July 2, 2010

Practice and enlist others

It’s like tennis, you can’t become a good problem-solver just by reading about it. You have to practice it. And just like tennis, you’ll become much better if you practice with others rather than by yourself.That’s why my graduate-level problem-solving course is not exactly a course. Rather, it’s a practical workshop. Each of the 20 students brings one problem— professional or personal—that causes them significant stress and we all work on it. So let’s talk about what works well there.(You can download the slide deck we use here.)

Practice in groups…

Of course, we cover some theoretical material during the workshop, but the bulk of our discussion is practical, treating the problems that the students bring. Because, even though they don’t know about it, each group of students has a tremendous problem-solving capability.

That’s because groups are better than individuals at solving problems. That’s the underlying idea of the Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, and I have verified it many, many times over in my course. In fact, I don’t believe that a single individual can develop a excellent logic tree. Excellent trees are collective trees. So engage others in the resolution of your problem.

… and leverage diversity

Another interesting part about group interactions is that diversity brings a lot of value to the problem solving process. This is documented in, for instance, the National Research Council’s Intelligence Analysis for Tomorrow and I’ve experienced it numerous times.

Most of my students start the workshop thinking that only business administrators will be able to help them solve their business administration problems. But they quickly realize that graphic designers, educators and others bring brilliant insights as well. That’s because of what Carlo Brumat calls the “new-boy effect”: novices have enough disrespect for a field of knowledge to question the commonly accepted truths.

If you create an environment where people feel secure to ask “silly” questions (by ensuring that no-one criticizes contributions), ensure that your group has the capacity to ask “silly” questions (by mixing people that know nothing about each other’s problems), and give your group a set of rules to follow (by asking everyone to think MECE), you’ll soon realize that there are no silly questions.

The rules are the same for all participants: you need to use logical thinking which, for the most part in our case, comes down to thinking in mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive bits. This logic is surprisingly transportable between fields of knowledge, so much so that your non-experts bring a lot of value. In fact they bring a type of value that experts can’t.

So must mix judiciously your experts and non-experts along your problem-solving process.

Use non-experts early in the problem-solving process

Non-experts are best leveraged at the beginning of the process, when you’re defining the problem, diagnosing it and during the early stages of your exploration for potential solutions. Non-experts will help you challenge how you frame your problem and identify truly innovative ways to solve it. As you move right in your issue tree and decompose the problem in its sub-issues and hypotheses, your problem usually becomes increasingly technical, and the value of non-experts decreases. There, the specialized thinking of experts is most useful.

The point is that you need to practice problem-solving and you need to do it in groups. Train on concrete problems, involve others in the solution, and reap the benefits!