The use of Interest-Based Problem-Solving (IBPS) to engage employees (and their representatives) in solving business problems is gaining momentum worldwide.

At its heart, IBPS is a form of systems thinking that provides a structure to a problem solving or negotiating session where instead of it being “you against me because of the problem”, it becomes “you and me against the problem”.

There are four steps in traditional IBPS, each of which has a potential catch.

Interest-Based Problem-Solving – The steps

Step 1 – the “issue” or “problem” statement

An obvious obstacle here is the negative framing. That has an easy fix. We call it an “Opportunity Statement“.

The biggest catch-out, and I want to thank Dave Snowden for pointing this out to me, is that defining the problem can be a kind of “lock-in” and restrictive.

Four questions must be answered in order if you want to change anything:

  1. Why change?
  2. What to change?
  3. What to change to?
  4. How to change?

When we write an opportunity statement, it should start with “What might we do to …”. I have seen many practitioners start with “How might we …?. It is a subtle difference, but you can see that it changes where a group is focusing. “How” has the potential to lock you into a solution.

The opening question when you start your IBPS process should be, “Why are we here?”. Then develop your opportunity statement starting with “What might we do to …”

The purpose of an opportunity statement is to create a boundary for your discussion. It helps you to avoid trying to boil the ocean. IBPS is an iterative process. You can always come back to Step 1 if your boundary is too broad or too narrow.

“There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.”

Donella Meadows

Step 2 – “Interests” and “Positions”

It is tempting for many to relabel their position as an interest. It always slows the thinking process down because it maintains the conflict. There is a bit of an art to distinguishing the difference, and it takes practice.

One way to get clarity is to use a Thinking Process tool called Evaporating Cloud.

When conflict shows up, there will always be a position behind it. Start with the position. The conflict cloud will help you to discover the interests and the common objective. There are five questions to answer to build a conflict cloud:

  1. What is the position?
  2. What is the benefit (interest) of that position?
  3. What is the opposite position?
  4. What is the benefit (interest) of that opposite position?
  5. What is the common objective if we meet both interests?

The conflict cloud is drawn as a diagram. That is useful because everyone gets to see the conflict. It also provides a structure for exploring options for a solution.

Having facilitated hundreds of IBPS sessions the interests will usually fall into three categories:

There is a natural tension between the 3C’s that that can be harnessed for sustainable high performance. IBPS is a very powerful process for doing that.

Interests and Positions – IBPS and a Tale of Two Chefs

Step 3 – There are so many “Options”

One of my clients had 294 options to choose from. They felt overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed puts pressure on people to return to their positions. It is easy to get stuck.

To help with this, you can look for the dependency between the options. There will be a pre-requisite order that the options will need to be delivered in.

One way to get clarity is to use a Thinking Process tool called a Pre-requisite Tree.

The catch-out here is the temptation to put things in order of perceived ease (often referred to as “low-hanging fruit”). This risks missing a necessary pre-requisite and will slow your implementation down.

To reframe this, start with the end in mind. Imagine you have already delivered on the opportunity and implemented all the options. Add “We have …” to each option. Now look at each option and see if there is any dependency between them. One quick check on this is to ask, “Is this option a subset of this option?”. If it is, then you have found the dependency.

Step 4 – Crafting the Solution

The mistake here is thinking there is just one simple solution, often called a “magic bullet”. Be wary of magic bullets. The reality is that there will be a combination of options required. If you have completed step 3 with due diligence, you will see clusters of options with dependency.

Here is where you need some project management skills. There will be a critical pathway to deliver on each option while effectively and efficiently utilising the resources required. The excellent news is that with the pre-requisite dependency from Step 3 your solution will gain critical mass very quickly.

There is one more thing to remember in Step 4. This process is iterative. Things will change during the implementation. You will learn more as you go, circumstances constantly change, and ‘murphy’ always shows up. You can move backwards and forwards between steps 3 and 4 and improve your solution as you go.


These are some of the tips we use to accelerate Interest-Based Problem-Solving. When you, your team and your organisation learn them and get good at them it has many benefits:

  • Higher staff engagement – because everyone can be part of the decision-making process. 
  • Productivity improvements – because those closest to business issues have great ideas on how to solve these.
  • Stronger results – because the solutions are more robust.
  • Sustainable results – because new knowledge and solutions belong to and stay inside the business.
  • Cost efficiency – because the most expensive thing in your business is workplace conflict.

High Performance Engagement (HPE) has been a fantastic success story for Air New Zealand