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Inclusive Problem Solving Engages Employees, Strengthens Culture and Accelerates Problem Solving


Ravasi and Schultz (2006) define organizational culture as a set of shared mental assumptions that guide interpretation and action in organizations by defining appropriate behavior for various situations. Edgar Schein (1985) states that problem solving is part of the learning experience that forms those shared mental assumptions. In other words, when people work together, and find something that works, that method becomes part of the culture. The interesting part is the weight that Schein gives problem solving in forming culture.

Our Experience

We’ve had the opportunity to see many different styles of problem solving in our work with dozens of clients: committees, toss it over the wall, fire and forget. Some effective. Some not so effective. The most perplexing was an executive who was faced with a major initiative. His approach was: “What we’ve always done. Hand it to a promising, fast-tracker and let them figure it out.” We’ve spoken to people in that organization who had seen that approach produce “screwy” results and collateral damage, including the fast-tracker.

There are a couple of basic ingredients in effective problem solving. These are structure (for both the process to follow and commonly shared ground rules for meeting conduct) and inclusiveness. By inclusiveness we mean including all the stakeholders affected by or affecting the problem, across functions.

Often, a problem experienced in one department (the victim) is caused by an upstream department (the culprit). We’ve heard the words, “Get ‘them’ to do it right, and everything will be OK.”

Different Perspectives on Problems

How one approaches this is important. Too often the “victim” will work out the solution and dictate the solution to the “culprit”. This does little for team building in the organization. One outcome is that the two departments don’t try it again and institutionalize work-arounds for the original problem.

Each functional group affected by or potentially affecting the problem should be brought in to problem solving from the start, before root causes are defined and solutions developed. Those affecting the problem are brought in with the stated assumption that they are good people, not causing the problem on purpose and must be having a problem of their own, thus causing the problem downstream.

They (the culprits) participate in defining the true root cause of the problem. This creates an atmosphere of mutual problem solving versus finger pointing. They participate in the discovery process and development of solutions. While this sounds all so right, too often we’ve seen that it’s not even on the radar screen of some groups.

A Clash of Sub-Cultures

Within the overall culture of the organization, each department, each functional group, has its own subculture. Accounting is different from operations is different from engineering. Accounting is numbers and procedure oriented. Engineering is also numbers oriented but also the puzzle solvers. Often they view each other like strangers from foreign lands. We experienced this first hand.

Case Study

We worked with a utility getting ready for rate review. Engineering was going through their rush (again) to assign all new assets and components to FERC accounts, for all the new construction over the past couple of years. There was animosity between accounting (insisting on proper FERC assignment, frustrated with engineering’s rushed demands) and engineering (trying to assign complex structures to “bureaucratic” accounts in a short amount of time).

As we put the problem-solving team together we found out the engineers had never met the accounting personnel, many of whom had been in position over five years. One engineer even commented, “They’re really good people once you get to know them.”

As a team, they worked out a new way of collaborating from the start of an engineering project. While the solution was very simple, they’d literally spent years spinning their wheels. They (the victims) were impeded because they were not including key players (the culprits) in trying to solve their problem.

Given the importance of problem solving in forming corporate culture, it’s an area of organizational activity that deserves closer attention. Many companies do not have designated guidelines for problem solving. In the case of our utility example, the engineers viewed themselves as the problem solvers: expected by the company to be the group to always “figure it out” on their own. They found solutions to a long standing issues by including all parties: affected by or affecting the problem. And by using a neutral facilitator to focus the team on a problem-solving process.


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