How to Use Problem-Solving Meetings to Engage Employees

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The advantage of pain is that it often drives us to innovate to find relief. Many years ago I walked into a partner advisory meeting that had been underway for a couple of hours. There were 15 attendees, and the scene was chaotic, to say the least, the walls were full of lists. Some items with dots beside them in an attempt to prioritize. The more vocal advocates were arguing with each other and others were beginning to check out due to lack of resolution.

We stopped the meeting and decided to use a process outlined in this article. Within 45 minutes the group had settled on the top 10 priorities and came out of the room feeling good about the decisions made. This process which started as a way to get people to develop priorities and make decisions more quickly is also used to engage and develop individuals and teams.

What follows are six tips that will improve your meeting effectiveness while helping employees learn new skills and grow as leaders.

Use a facilitator to lead the process

Most leaders are tempted to run problem-solving meetings themselves. This approach may appear to be more convenient but it is not as effective. An independent facilitator allows all the participants to engage fully in the topic being addressed. People have very different personality types and without the clear guidance of a trained facilitator, it is easy for some types to stifle the input of others. So the facilitator focuses on the process of problem-solving not the problem itself. Anyone can serve as a facilitator as long as they understand their role and have the people skills to control the agenda.

Ask the right question

Effective problem-solving starts by asking the right question. Following are two questions that will produce very different results.

• “How can we increase sales?”

• “How can we increase sales by $5m next quarter?”

The first question is very open-ended. It leaves to interpretation whether you want ideas for growing the organization faster over the next five years or five quarters. Open-ended questions are appropriate in many situations but asking an opened-ended questions when you have a more specific need just wastes time.

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Whoever initiates the meeting should come with a proposed question. But take a few minutes at the start and explain the question and ask the group if this is the right question. Others may see ways to clarify the question. By involving them in setting the question, you will get better question clarity AND you will be teaching participants the value of asking the right question. Asking great questions is an important leadership skill.

Follow the rules of brainstorming

The point of the ‘brainstorming’ part of problem-solving is to stimulate creativity and create synergy among the participants feeding off each other’s ideas. Well-run brainstorming makes people feel the freedom to toss ideas without reservation. For some people, this is more challenging than others due to their experience levels or even personality type. Following are keys to having a good exploration exercise:

• Explain that there are no ‘bad ideas’ – get anything and everything on the table

• Tel the group they have a very short time limit (60-90 seconds) to reduce the tendency to want to analyze an idea. Make it fast-paced. As a facilitator, you can let the group go as long as good ideas are coming. The point is you use the clock to get people out of analysis mode

• Facilitator captures ideas in the participants’ own words using key phrases they used – do not edit or rewrite (using their words helps them explain what they meant later)

• Facilitator allows no evaluation or side-conversations on ideas. Keep the focus on generating the next idea

This exploration portion of the exercise should not take more than 2-3 minutes max. Overtime those naturally more reserved will engage and learn to participate as trust in the process is built.

Take a position individually (vote)

In this portion by taking advantage of the technology, each person is shown a list of the brainstorm items generated in the previous step. Each person is given five voting tokens of 20 points each. They vote for what they believe are the best opportunities for solving the problem (addressing the question). They can vote for five separate items or all for one. Their votes cannot exceed 100 points. At this point, they cannot see the votes of others.

This step forces individuals to think for themselves without knowing what the ‘boss’ thinks or their more vocal ‘peer’ next to them.

This is the most important step in the exercise, and it is the place where the facilitator has to do their job. Once everyone has voted the results are shown so everyone can see them. The results are shown in order of total points awarded. So there is a natural tendency to start talking which idea is first, second, etc. At this point the vote totals mean very little.

What is really important for the group to understand is why each person voted the way they did. Each person in the room is there presumably because they have a different and important role in the topic. Each will see things the others don’t. So the real purpose of this step is to uncover and share those different perspectives.

The facilitator maintains control of the process by asking each person one at a time to explain why they voted the way they did. Other people cannot interrupt except to ask clarifying questions. Responses are not debated at this point, instead the purpose is to listen to each perspective.

Frequently after listening to each other, there is a realizing that some of the items in the exercise used different things to mean the same thing. Those items are easily consolidated in the technology into one summary item.

Consider what you have learned (vote again)

After everyone has been heard and understood a revote is taken. Normally on the second vote, there is consolidation and agreement around 2-3 key items.

People almost always change their vote after listening to their colleagues. They learn from each other. And even more amazing is that people buy into the conclusions reached. Their voice has been heard and they support the decision made. They come out believing “we decided” not “they decided”. The difference is important in engaging people.

This portion of the session teaches a couple of very basic skills. People are taught to listen to each other. Those more naturally reserved people learn to make their voices heard. Domineering people are heard but not at the expense of other voices.

For years we have used this process successfully to solve problems and get people aligned around an approach to a problem. This process also builds teamwork, develops leadership and engages employees.

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