Forget the Task Force — Strategic Rethinking of Problem-Solving Required

You know the typical business approach to problems: Create an internal task force — usually comprised of internal “experts” from various business units affected by the problem — and ask them to collectively present a set of solution options.

What if that’s wrong?

Often problem-solving teams unintentionally inhibit the development of solutions — and even the identification of what the problem is. 

A recent Harvard Business Review article observed that a necessary prerequisite for strong problem-solving in an organization is to put together a team with what it calls “cognitive diversity.”

In other words, team members will think in different ways about the challenge being addressed and its potential solutions. Some will excel in focusing in on what the problem is. Some will focus on applying both new and existing data. Some will go beyond the rules. Some will enforce discipline. Some will come up with entirely new approaches. Some will show a strong collaborative bent.

Some organizations demonstrate cognitive diversity in their problem-solving teams but still don’t solve challenges well. Only some members of a team contribute. The same mistakes keep repeating themselves year after year. The time involved in testing out a new approach lengthens — or new approaches go untested.

So behind the different mental approaches, what do teams need to succeed?

Psychological safety in offering solutions is important.

A Generative Approach…

The authors posit that cognitive diversity is still needed, but organizations also need to foster what they term a “generative” approach.

In a generative approach, new solutions are encouraged. There is, importantly, psychological safety in offering untried solutions. Without psychological safety, people may have important insights into problem-solving, but be afraid to voice them.

Responsibility for past problems is also shared by teams, in a nonjudgmental, non-threatening way.

Generative teams are also curious and experimental rather than directive or judgmental.

…but Also an Absence of Non-Generative Approaches

It may not be enough just to develop a culture of psychological safety and shared responsibility for problems.

Successful problem-solving teams also need to avoid non-generative behavior. If this sounds obvious, it isn’t. Behavior around a conference room table or in an office is seldom black-and-white. Even in generative, psychologically safe and cognitively diverse cultures, directive behavior or negative judgment can interfere with some actions or comments — and inhibit problem-solving.

Non-generative organizations tend to let hierarchy dictate their problem-solving behaviors. That’s not to say hierarchy doesn’t exist in generative companies, but in their solutions-driven behavior, it matters less. If the solutions of those low on the totem pole are seen as doable, they’re embraced.

Nongenerative problem-solving behavior also tends to be more directive and controlling. As a result, team members tend to conform both with each other and with the existing methods of doing things. All these qualities inhibit the development of innovation and new ideas in problem-solving.

As a result, good problem-solving teams and their business leaders need to foster cognitive diversity, psychological safety, and the shared responsibility and spirit of inquiry that characterize generative companies. But they also need to minimize the non-generative qualities that can stop problem-solving in its tracks.