Problem solving techniques: creative options for trainers and facilitators

Putting cogs together
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David Cotton
Freelance Trainer
Wize-Up Ltd
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As leadership and management become more focused on collaboration rather than command and control, it’s essential that trainer and facilitators have a number of collaborative methods in their toolkit to use in the classroom.

Large scale collaborative techniques such as World Café and Open Space are becoming increasingly popular, and this short article will introduce you to a number of other techniques which you can readily adapt to facilitated sessions.

Let’s explore a couple of large scale techniques first (Charrette Procedure and Brainwriting) then a number of other methods which can be used with smaller groups.

Charrette Procedure

This is a useful variant on the World Café concept, and you can you can use it to help groups in strategic planning, organisational design and to resolve issues or make decisions which have an effect on several departments or functional areas of the business.

You’ll need a large workspace, flipcharts and marker pens. 

  • Agree on the issues which you will discuss (which should be subtopics of a broader theme)
  • Divide the group into smaller groups of up to 7 people, including a ‘recorder’ who will be the small group facilitator.
  • Assign one issue to each group and as they brainstorm ideas for a fixed time, the recorder notes all ideas.
  • At a time signal, each recorder moves to a new group and they brief him on their thinking from the first round of talks.
  • The group now brainstorms a new idea, digging deeper into issues raised in the first round.
  • Repeat the procedure again, until each recorder has worked with every group
  • Recorders now pool their ideas and draw them into key themes or strands and present them to in plenary, where the best ideas are ranked, and actions may be developed on the basis of the ideas.

Brainwriting

A quick and democratic brainstorming method, especially useful with quiet groups and when you need to solve several parallel issues.

Prepare a number of A4 sheets headed Problem: and Owner: then divide into large ‘cells’ like a spreadsheet. 

  • Give a sheet to each participant and ask them to write their own problem at the top, and their name next to Owner.
  • Sheets are rotated so every participant has a chance to add one or more solutions to each problem. A participant who cannot suggest a solution simply passes on the sheet to the next person.
  • Ultimately, every sheet is returned to its originator.
  • Problem owners take the sheets away to assimilate the ideas.
  • A variant is to get each problem owner to state their problem in plenary before writing it down, then summarise the solutions, highlighting their favourites in plenary.

MUSE (me, us, select and explain)

A four-stage group problem solving technique.

State the problem and ensure that everyone understands it.

  • Individuals (me) silently write solutions to the problem.
  • Pairs (us) discuss and challenge each others’ solutions to refine them.
  • Pairs then select the best of their refined solutions and post them on a flipchart or wall. 
  • Pairs then explain their solutions in plenary and the larger group ranks them and votes on them, then agrees who will implement the solutions (which may or may not be their originators).

This is a great technique for generating a number of solutions at speed.

Metaphorical problem solving

This helps a group to become creative in its solution-finding where so often we fall into a trap of producing obvious or pedestrian solutions. 

Working with metaphor allows us to enter a parallel world, untainted by the baggage of the real world problem:

  • State the problem
  • Invite participants to suggest a completely different problem which they see as analogous to the stated problem
  • Brainstorm solutions to the metaphorical problem and then ‘back-map’ them to the original problem
  • Select the best ideas from the back-mapped solutions.

Take care to avoid literal associations between the metaphor and the original problem. 

For example, the stated problem is ‘How do we reduce bureaucracy at work?’ and someone suggests ‘weeding the garden’ as an analogy.

Amongst the brainstormed solutions to the metaphor are:

  • Turn over the soil to expose the roots of the weeds
  • Use weedkiller
  • Dig out the offensive weeds
  • Ensure that we leave the flowers undamaged as we take out the weeds

We now back-map each of these solutions to the original problem (reduction in bureaucracy):

  • Turn over the soil to expose the roots of the weeds (thoroughly review existing policies and procedures are identify those which are neither valid nor workable)
  • Use weedkiller (ruthlessly remove useless procedures, retaining nothing for purely sentimental value – ‘we’ve always done it that way here…’)
  • Dig out the offensive weeds (this repeats the earlier ideas but it doesn’t matter because it demonstrates the strength of feeling/need to clean up our over-bureaucratised business)
  • Ensure that we leave the flowers undamaged as we take out the weeds (take great care to preserve the policies and procedures which are still valuable and workable)

This is just a small sample of the techniques which you can use in facilitating group problem solving. Many more techniques can be found in David Cotton’s The Smart Solution Book.

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