Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Schuman's Rules of Problem Solving

When I lead workshops on collaborative problem solving and decision making, I often refer to my “Rules of Problem Solving.” Here they are.

First Rule of Problem Solving: Don't be sure you have the right problem or purpose.

It is often useful to have a clear description of the problem and a statement of the purpose of the project or meeting. But sometimes the originally-stated purpose turns out to be unsatisfactory to some of those who become involved. So it’s important to be ready to modify the problem or purpose to accommodate those perspectives.

An Example: The new Research Director was alarmed at the high overhead costs and low utilization rates of his analytical chemistry laboratories. At a time of tight budgets, this was not sustainable. He hired me to facilitate a Study Team whose purpose—stated in a well-crafted “charge to the study team”—was to “recommend an optimal organization plan.” Armed with this purposeful document I felt confident in my ability to facilitate the group.

At its first meeting, members of the Study Team were outraged! The Director did not understand the particular natures of their laboratories or the conditions under which they operated. After considerable storming, I asked the group to suggest changes to the Director’s “charge to the study team.” They supplemented the above purpose statement to read “recommend an optimal organization plan that takes into account the commonalties as well as the differences among the existing laboratories” and made several other changes to take into account a broader range of issues, such as “how overhead charges and allocations are determined,” and “how decisions should be made regarding which equipment should be purchased.”

Now it seemed we had it right, but as the project proceeded, I kept wondering, do we have the right problem?

Second Rule of Problem Solving: Don't be sure you have the right people.

The people who participate in a collaborative effort make all the difference in its effectiveness. Who should be involved, and how and when they should be involved, are critical questions. If you don’t have the right people, you might not even obtain an adequate understanding of the problem.

An Example: I was asked to facilitate a meeting in a hierarchical organization in which a supervisor and subordinate employee had a longstanding conflict. There were about a dozen people in the room, and we all introduced ourselves. As the facilitator, I restated the organization’s formal ground rules for such meetings and ascertained that everyone understood and agreed to them. We then proceeded to hear from the employee about the nature of the conflict and what she wanted by way of resolution. A number of people asked clarifying questions and contributed supplementary information. After a series of questions to the employee from one particular person, the employee asked that person, “What are you doing here anyway? Are you collecting information to be used in a legal proceeding?” The person denied that was the case (this was not allowed by the organization’s ground rules), but it was only from the ensuing discussion that I came to realize two important things: first, that the person who had been asking questions was a lawyer in the employee relations division, and second, the supervisor who was involved in the conflict was not even present! At this point, the employee and her colleagues left the meeting, but if I had realized that one of the key individuals was not present, I would not have agreed to proceed with the meeting in the first place.

So the meeting was a failure, and made no contribution to improving the workplace relationships. It could have been avoided if I had the presence of mind to ensure that the right people were present.

Third Rule of Problem Solving: Don't be sure you have the right process or method.

When we plan problem-solving and decision-making processes, we have to make assumptions about the nature of the problem and the purpose that the group wants to fulfill. Sometimes the assumptions we make are on the mark, and the plan works effectively. Sometimes we have to change the plan, even drastically, building on what we learned up to that point.

An Example: The purpose of the Railroad Bridge Underclearance Committee was “to determine an appropriate standard for the vertical clearance of highway bridges over railroad lines.” This was important and timely since several major highway construction projects were about to get underway and many highway bridges would be rebuilt. If at any time in the next 75 years they were to be rebuilt to provide the higher clearances that would accommodate new types of rail shipping equipment, now was the time to do it.

As facilitators, we recommended that the Committee use a systematic matrix evaluation method. First, we worked with the Committee to establish a set of evaluation criteria. Second, we asked them to list the alternative clearances—18 feet, 20 feet, 22 feet, etc. Third, we asked them to describe each of the alternatives on each of the criteria. As we worked with these experts through a two-day decision conference it became apparent that this form of analysis was not enough. Indeed, the performance of a particular alternative on a specific criterion varied, depending on the railroad. For example, increasing the clearance to 22 feet on a railroad that ran through a sparsely populated section had little impact on the cost criterion, but a big impact on cost for a railroad that ran through a densely populated area. Towards the end of the conference we shifted to a resource allocation method that looked at the benefits and costs for each of five different railroads, and selected the alternative clearance that provided the highest benefit/cost ratio for each.

While the method we choose is a function of both the people and the purpose, it is useful to consider multiple methods, select the best fit, and still be ready to switch during the meeting if it seems appropriate.

Some additional thoughts.

You don’t know who the right people are until you have the right problem, but then, it’s the people in the room who ultimately define the problem! So the people and the problem define each other in an iterative process. And proposing a process or method often helps to clarify the problem, which in turn helps to clarify which people should be involved. They’re inter-related and inter-dependent.

Lastly, it would be more positive to state these rules in the form, “Be sure …” instead of “Don't be sure…” But it could create a trap. If I am sure that I have the right problem or purpose, the right people, and the right process or method, then I am less open to discovering that I do not have them right. Collaborative problem solving and decision making is sufficiently complex and dynamic that being close-minded about such things can lead to failures. So it’s important to proceed with an open mind and consider that even these fundamental aspects of a collaborative activity might be subject to change.

This article appeared in the IAF Europe Newsletter, February 2011, pp. 22-24.


  1. How about "Don't be sure you have authority to act."

  2. That sounds like a useful addition, but I'd like to clarify it to see if it has the same meaning for you as it does for me.

    By way of example, some years ago I conducted a workshop on problem-solving and decision-making methods at the Pentagon for a group of officers, all of whom reported to the same colonel. In the course of the workshop, they identified what they all felt was a very important problem and so we used it as an example and focused on it in depth. They went through a systematic problem-solving and decision-making process and agreed unanimously and enthusiastically on a particular solution.

    With a good deal of excitement and pride, they presented the proposal to their colonel, but he gave no credence to the problem or its solution, and only expressed his hope that the training had been valuable.

    Is that an illustration of "Don't be sure you have authority to act," or could you provide another example or clarification.

  3. Your example works for me as Rule 4a. An alternative Rule 4b "Don't be sure you have authority to act" is the situation when groups facing a significant issue believe that they don't have authority to act, even if not true, and therefore don't even start a process that could lead them to solutions or partial solutions within their control (externalization of the issue).

  4. Excellent! I would make 4b a corolary to 4a and say, "Don't be sure you *don't* have the authority to act."

  5. Peter Gluck alerted me to his rules of problem solving, In this post he refers to "wicked, intractable or insoluble problems," which brought to mind C. West Churchman's "wicked problems"


Any comments?