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Group Problem-Solving: A Tool for Changing Culture

Underlying Value:

The value of problem-solving goes without saying. There are several methods to choose from: hypothesis-driven, issue-driven, and creative (or design thinking). One can use a three, four, five, eight, or 10 step process depending on complexity and preferences. They all provide the necessary structure to identify causes and apply effective solutions. But there is additional value to problem-solving beyond the tactical value of solving individual problems. When performed including the people affected by and affecting a specific problem, in particular addressing cross-functional issues, problem-solving is a tool for changing organizational culture.

The Foundation of Culture:

Davide Ravasi and Majken Schultz, noted business educators and thought leaders, define organizational culture as a set of shared mental assumptions that guide interpretation and action in organizations. Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, states that problem-solving is part of the learning experience that forms those shared mental assumptions. Namely, when people work together and find something that works, that method becomes part of the culture.

Inclusive Problem-solving:

Cross-functional teams, addressing long-standing issues, where departments have historically been stove-piped have eureka moments problem-solving together. An example comes from electric utilities. I facilitated the design engineering and accounting departments on their rate review process. As we were winding down the successful team, the engineering manager said to me, “You know, I’ve been working with the accounting manager for five years. They really are “good people” once you get to know them”. They developed a solution to an issue that had plagued the company for far longer than five years. More importantly, their cooperation continued after we closed the book on the rate review issue.

The take-away is the use of inclusive, cross-functional problem-solving teams during large, transformational change projects. Break the process design into elements, or even phases, where employees in the affected areas can participate. Their combined knowledge, about how the process works in their company, is far greater than any outside expert possesses. Their participation engenders buy-in and understanding (the Aware element of ADKAR). And they have a chance to interact with coworkers in new ways that can truly transform the culture far into the future.


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