs, and work in pairs.
  • If the question is new to consideration, you can go straight into it with the instructions which follow. If the question is familiar, then break it into three narrower questions, then arbitrarily choose one to answer as in the original Windtunnel procedure in Winsights No. 55, purpose to get the Windtunneller as fast as possible past his or her short-cuts and stock speeches on the subject. …As fast as possible getting the “Windtunneller” to the “flounder-around-and-dig point” — it’s that floundering around and digging that’s productive of fresh perceptions and ideas. No let-up, no hesitations, no pauses….

Here are your instructions for “Windtunnelling”:

In each pair,

  1. Choose which of you is Listener and which of you is “Windtunneller.” (30 seconds.)
  2. Windtunneller: — very rapidly, very quickly and without pause or hesitation describe everything that comes to mind on this question. — For eleven straight minutes (or until your facilitator calls time; don’t wait up expectantly until then, plow on!).
  3. Listener: — note down the 2-3 most interesting-to-you points or ideas you hear going by. (Don’t try to write down everything or you’d be slowing the Windtunneller when we want him/her to speed up.)
  4. Windtunneller, jot down the 1-2 most interesting things you heard pass your own lips. (1 minute)
  5. Both of you: — compare notes on what was most interesting. (4 minutes)
  6. Both of you: — develop a new question out of what was most interesting. (1 minute)
  7. Both of you: — reverse roles. Former Listener becomes new Windtunneller; former Windtunneller becomes new Listener.
  8. New Windtunneller: — describe everything that comes to mind for you on this new question. — In a torrent, rapidly, without pause or hesitation, for eleven minutes (or until your facilitator calls time; don’t wait up expectantly until then, plow on!).
  9. New Listener: — note down the 2-3 most interesting-to-you points or ideas you hear going by. (Don’t try to write down everything or you’d be slowing the Windtunneller when we want to speed him/her up.)
  10. New Windtunneller: — jot down the 1-2 most interesting things you heard pass your own lips. (1 minute)
  11. Both: — compare notes on what was most interesting. (4 minutes)

You may want to develop the results into a yet further question. Once you have that, you can go the same process again and be nearing a potential solution, or take that further question into a different problem-solving process already well on the way to solving it.

A Perspective

When I started Psychegenics in 1973 and the Project Renaissance phase of this effort in 1977, I was in the first flush of enthusiasm at the discovery of simple techniques which enable just about anyone to solve his or her own problems. What a world ours could become, I thought, if everyone WAS perfectly capable of and equipped to solve the problems that were around — including some of the problems of general concern.

And where more appropriate to start this effort than in my own country, the United States of America, whose people had not yet, I thought, been beaten down into peasant passivity and pessimism.

Well, it was true indeed even of the methods we had at that time, to say nothing of the further methods (with Windtunnel being but one example) which have come along for us since, as others would for you, should you begin using Toolbuilder. These methods really do enable just about anyone, regardless of background or of seeming inabilities, to readily and ingeniously solve the problems they are applied to.

My estimation of how ready and willing people are to solve their own problems, even in my own country with its traditions of invention, innovation, “American know-how,” and of figuring out how to make things work, appears to have been somewhat off, alas, for whatever reasons. Even in groups and organizations centered on creativity and creative problem-solving! Most people believe they can’t solve their own problems, much less the greater problems facing all of us — even when they have the methods and have been walked through them to effective answers in demonstration trainings.

Concurrently, it also appears that if people were more fully conscious of the choices they were making, they would make different choices. This includes issues of health, not only problem-solving.

So here is my message in this article:

Summary of Message

  1. You can not only solve your own problems easily, effectively and ingeniously, by the methods we’ve published in this website, including Windtunnel in this very article — as well as by methods published elsewhere by others —
  2. You can make great progress on the job, in your career and in your life, simply by practicing picking up when a difficulty or objection is stalling you….
  3. ….Turning that difficulty or objection into a formal stated problem; and —
  4. — by Windtunnel or by any of several hundred various excellent available specific methods,
  5. Setting forth with specific method(s) to solve that specific problem.

This seems to me also to be an excellent agenda for that winning investment of two to three hours each Friday (or whichever regular day), meeting together with your co-principals in your enterprise, and drawing out each other’s most sensitive perceptions regarding your enterprise and its situation. Any profit-seeking enterprise which makes this its practice will soon break through the top of the charts.

Firm or no, much more of your own life and prosperity is right directly in your own hands, your own choices, than perhaps you’ve grasped as yet. Here are tools and here is a way to use them.