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Additional Tools for Problem Solving

This lesson is a part of an audio course Creative Problem Solving by Ross Maynard

As well as the three tools presented in the previous lesson, there are other tools that can be very useful in problem-solving – usually at the "Analyse the Problem" and "Generate Ideas" stages. These additional tools are:

  1. Brainstorming.

  2. Force Field Analysis.

  3. The Four Frame Model.

In this lesson, we consider brainstorming and forcefield analysis. We'll discuss the four-frame model in the next lesson.

We all know brainstorming. It is a free-form group activity with the aim of generating lots of ideas. Brainstorming is fun, and it is a good way to get ideas, good and bad, out into the open.

The term brainstorming was coined by Alex F. Osborn, in his book "Your Creative Power," published in 1953.

Osborn established five rules for a successful brainstorming session:

  1. The problem must be clearly defined and understood by the group. We can use the Problem Statement for this.

  2. Criticism of ideas put forward is not allowed. It is a relaxed free-association activity and participants should avoid passing judgment on any of the ideas put forward. The point is any idea, no matter how daft it seems at first, might turn out to contain the nugget of a solution. The facilitator of the group should call-out any comments that are made about ideas.

  3. The group should aim to produce as wide a group of ideas as possible. It is acceptable and even desirable to share really unusual ideas. The purpose of this rule is to encourage creative "outside the box" thinking free from the constraints of the work environment.

  4. Quantity breeds quality. The greater the volume of ideas, the greater the likelihood of useful ideas. The group should be encouraged to come up with as many ideas as possible – no matter how "weak" or tenuous they seem.

  5. Once the initial "splurge" of ideas subsides, the facilitator should work with the group to combine and improve ideas. Participants should be encouraged to improve each other's ideas and deliberately try to combine each other's ideas in interesting and surprising ways. This will create further identification of ideas, and these ideas are often stronger than the first set.

To work well, a brainstorming session does need a good facilitator. In poorly facilitated groups, a number of issues can arise – related to human behaviour – which will limit the effectiveness of the session.

Blocking. In business group sessions, it is not unusual for a strong personality to be present. This person can often dominate the discussion demanding attention, convinced of the importance of their own input. Such behaviour can prevent others from participating, and the facilitator needs to control the dominant personality and give others the opportunity to take part. Sometimes the facilitator might need to speak to that person at a break and ask them to tone it down.

Personality characteristics. Extroverts tend to engage in group sessions more than introverts. The facilitator must actively ensure that everyone feels comfortable and is enabled to contribute.

Fear of being judged. More introverted members of the group might fear that their ideas and, therefore, themselves, will be negatively judged, and this can limit their contribution. That's why criticism of ideas is not allowed. The facilitator must reassure every member of the group and give them each space to contribute.

Group conformity. In a work situation, members of the group may not want to draw attention to themselves by seeming more engaged or productive than their peers, particularly if they think their peers might hold it against them after the session. This can mean that good ideas go unannounced. One solution to this concern is to form a mixed group made up of people from different teams rather than work with a group all from the same work area.

Idea fixation. This is the most serious problem. Once a number of ideas perceived as "good" have been suggested, there can be a tendency for the group to fall in behind those ideas. The group convince themselves that they have found the path to a solution and stop casting their net wider. It requires good facilitation skills to force the group to continue thinking as widely as possible.

Forcefield analysis is a tool that can be used both at the problem analysis stage and the idea generation stage of problem-solving. It is particularly useful for identifying all the factors at play in a problem situation.

Developed by Kurt Lewin in the 1940s, Forcefield Analysis analyses the forces that are driving movement toward a goal (helping forces) and the forces that are blocking movement toward the goal (hindering forces).

In problem-solving, we can build a Forcefield Analysis based on two questions:

  1. What factors or forces could act in favour of finding a solution to this problem?

  2. What factors or forces could act against finding a solution to this problem?

Forcefield analysis is best conducted with a facilitator who should encourage the group to identify as many forces supporting the resolution of the problem, and as many acting against resolution, as possible. In many ways, this will be similar to a brainstorming session, just focussed on the pros and cons of finding a solution.

Once the forces supporting the resolution of the problem and those acting against the resolution of the problem are identified, the facilitator should introduce two further groups of questions which will help with planning the implementation of the solutions identified in the problem-solving process:

  • What can be done to boost the positive forces supporting finding a solution? What needs to be done? Whose support is needed to bring the best outcome?

  • What can be done to reduce or mitigate the negative forces working against finding a solution? What needs to be done? Whose support is needed to bring the best outcome?

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we look at the four-frame model.

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Written by

Ross Maynard

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