Effective Problem Solving and Solution Communication


In a question to yesterday's post, Bill asked about the effect of multiple ideas for problem solving: “Do readers feel they have to follow one of your multiple True Ways now? Or does the multiplicity meta-message encourage them to generate even more ideas?”

Sometimes and Yes. Some people are even more impatient than I am, and take one of the first ideas presented, even when I explain that I don't necessarily have any of the True Ways for their situation, that the possibilities are for them to explore, to use as a stepping-stone from which to develop even better ideas.

What's even better though, is when someone says, “Hey, I didn't realize there were three possible solutions. Maybe we should spend some time generating other solutions.” Then I spend time facilitating their discussion — because they're the people with expertise about their products, their people, their problems. I can help, but they'll have to live with the consequences of their decisions.

My technique (from Jerry Weinberg) is to: Think of three possible solutions to the particular problem. I don't have to like all the solutions, but the solutions have to be reasonable. The rule of three helps me not be stuck on just one alternative. And once I get to three, it's easy to keep generating ideas. Then, once I have the solutions, I present the solutions in a non-blaming way.

Here's an example. I review many plans as part of my business. In project or test plans, people like to discuss risks. In a recent plan, a few risks were listed, along with some mitigation plans. However, there was no ordering of the risks, nor any mention of the severity of the problem should it occur, nor the probability of occurrence. Part of my feedback was this: “When I read these risks, I can't tell if they're in order, how probable they are, or how severe they are if they were to occur. If I was a manager here, I'd have trouble knowing if you wanted my help or if you wanted to let me know what was going on. So here's what I'd do:

  • Use a standard risk table to define probability and severity and order the risks.
  • Explain that you'll only explain the highest severity/highest probability risks in the plan.
  • Use the plan as a way to communicate with everyone about the risks you have solutions to, and keep a separate list that you and your manager will use to problem-solve.

The client liked the idea that there were three possible solutions, and that I hadn't judged their work and found it wanting. I found it incomplete or confusing, which is why we have reviews. Having three possibilities helped them discuss what they did want out of their risk lists and who they wanted to communicate with, and when. Very fruitful discussion.

The rule of three (three possible solutions) and presenting those solutions in a way so that people can hear them leads to effective solutions and communications about those solutions. The more ideas, the more people can (generate more and) discuss alternatives without having to choose one too quickly.

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