I can’t count the number of times when I’ve seen two people trying to solve a technical problem where the real conflict is anything but technical. Often, this starts when one person brings an idea to the table, and is trying to promote it to the group. Then, someone else proposes a different idea. Each goes back and forth trying to shoot down the other person’s idea and promote their own. Perhaps there was a pre-existing rivalry, or some political maneuvering, or private agenda. Whatever. Sides form, and before long, the debate isn’t really about a technical solution anymore… it’s about who’s going to “win”.
Of course, no one “wins” such a contest. It’s stressful to be part of. It’s stressful to watch. And, worst of all, it kills the collaboration which could have produced a better solution than either “side” was proposing. Fortunately, I’ve run across an excellent way to avoid the problem nearly 100% of the time.
The Technique in Theory
The key is to get everyone involved in the process to bring multiple ideas to the table. This seems too simplistic to possibly work, but it does. It could be that they come with these ideas ahead of time, or that they come up with them in a meeting. That part doesn’t matter. What matters is that each person comes up with more than one. The reasons this works have a lot to do with how it forces people to approach the whole brainstorming / problem-solving process.
The Opened Mind
The first thing that happens if you insist on each person bringing multiple solutions is that it opens up each person’s mind to the possibility of there being multiple solutions. If you, yourself, brought three different approaches to the table, it’s very hard to imagine there’s only one way to do it. And, if you’ve already formed favorites among your own ideas, you’ve probably started to develop some criteria / principles to apply to making that judgement. At that point, it becomes a lot easier to weight the pros & cons of another idea you didn’t originate, and fit it into the proper place among the rest of the ideas.
Breaking Up False Dichotomies
The second useful trait of this approach is that the decision is no longer an either-or decision (a “dichotomy”). Instead, you, yourself, have already thought up a few different approaches, and your thought partners probably came with a bunch of their own. With that many potential solutions on the table (even if some of them are obviously very bad) it becomes a lot easier to see the complexities of the problem, and how there are a whole range of ways solve it to a better or worse degree: or even solve parts of it to a better or worse degree in a whole variety of combinations.
Another handy aspect of having a lot of potential solutions, and seeing the many different aspects of the problem they tackle, is being able to mix and match. Perhaps you grab a chunk of your solution, throw in a little bit of someone else’s, and then add in a piece which neither of you thought of ahead of time. And again: but with a different mix. And again… and again. Before long, you’ve all moved past the original set of ideas, and have generated a whole bunch of new ones which are each better than anything in the original set. At this point, the question of “us vs. them” is impossible to even identify clearly. And… you’ve got a much better solution than anyone generated alone.
In my last post about “goodwill accounting“, I talked about how fun experiences strengthen relationships. The process of brainstorming with an eager partner who isn’t defensive, and who is eager to help is extremely exciting and fun. This makes substantial “deposits” for the future.
The Technique in Action
In practice, the technique is dead simple. Guide your problem solving with three questions:
- How many ways could we do this?
- What does a good solution look like?
- How do these potential solutions stack up?
When I find myself in a brainstorming / problem solving context, I’ll often start out by literally saying: “Okay… so how many ways could we do this?” Then, I’ll start to rattle off, as quickly as I can, every different solution I can imagine: even really obviously bad ones. Sometimes, I’ve come with a few I already thought of, but very often not. Others soon join in, tossing out more ideas. I keep pushing everyone (especially myself) until everyone has given 2–3 solutions. At this point, we really do want all the possible ways: even the ludicrous or impossible ones.
Once everyone is mute & contemplative, I’ll echo back all the ideas. At this point, the order is so jumbled, it’s impossible to tell who added which. Then I’ll ask: “So, what does a good solution look like?” Now that we’ve had a chance to see some proposed solutions, it’s a lot easier to figure out what we like about some and not others. This rapidly crystalizes into a set of criteria we can use to rank the various options.
At this point, I start pointing out how various solutions match up with our criteria. Some get crossed off right away, and others take some discussion and even research. We might even loop back to re-consider our criteria. The major difference is that everyone is focused on the problem, and not on the personalities or politics.
I use this technique a lot. Early in my career, I was (embarrassingly) often one of the pig-headed people at the table insisting on getting my own way. Now, I jump in with my “how many ways…” question, and I’m almost never even tempted. My own relationships with my teammates are better, and I’m often able to use this technique to help smooth over difficulties between other members of my team. I find it invaluable, and I think you will, too.