In order for a project team to collaborate to solve problems, each team member must understand their role, and participate fully in it. Someone, usually the project manager, can facilitate the discussion. Other people can take on role such as being the advocate for a specific need, such as customer experience, security, or some other specialized need. Other folks can be idea generators, or idea evaluators. Still others are needed to keep the team focused on the problems that you are actually trying to solve, and not spending too much time solving a different problem.
It is up to each member to participate in the discussion as per his or her role, and it is the facilitators’ job to make certain that all the concerned parties do get to express their thoughts. If a team member seems not to be adding to the conversation to the level that you need, that could either be a sign of the team member not being engaged, or perhaps the decision not being impactful to them. As project manager, your role is to keep them involved. You can do this either by changing their role – making them an advocate for a certain need, or simply by excusing them from the session, if they aren’t needed.
In order to get to collaborative problem solving, you must identify two separate factors. You must have a full and accurate analysis of the problem at hand, and you must have identified some candidate solutions. These can actually be formulated in separate sessions.
First, in problem analysis you must gain agreement on what the problem is, who is facing it and how important the problem is to solve. You should have a good handle on what the root causes are, what the downstream affects are, and how it impacts the stakeholders. Once you have this, you can start gaining alignment on the goals or objectives. You need to have an idea for what a good solution would look like. Without the goals (often called fitness criteria), you will not be able to decide on a solution.
Second, now that you have an understanding of the problem, and you have agreement on what criteria you are going to use to evaluate the potential solutions, you must actually start generating the candidates. These solutions can run from the brute force and boring approaches, to highly innovative and creative solutions. Now isn’t the time to determine how hard something would actually be to implement, but to measure the solutions against the fitness criteria. At this point, you should have an agreed upon goal, and agreed upon measurements, so this task should be fairly noncontroversial. Even still, careful and strong facilitation will be important to driving to conclusion.
Decide and Review
The last phase of collaborative problem solving as a project manager is to decide upon the final solution. Often, the project manager is not responsible for making the decision, but they are responsible for ensuring that a decision is made. This can mean giving each solution a score, or using one of many collaborate decision-making techniques available for facilitators. Whatever the method, the goal is to drive the project team to a final answer.
Once the decision has been made, the project manager has a few more duties. First, collect all the work that was done, the problem statement, the fitness criteria, the candidate solutions, and the final decision and rationale. This all needs to be preserved, so that you know how you go to where you are. It should be prepared in a form that can be reviewed and understood by people outside of the project team, or those on the project team, but who were not involved in the collaborative problem solving session or sessions.
Finally, a few weeks, months or years down the road, you should be prepared to evaluate the decision itself. Was the problem statement accurate? How did the criteria hold up? How about the final solution? Learning how we make decisions makes us better decision-makers in the future.
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