An old business friend told me the other day that the thing he most remembers me saying was, “What problem are we trying to solve?” As he put it, “That little phrase is the key to unfreezing more off-course conversations than any other technique I know of.”
I can’t claim invention. I got it from the United Research side of Gemini Consulting, one of several pieces of clever social engineering they brought to business. Here’s how, and why, it works.
How Business Conversations Go Astray
To hear us tell it after the fact, many business meetings follow a logical flow. They start with an agenda or problem definition, data are then presented, discussions held, and conclusions reached. Then pigs fly.
It’s not that those individual elements don’t happen – they do. It’s that they happen like a Tower of Babel, randomly and all at once. When everybody’s got an opinion and a vested interest, and nobody’s a designated facilitator – a description of most meetings – we shouldn’t expect much else.
Have you ever been in a planning board meeting? A condo association meeting? A meeting within your firm’s HR department? An inter-departmental meeting? A sales call with an interested but wary client?
Then you’ve seen the following dysfunctions:
- People pursuing their own agendas as sub-text to a given issue
- Aimless wandering around various problem definitions
- Randomly proposed solutions without grounding
- A social struggle for air time
- An airing of pet peeves as they manifest in the given issue
- A game of dominance and submission playing out in an issue.
And I’m sure there are more. All are forms of incoherence, lacking sequence or structure, generating more frustration from which to feed more incoherence.
It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way
If the root issue is incoherence, then there are several ways to tackle it. You can agree on an agenda. You can enforce sequencing. You can apportion air time.
But one way seems to work better than others. When the babble begins to peak, and the frustration level is palpable, raise your hand, furrow your brow, and ask, genuinely, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”
Notice what this simple formulation does.
First, it is socially neutral-to-positive. Logically it has the same effect as saying, “You fools are all over the map – you can’t even define the problem” – but the emotional effect is totally different. You’re not claiming the moral high ground or fighting for your point of view – you’re simply observing a phenomenon, and asking a question.
Second, it’s a very good question. Asking a group to gut-check a problem definition almost immediately elicits an answer – and often it’s the same answer. In which case, collaboration is restored – you all have a common mission again.
And if it’s a different answer, voila, you’ve distilled the essence of the debate – “we have two competing problem definitions, no wonder we were having such difficulties!” In either case, the group becomes re-centered around a dynamic goal – problem definition and resolution, rather than bitching and moaning, or power games.
The net effect of all this is claiming, centering, and norming. A group becomes a group again, with common goals, moving forward, rather than a fractious collection of squabblers.
Give it a try next time you’re in a meeting that’s driving you a little batty – just ask, “Hey folks – what problem are we trying to solve?”