Finding better solutions faster – the issue resolution process

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Decisions confront us every day, ranging from the simple "What shall I wear today?" to the complex "Shall I make a career change?". For most of us, decision making is a straightforward process. Think of a few solutions. Weigh the pros and cons of each. Choose the one that seems best to fit your needs.

But the process gets more complex when other decision makers enter the picture. Each person brings a unique perspective to the issue at hand. Each has ideas of merit, often at odds with your own. Can a group work together to resolve their differences? More importantly, can they reach not merely a consensus, but the best solution to the problem?

Arriving at consensus decisions can be a tedious, time-consuming process ... or it can be efficiently managed. Let us look at the usual approach first. Then we'll consider a better way ... one that saves time, builds consensus, and achieves the commitment needed for implementation of the agreed-upon solution.

Resolving issues: the usual process (idea-discuss)

When a group attempts to resolve an issue or problem, the usual approach is to discuss the topic until an agreement is reached or time runs out. Often the agreement is not a true consensus, but rather a decision that two or three people have championed and the rest of the group can live with.

This idea-discuss process consists of the following steps:

1 The issue is described to the group.The issue may have previously been identified and the meeting is being held to deal with the issue, or the issue may arise during the discussion of a related topic.

2 There is some discussion about the issue. Usually, the person that has identified the issue dominates this part of the discussion, along with a few other individuals who have the most knowledge of the issue. Often the process proceeds to step 3 before the issue has been fully understood by all members of the group.

3 One person suggests a solution. During the discussion of the issue, someone suggests a potential solution. As soon as the suggestion is made, the next step follows immediately.

4 The idea is discussed; often one or more members of the group criticize the idea, while the person suggesting the idea defends it. Rarely does a new idea win immediate universal support. More commonly, the initiator of the idea tries to sell it to other group members, defending it against those who don't like the idea.

5 The group decides to accept or reject the idea: If the suggestor successfully sells and/or defends the idea, the group agrees as a whole and the process stops. The idea is rejected because one or more members of the group do not buy-in to the arguments put forward by the originator.

6 The process is repeated at step 2 or 3 with another person suggesting an idea. There is usually a sense of disappointment when there is no resolution of the issue. The group may go back to step 2 if some members have misinterpreted the issue, or to step 3 if a new idea is immediately suggested.

7 Time runs out. All meetings are time limited. A solution may never successfully reach step 5 in the allotted time.

Disadvantages of the idea-discuss process

The major disadvantage is that ideas that might have been do not get discussed. The ideas for a solution are discussed in the order they are suggested, and the process is stopped when a potential solution is reached. Therefore, the ideas that other members of the group had, but did not have the chance to bring forward, are lost.

These lost ideas may or may not have resulted in a better solution, but in considering them, other ideas may have been generated by the group ... which is what group synergy is all about.

Another major disadvantage is that ownership of the idea resides with the originator. This means that he/she has a tendency to sell and defend it to the group. The other members of the group do not have ownership and the tendency is to try to find out what is wrong with the idea. As a result, the discussion of the idea starts with the originator stating how the idea will solve the problem, and other members stating how it will not, or where the suggested solution will cause other problems.

The ownership issue continues after the team agrees to implement the solution. The originator will feel the most ownership and will strive to overcome new issues as the solution is implemented. Other members of the group may help, standby, or worse try to circumvent implementation depending on their own sense of ownership of the idea.

During discussion of potential solutions, the originator is usually put in the position of defending the idea against the criticism of other members. Discussion often becomes heated and the originator may feel personally attacked, which could adversely affect interpersonal relationships in the future.

The success of an idea is often due to the convincing arguments put forward by the originator rather than the merits of the idea.

Some members of a group may be quiet by nature, and may keep their ideas to themselves. This may be especially the case if they would be concerned about being personally attacked while selling and defending their ideas to the rest of the group.

A better way – the issue resolution process (ideas-select-discuss)

A process that can be used to ensure that all ideas are considered and considered efficiently is the issue resolution process (IRP).

There are eight steps in the IRP process:

1 Headline the issue to be resolved.
2 Provide background on the issue.
3 Generate ideas to solve the issue.
4 Select the best idea.
5 Identify the benefits of the idea.
6 Identify problems with the idea (idea-stoppers).
7 For each idea-stopper, establish whether it can be overcome.
8 The idea is accepted as the solution.

1 Headline the issue to be resolved
It is important that every member of the team understands the issue. The group should summarize the issue and it should be written down in headline form so that everybody has a common understanding. Do not assume that an issue is so familiar to everyone that it does not have to be discussed or written down. The simple act of putting the issue in writing sometimes uncovers areas of misinterpretation.

2 Provide background on the issue
This stage is essential to ensure that the idea generation stage is conducted as efficiently as possible by avoiding ideas that have been tried, but have failed. When properly done, the group will understand the magnitude of the problem: its impact on the group's area of responsibility and impact on other areas. There should be an understanding of the limits that may be imposed on any potential solutions.

3 Generate ideas to solve the issue
This stage is similar to the brainstorming process. Ideally, ideas are generated at a rapid pace with suggested solutions triggering new ideas. This is probably the most crucial step in the process and the one that most often gets derailed. To ensure success, it is very important that only ideas are generated and there is no discussion of the ideas. Discussion impedes the free flow of ideas. This ban on discussion should include questions of clarification. Often, innocent questions lead to a full discussion of the idea and possibly criticism of the idea.

There are a few important rules, which will ensure that this idea generation or brainstorming succeeds:

  • There are no "bad" ideas.
  • Ideas are written down for the whole group to see (e.g. on a flipchart).
  • If an idea is repeated in different words, it is written down as well. Don't slow down the flow of ideas by discussing whether it has already been suggested.
  • Idea generation stops when no further ideas are forthcoming. Questions of clarification can now be made, but should stop if ideas start to flow again.
  • Ideas should not be identified as belonging to any one individual. Often, an idea generated by one person triggers an idea by someone else with the result that it is difficult to identify where the original germ of an idea started. It is not important to do this. Rather, it is more important that the team feels ownership of each and every idea.

4 Select the best idea
There are many approaches that can be used to select the best idea. The simplest and fastest is for the team leader to choose the idea that he/she wishes to consider. The disadvantage is that he/she does not get the benefit of the team's input in choosing the idea. Another approach would be for the team to discuss which of the ideas they think is best. The disadvantage of this is that it normally takes a great deal of time before the team comes to a consensus on the idea that should be further considered, and in so doing often discusses the pros and cons of the individual ideas.

The approach that achieves team input, while being time-efficient, is to have the team vote on the ideas. Each team member has five votes that can be applied to one or more of the ideas on the board. A tally is made and the idea with the greatest number of votes is chosen. In this way, the team uses a democratic process by which to choose the idea to be considered first. This reinforces that the group owns the chosen idea and not the person who suggested it.

5 Identify the benefits of the idea
For the chosen idea, the team members list how the idea contributes to solving the issue. This encourages an idea-supporting attitude, rather than the initial tendency to attack new ideas. Each of the reasons is recorded on a flip chart for all team members to see. This achieves two things: it recognizes the contribution of the team member, and avoids subsequent repetition by another team member. Before going to the next stage, it is important to check with each team member to ensure that all of their contributions have been noted on the charts.

6 Identify problems with the idea (idea-stoppers)
At this stage the goal should be to identify the idea's shortcomings, each of which should be noted on a flip chart. There should not be an assessment of whether these deficiencies can or cannot be overcome. As with idea generation, it is important to get all input before there is any discussion.

7 For each idea-stopper, establish whether it can be overcome
The easiest way to do this is by general discussion. By this time the team is working effectively in a problem-solving mode. However, if the team does not seem to be making progress to resolve an idea-stopper it should be treated as a new issue to be resolved. The team would start at step 1 to solve the idea-stopper.

If it is not possible to resolve an idea-stopper, the next best idea should be selected and the process continued at step 5.

8 The idea is accepted as the solution
When the team agrees that an idea is acceptable, all members should be asked for their support. This will ensure that all team members are committed to overcome obstacles as the solution is implemented. If one or more members cannot give their support, their concerns should be dealt with at step 7.

At times, one or more team members may wish to consider another idea identified at step 3 (this does not usually happen if steps 4 to 7 have been carefully conducted). The team would return to step 5 to consider this idea. If two or more ideas are found to be acceptable solutions after going through all steps, the team will have to choose one to implement, or the team leader can choose one.

Summary

In trying to resolve issues, most teams follow a process that is inefficient. Someone suggests an idea; he/she tries to convince the other group members why it is a good idea, and defends the idea against criticism. If the originator is unsuccessful, a new idea is suggested and the process continues. When an idea has been successfully sold and defended, the process stops. This process can result in an acceptable solution to the group. However, usually it is the originator of the idea that has the greatest commitment to make it succeed. During implementation, the rest of the group may not actively help the solution to succeed, but wait to be asked for help by the originator. Also, there are ideas that individuals may have thought of but did not contribute to the group. These unspoken ideas could have represented a better solution.

There is a more efficient process. It requires some discipline by team members, but this is rewarded by the quality of the solution and the shorter time required to arrive at it. When the eight steps are followed, the group is assured that all ideas have been contributed and considered. The solution is owned by the whole team – they chose the idea, discussed it, and overcame any concerns with the solution. This ownership will translate into active support during implementation, and the ultimate resolution of the issue.


This article was originally published in Work Study Volume 48 Number 2.

The author was Alex Barnett.