Effective Group Problem Solving Activities for Project Teams

Effective Group Problem Solving Activities for Project Teams
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Group Problem Solving Activities for Project Teams

Often, running a project means that the project team needs to solve a problem that has never been solved before. I’m not necessarily talking about a new patentable invention, but more likely a creative solution needs to be discovered, based on constraints that are particular to the company or project itself. Because of these constraints, you can’t research the solution, and are unlikely to be able to call in an outsider to simply tell you the answer. The group needs a strategy for solving the problem, using only the people and resources available.

The good news is that assuming your team has a high enough level of skill, the answer does indeed exist in the room. The group can solve the problem on their own, though it may take a concerted effort from everyone to make it work. As project manager, your role isn’t necessarily to solve the problem yourself, or even to provide input into the solution. Your role may be to make sure everyone is participating in the group problem solving, and to keep people focused and on task.

Group Problem Solving Strategies

Okay, so we’ve hit a snag, and we only have the people at hand to help solve it. The team is going in lots of directions at once, and we’ve solved the problem 75% of the way a half a dozen times. But we don’t yet have a solution that works, or one that we can move on. Worse, perhaps your senior people disagree with each other. Now is the time for the project manager to step in, and use the same skills that it takes to run a project to help guide this group to solving the problem.

When a project is in conception stage, one thing a project manager is tasked with is determining success criteria. It is probably time to haul that process back out. Start with a simple question, “What would a good solution to this look like?” The group will talk about stability, performance, testability, interfaces, and a whole bunch of other factors that would make up a good solution. Some of the things people throw out will be less useful than others, and that’s okay. It’s just as important to know what the lesser fitness criteria are as it is to know what the “must haves” are.

Once you have the master list of what the problem looks like when it’s solved, the process should become familiar to a good project manager. Start prioritizing the fitness criteria, and list what a good solution must do, what it should do, and what it would be nice if it did. You can even start testing the candidate solutions that the group has already come up with against the criteria if you like, or you can start discussing new solutions entirely.

As a group problem solving activity, this nearly always works. If the skill exists in the team, once they agree on what a good solution would look like, the weaker solutions fall away, and you are left with the better ones. Often, in discussing the stronger solutions, it will spark something where someone combines two or more of them, or comes up with a hybrid solution that better fits what you need.

The trick, as in any project, is to define what success looks like, and measure everything against that yardstick. That skill should be one that exists in every project manager’s toolkit.

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