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The Problem with Unbounded Problem Solving

Putting up the fence before letting the buffalo graze

Sometimes when people come together to solve a problem they can be like a herd of wild buffalo, charging around in all directions, creating a lot of noise and confusion.

This is a very common situation when a major problem is affecting the ability of the business to meet its objectives; feelings often run high. There are likely to be multiple theories on just where the problem lies, what caused it and how it should be resolved. These diverse agendas can hijack a meeting, taking it off track, wasting time and possibly end up with people heading in the wrong direction.

In order to avoid this, I like to conduct a pre-constraining meeting where we bring the key people into the room to sit down to specify and scope the problem, giving us some boundaries to work inside. This fencing of the issue can really help drive down time to resolve as it focuses a room when the main meeting begins.

I can just hear the sighs as we talk about this – surely I am not suggesting a meeting to plan a meeting! Do we not have enough meetings to deal with? When are we going to get down to the real work of solving the actual problem?

Such a scoping meeting may seem to be counterproductive, taking up valuable time that could be used to do ‘real work’, but a small amount of time, used effectively can work out:

  • Who really needs to be in the room?
  • Who are the affected stakeholders?
  • What information do we have?
  • Have all our facts been verified?
  • Does everyone actually understand the scope of the problem we are working on?

Who needs to be in the room?

When you really get down to the work of finding your technical and root causes, who actually needs to be there? Probably not as many people as you think. If you do your pre-planning for the meeting adequately the only people who need to be there are the ones who are able to add some clarity to the situation. These are the people who have been involved already in attempts to resolve; people who really know the operation of the affected service; who understand the underlying infrastructure.

Filling the room with people who are being directly affected by the problem, who are anxious to get it resolved, is not going to help you get where you need to be. All the information they are able to provide should have been collected prior to the meeting. Their perspectives will be historical and unchanging.

The more people you have in the room, the more noise there will be and the longer it will take to get your answers. Keep the numbers to a minimum, while still ensuring that the people who are likely to have the answers are there.

Who are the affected stakeholders?

Understanding who is being impacted by the problem you are working on is important. While these people may not need to be directly involved in your problem meeting their requirements need to be considered, their opinions will have been collected and their frustrations will be understood.

A clear understanding of who your decision makers, influencers and implementers are will ensure that you have reached out to all affected parties and will have all the information needed before your meeting begins.

What information do we have and have all our facts been verified?

Do you have all the information you need to help you find cause? This might seem like a very obvious question, but it is well worth spending a bit of time discussing this in your scoping meeting. Do you have all the key facts at hand and, more importantly, are you completely satisfied that these are totally accurate? If there is any doubt about the veracity of your data, then have someone go back and confirm the key facts. Too often time is wasted working on inaccurate assumptions that are accepted as fact, and good pre-planning will avoid this issue.

Is everyone on the same page?

It is surprising just how often you can get into a problem meeting and discover that people have completely different ideas about what the problem is that we are working on. Getting the correct focus on the problem—exactly where and what—is essential. Again, I am sure that this sounds very obvious; it may not be. Symptoms can often masquerade as problems and without careful scoping. It is all too easy to find you have multiple people working on different levels of the same problem. The time you spend in this meeting will focus everyone at the right level.

A clear focus makes all the difference

I am not talking about a long and involved meeting. This should be a short, sharp meeting of key people that will allow you to properly structure your problem meeting. With all these points in hand you will be able to focus clearly on the real issues and go into your full session with confidence and clarity.

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