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3 Ways to Improve Your Group Problem-Solving Sessions
by Scott Converse, Program Director, Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional & Executive Development

In an earlier blog post, we examined why “lack of training” can never be the cause of a process problem. I received feedback from several readers that asked for help with their group problem-solving issues using root cause analysis. 
“Scott, our sessions never seem to get anywhere. The group discusses the issue, debate occurs, but we can’t ever seem to agree on the real root cause,” was the most common symptom described. Here are three tips to help make your next group problem-solving session more valuable. 

Choose Participants Wisely
The group needs to be knowledgeable and have a systems view of the problem being examined. Each person in the room should not only be a subject matter expert (SME) in their domain area, but they should also have a full understanding of the entire system or process.
Without cross-domain knowledge, it is very easy for the SME to take a defensive posture and blame other groups, systems, or upstream/downstream steps during the session. The SME doesn’t need to be an expert in all areas, but they should be familiar with the entire process. If the SME doesn’t have a systems view yet, your first step will be to bring those SME’s up to speed before the problem-solving meeting.

Bring the Data
In the problem-solving session, there needs to be data on the problem examined, and it needs to be shared with the group in advance. Data doesn’t have to be just numeric or quantitative. Qualitative data such as the feedback from structured interviews or well-developed surveys is also a great source. Don’t forget that direct observation is another extremely valuable source of information.

Without data, your problem-solving session will quickly become subjective finger-pointing or a philosophical debate that ends up be being a waste of everyone’s time.

Plan the Facilitation
With a group of bright SME’s that are all good problem solvers, you’ll want a facilitator who’s skilled in managing a strong-willed group. There are dozens of tools that can be used to help structure a group problem-solving session:  5-Why, Ishikawa or fishbone diagraming, CEDAC, cause and effect matrices, mind mapping, experience mapping, and so on. While these tools are helpful, I find that it’s equally important to have a facilitator with some knowledge about the problem being addressed and to have a clear plan on how decision making will occur during the session.
It’s easy to set up a problem-solving meeting, but the real work is having the necessary pieces in place for that meeting to be a success.  At the Center for Professional and Executive Development, we can help provide you and your group with the tools to be successful. Two courses that focus specifically on helping participants prepare for more successful problem-solving sessions are Facilitation, Consulting, and Meeting Management and Business Process Improvement using Lean Six Sigma.

Scott Converse is a program director for the Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional & Executive Development in the areas of business analysis, Lean Six Sigma, and project management. Contact info@uwcped.org for more information or visit uwcped.org.
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