Advancing Team Problem Solving

Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development

It is common for leaders to lament the lack of problem-solving ability on their team, which then leads them to spend time and effort to step in and do it themselves. There can be a number of reasons team members are hesitant to dive in, but making an effort to figure out why can save leaders tremendous time, empower and better engage their staff, and help the team function more effectively and expediently. This is new territory for many teams, so how do you get the ball rolling in the right direction?

Greg Schinkel of Front-Line Leadership points out, “there are two dynamics happening at the same time when it comes to team problem solving: The rational, logical part of solving the problem and the interpersonal dynamic at play within the team” (Schinkel, 2017). The logical portion must include clarifying the goal, otherwise it is common to only address symptoms of the bigger problem. If the interpersonal side of the problem solving is lacking, the acceptance of the solution won’t occur, and the team won’t buy-in. Be sure to draw out ideas from all team members, otherwise those who are more assertive and confident will push their ideas through, even when they may not be best. The following information provides some other foundational pieces to consider.

Eliminating Common Barriers

People are creatures of habit, and many are not accustomed to being actively engaged in problem solving for their unit. The article Strengthen the Problem-Solving Skills of Your Team by Art Petty identifies three different leadership practices that can unintentionally contribute to the habit of waiting to be told what to do (Petty, 2019):

  • Micromanagement: Leaders often have difficulty staying out of the weeds and too readily jump in to tell employees what to do. Set parameters and timelines but trust them to do the work of figuring out solutions.
  • No Mistakes Allowed: Encouraging risk taking and innovation, but then jumping all over people when they make a mistake will do nothing but shut them down. Focus on how to help people quickly learn from mistakes without demeaning them.
  • No Team Development: Some teams are just individuals grouped together in an organizational chart. If there has been no effort to develop team collaboration and working together to address issues it will be an uphill battle. Put some effort into helping your team gel. For example, have them work together through case studies of common issues that face the unit.

Setting the Stage

In addition to eliminating barriers, it is also important to assess the make-up, climate, and how work gets done on your team. The article 3 Surprising Ways to Develop Problem-Solving Teams by Jeff Pruitt outlines the following areas to consider (Pruitt, 2018):

  • Cognitive Diversity: There is a tendency to hire people who think like you do, but having a team full of people who are always in agreement leads to a stagnant, repetitive approach to the challenges you face. According to Pruitt, “It’s been shown time and again that putting people with different personality types, strengths, knowledge banks, and leadership styles together to work through an issue results in better collaboration, problem identification, discipline, out-of-the-box thinking, and innovation” (Pruitt, 2018).
  • Psychological Safety: Even if you have diversity in thinking on your team, it won’t get you far if people fear repercussions (career or social) for speaking out. As the leader you must set the example of being inclusive and respectful, while also setting that expectation of ongoing support for new ideas among team members.
  • Cut Out Complexity: This can be challenging in a large, complex organization but not impossible. Are people held to tight hierarchical arrangements or are they allowed to reach out to whoever is needed to gain information for the problem at hand? Are your processes outdated and keeping people stuck? Step back and look at these issues to see where people might have anchors that keep them from forwarding their effort. Encourage them to talk about any barriers they are experiencing and help to remove them when you can.

Discussing the Process

It’s best not to assume that people are familiar with a solid process for problem solving. Reviewing a process can help them all be on the same page as they address issues. The article Seven Steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace by Tim Hicks offers one model to consider (Hicks, 2019):

  1. Identify the Issues: As noted above, you want to be clear about what the problem is, not just the symptoms.
  2. Understand Everyone’s Interests: It is critical to consider the interests of individual team members and stakeholders. Active listening is critical.
  3. List the Possible Solutions: This is the time for creative brainstorming without shooting any ideas down.
  4. Evaluate the Options: Honestly discuss pros and cons of each approach. Make sure that all are heard.
  5. Select an Option or Options: The best option may not be ideal for every stakeholder but is able to meet priority needs. Consider whether it is feasible to bundle more than one option for a more satisfactory solution.
  6. Document the Agreement(s): Writing it down will make it clear to all and help you think through all the details.
  7. Agree on Contingencies, Monitoring and Evaluation: Conditions may change. Make contingency agreements about foreseeable future circumstances (this is particularly relevant right now). Determine how you’ll monitor follow-through and evaluate outcomes (such as, “Let’s try this for three months and re-evaluate.”)

Prompting the Team with Questions

It is tempting for leaders to take over when team members don’t move ahead. For long term gains, it is much better to ask some key questions that further their own critical thinking as they approach problems. The article 9 Questions to Help Your Team Solve Problems on Their Own by David Dye shares a list to keep in mind (Dye, 2019):

  • What is your goal?
  • What have you tried?
  • What happened?
  • What did you learn from this?
  • What else do you need?
  • What else can you do?
  • What do you think will happen if you try option A? What about option B?
  • What will you do?

If someone responds to questions with “I don’t know,” your response should then be, “what would you do if you did know?” It may sound strange but making it more hypothetical frees people up to share ideas they were keeping dormant, and it is often very productive.

Problem solving is a learnable skill and something all can benefit from throughout their career. You probably wouldn’t be in a leadership position if you didn’t have the skill yourself, but if individual team members don’t learn to think strategically and problem solve on their own and collectively, you’ll spend a lot of wasted time and they won’t grow. With the rapidly changing world before us, you can’t afford to ignore that need.

ElevateU Resources for Further Learning

Use the following resources in the elevateU learning platform to continue learning about this topic:

Dye, D. (2019, May 1) 9 Questions to Help Your Team Solve Problems on Their Own. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://letsgrowleaders.com/2018/05/01/9-questions-to-help-your-team-solve-problems-on-their-own/

Hicks, T. (2019, July 1) Seven Steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://www.mediate.com/articles/thicks.cfm

Petty, A. (2019, October 7). Strengthen the Problem-Solving Skills of Your Team. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/how-to-strengthen-team-problem-solving-skills-4123663

Pruitt, J., (2018, April 26). 3 Surprising Ways to Develop Problem Solving Teams. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from  https://www.inc.com/jeff-pruitt/3-surprising-ways-to-develop-problem-solving-teams.html

Schinkel, G. (2017). How to Solve Problems as a Team. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://uniquedevelopment.com/blog/how-to-solve-problems-as-a-team/