For collective problem solving to be really effective there are three things to get right:

1. Get the right people in the room.

It seems obvious but often goes unchecked. Do you have the subject matter expertise in the room or, at a minimum, do you have access to them? Are the decision makers present or represented. You don’t want to create a solution that won’t get the vote of confidence from the people who actually decide.

2. Constructive inter-personal behaviour.

Collective problem solving never goes well when people are throwing darts (lollies, insults, glances … add your own option) at each other. A great way to to ensure behaviour stays constructive is to create a set of ground rules for the project. These are best developed by the group for the group and policed by members of the group.

3. Use some form of rational thinking process.

This brings structure to the conversation. There are many choices. I use a combination of Interest Based Problem Solving (IBPS) and Theory of Constraints Thinking Processes (TOCTP). Both of these are based in systems thinking. IBPS captures the “interests” of key stakeholders which encourages a system wide perspective and TOCTP borrows from Socratic and scientific methodology – a very powerful combination.

These three things are necessary conditions for effective group problem solving. That means if any one of them is missing you will probably get stuck.

If you are stuck or there is conflict in the room ask these questions:

  1. Do we have the right people in the room or, do we have access to them?
  2. How are we behaving towards each other? Are we following our ground rules?
  3. Are we following our process?

If the answer to any of these is “no” then you will know how to get back on track.

Simple but highly effective.

5 thoughts on “Collective problem solving – three tips to make it work better.

  1. Hi Karl,

    By my experience, I would have to disagree with the contention that “INTEREST-based PROBLEM SOLVING” encourages a “SYSTEM-WIDE” perspective. In fact, I am inclined to argue just the opposite. What do I mean by that, you might wonder? Well, when stakeholders are anything other than “NEUTRAL” or “OPEN-MINDED” in their perspective(s), they tend to focus their attention only of those issues/elements that are of “INTEREST” to themselves. And doing so tends NOT to foster a SYSTEM-WIDE perspective; but rather a more LOCALIZED/LIMITED perspective.

    In either suggested approach to problem-solving, I would suggest that rather than basing them purely on a SYSTEMS-THINKING paradigm (which is a good thing), you should give serious consideration to orienting these approaches more around a D.S.R.P.-THINKING paradigm. In so doing, you’ll be able to TRULY broaden the scope of THINKING that goes into the problem-solving process.

    To learn more about D.S.R.P.-THINKING (where D=Distinctions, S=Systems, R=Relationships, and P=Perspectives), you can visit Dr. Derek Cabrera’s website:

    1. Great contribution Jay.

      I’m always open to learning about new processes. Thank you for the link.

      I acknowledge your reservation about localised (silo) thinking. It is always there and is important to be aware of. It is natural for people to have their own interests. Operations people will have different interests to finance people. People in finance will have different interests to employees delivering services to customers etc.

      Creating a space for people to explore and understand all stakeholder interests is what creates a wider whole of system perspective. Having the right people in the room sharing their interests is just as important as the rational thinking process that is used. The key is ensuring that all stakeholder interests are represented.

      In my experience when you have the right people in the room constructively discussing their interests and learning about the interests of others it creates a foundation for better collective problem solving.

      Interest-based problem solving by itself does have it’s limitations. It can be very slow and is prone to hijack without additional structure. That is why I use it in conjunction with the Theory of Constraints Thinking Processes. For the groups I have worked with it has proven to be very successful and has the benefit of encouraging more collaboration, innovation, confidence and achievement for all those involved.

      1. Hi Karl,
        Good response… Reminds me of the work of Peter Senge et al ala the The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization.

      2. Thanks Jay,

        It would come as no surprise to you then that I am heavily influenced by Peter Senge‘s work.

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