Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on July 17, 2020.
Many meetings break down because their participants try to tackle challenges using "intuitive problem solving"—an approach that's "highly effective" for individuals but counterproductive in group settings, Al Pittampalli, founder of the Modern Meeting Company, writes for Harvard Business Review.
What's intuitive problem solving?
Pittampalli explains that when approaching nearly any problem, we tend to work our way through five different stages to figure out a solution:
- Define the problem;
- Generate solutions;
- Evaluate solutions;
- Pick a solution; and
- Make a plan.
However, Pittampalli explains that while using the stages in this order can be an effective problem-solving tool in most contexts, most people—when working on their own, rather than in a group—don't necessarily think through these phases in order. Instead, "we tend to do so in a manner that is rather unsystematic," Pittampalli writes.
"For example, pretend you're ordering food online. You begin by quickly generating a solution—Mexican (stage 2)—but as soon as the thought enters your mind, you evaluate (stage 3) and remember that you had Mexican the day before, so you generate another solution (stage 2)," and so on, Pittampalli writes.
That unsystematic approach is what's called intuitive problem solving—and often, because it works so effectively for individuals, people assume it will also work in groups. "But often, it does not," Pittampalli writes.
The problem with intuitive problem solving in meetings
"When we hold a meeting, we gather around a table, place our collective attention on the problem, and let our automatic transmissions take over," but this is often a mistake, he writes.
According to Pittampalli, "In order for groups to collaborate effectively and avoid talking past one another, members must simultaneously occupy the same problem-solving stage." However, when a group of people are performing intuitive problem solving, each individual in the group is—at any given time—operating in a different problem-solving stage.
For instance, while one member of the team is focused on developing a plan, another might be generating alternative solutions. And because members are "unknowingly … on different stages"—and "switch[ing] stages without notifying others—it's nearly impossible for the group as a whole to reach stage 5, or the plan making stage, at the same time, Pittampalli explains.
The solution: The methodical meeting
To make meetings more effective, teams should first acknowledge that intuitive problem solving is ineffective for groups and instead adopt a methodical approach that focuses on deliberately moving through every problem-solving stage as a unit.
"In other words," Pittampalli writes, "we need to stop with the automatic, and start learning to drive stick."
To plan methodical meetings, team members should create an agenda and pair a problem-solving stage with each agenda item, as well as a potential outcome for each stage. The team can then choose to start the meeting at the earliest stage that appears on the list.
If when creating an agenda, you're struggling to choose a problem-solving stage for your various agenda items, consider the following:
- Do you understand the problem you're trying to solve? If you can't articulate the problem to your team members, you should dedicate part of the meeting to stage 1—defining the problem—with the goal of having a "succinctly written problem statement" at the conclusion of the discussion.
- Do you have potential solutions? If your team has defined the problem, but hasn't developed a list of solutions, the groups should start at stage 2 to generate as many potential solutions as possible.
- Do you know the pros and cons of the solutions? If you've already developed the solutions list, the team needs to go to stage 3 and evaluate the list to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each suggestion.
- Has the group discussed each solution? If they have, stage 4 of the meeting can be used to select a solution.
- Has a solution already been selected? If so, the group can skip to stage 5, or developing a plan to implement the solution, which should include a list of actions and due dates.
Pittampalli admits that while this approach is effective, the idea of talking through each problem-solving stage one by one can be "underwhelming" for some groups. However, "those who try methodical meetings are met with an often profound revelation: thoroughly conquering any individual problem-solving stage, even an earlier one, frequently allows you to leap frog ahead, sometimes to the very end of the problem-solving life cycle," Pittampalli concludes (Pittampalli, Harvard Business Review, 11/7).