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Problem Solving Tools for Wicked Problems

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

All of the tools we have already discussed can be used by the Problem-Solving teams in their work to try and understand their Wicked Problem and probe a way towards partial solutions:

  1. The Problem Statement and Goal Statement.

  2. Process Mapping.

  3. The Ishikawa Diagram.

  4. Brainstorming.

  5. Forcefield Analysis.

  6. The Four Frame Model.

All of these tools can help chip away at the problem and reveal nuggets that might form part of the solution. There are other tools that can help too:

  • Perceptual Positions.

  • Bright Spots Analysis.

  • Solution Focussed Approaches: The Miracle Question, What does Good Look Like?, Exceptions Analysis, Scaling Questions.

I'll cover perceptual positions and bright spots analysis in this lesson and review the solution focussed approaches in the next lesson.

Perceptual Positions is a tool used in coaching and counselling and involves putting yourself in another person's "shoes." In problem-solving, we use this tool to consider a problem or issue from the point of view of others. The tool has two main uses:

  1. To try and gain alternative "angles" on a problem. Having a diverse problem-solving team will help bring alternative viewpoints and thinking styles to the fore. It can also be useful to role-play other stakeholders in the issue, for example – "what would a customer think about this issue? How would it affect them? How would they like to see it resolved?"

  2. To try and understand why certain individuals or groups are resistant to the approach being proposed; or to review, in advance, how they might react to a proposal. For example, "how are these staff likely to react to this proposal." "Why does X seem resistant to this proposal?"; "what does he/she have to lose?"

Actively trying to accommodate other people's points of views in problem analysis and action planning is very beneficial and will ensure that the problem is examined from several facets. It also helps ensure that action plans and proposals are reviewed from the point of view of those who can influence their approval or who might be affected by them.

The Perceptual Positions exercise can be done alone but is best done in groups of three (with others observing).

Each participant rotates through three roles, trying, as best they can, to inhabit each role as the character affected. They discuss the thoughts and feelings that arise in each position out loud. It is useful to have a note-taker recording the main points on a flip chart.

First Position is looking at the issue through your own eyes:

  • How do you feel about the problem?

  • What do you think might be the causes of the problem?

  • How do you think we should go about resolving the problem?

  • What would solving this problem mean for you?

Second Position is looking at the issue through another person's eyes (a significant person in the event). From the point of view of the other person:

  • How do they feel about the problem?

  • What do they think might be the causes of the problem?

  • How do they think we should go about resolving the problem?

  • What would solving this problem mean for them?

Repeat Second Position for as many other stakeholders or involved individuals as necessary.

Third Position is observing the entire scene from a dissociated position – a "fly on the wall" with no emotional attachment to the issue:

  • What did they notice about the behaviour of each person represented?

  • What do they think might be influencing their behaviour?

  • What different motivations do you think there are for solving, or not solving, this problem?

  • How do you think the issue might be approached differently in order to engage more effectively with each person represented in Second Position?

  • What other learning did you feel the exercise revealed?

Perceptual Positions can be a fun and energising exercise. It really does work to give the group insight into why other people might be behaving in a way which might seem incongruous or damaging to the resolution of a problem. Often such behaviour is caused by fear of the unknown, or not wanting to look bad in front of others, and the group's approach can be modified to minimise such discomfort and even to support the person to experience a better outcome.

Bright Spots Analysis involves identifying areas or instances where the problem is being effectively managed; understanding what is "special" about those instances; and then applying that learning elsewhere.

Essentially, it is surveying the problem, finding if anyone is dealing with it well, and seeking to apply their approach elsewhere. This involves three stages:

  1. Survey the problem to see if anyone or any group is dealing with it effectively. Several of the tools we have already covered can help with this activity, with the Ishikawa diagram being helpful to break the problem down into sub-elements to examine if any of those areas are being handled effectively. The Perceptual Positions tool can be used from the point of view of other stakeholders or groups to explore how they are tackling the problem. The Four Frame model might also help identify areas of excellence.

  2. Identify what is "special" about any approaches that are working. This involves understanding what individuals or groups who are dealing with the problem effectively are doing that is different from other attempts to tackle it. These are the Bright Spots of good practice, and they need to be analysed to create a method or process that can be applied elsewhere (process mapping can help with this). If possible, involve those who are using good practice in the overall problem-solving approach since they have developed expertise in the problem which others don't have.

  3. Apply the Successful Methods elsewhere. The Bright Spots of good practice need to be applied elsewhere in the organisation or with other stakeholders to see if they help tackle the problem on a wider scale. The methods or approaches used in the Bright Spots may need to be adapted for other situations, but such modification should be done carefully in case it diminishes the effectiveness of the overall approach.

Bright Spots rarely contain the whole solution to the problem, but they do offer fertile ground for further exploration of possible solutions as well as important learning about the sorts of methods that might work. They are also useful to boost confidence that the problem can be tackled effectively. More work will be needed, but the Bright Spots are a good place to start.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we move onto solution-based approaches.

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Written by

Ross Maynard

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