from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 3
Forgotten Step in Problem-Solving Meetings
Cesario is principal of Insights/Directions, a consulting firm in Naugatuck, Connecticut, specializing in new product and business
development, group dynamics, and creative problem solving.
Phone (203) 591-8683.
estimate that in corporate America, 20 million meetings with
between 3 and 10 participants take place every day.
Many of these meetings involve R&D managers; a majority
are convened to solve a problem, or at least end up trying to
meetings don't start when the gavel comes down, so to speak.
They start when we define the problem and notify
participants of the meeting.
During this preparatory stage, we can begin taking steps to
assure that the problem is adequately defined.
Yet this simple step is frequently overlooked or bungled.
first consideration in preparation, and the most frequently
overlooked, is defining the problem, challenge, or opportunity.
If we bother taking time to define the problem, we
typically frame an initial problem statement and immediately begin
the initial problem statement:
is often based on a limited view of one person or
may overlook some key elements, or
may focus on a symptom of an underlying problem.
the best solutions to research problems are usually long-term and
comprehensive, this approach guarantees just the opposite--a
short-term type of symptomatic relief.
we need to redefine the initial problem statement to ensure that
it’s comprehensive and stimulating to participants.
One approach is to try to see the problem from the
viewpoint of someone else in your organization:
an equipment operator, the head of engineering, or the
president. How would they view this problem? How would they state it?
approach will usually identify previously hidden elements and
nuances of the problem, leading to a more inclusive problem
example, one of our company’s products isn’t functioning as
effectively as a similar product available from a major
competitor. Our initial chemical analysis of their product indicates that
all the key ingredients are the same and are present in the same
proportions, measured to the nearest 0.01%.
we're seeking equivalent function, and we’re interested in
solving the problem quickly, our initial problem statement might
be, “What compounds can we add to our formulation to have it
perform in a manner equivalent to our competitor’s?”
This would lead us on a search for various additional
compounds and experimentation.
closer investigation of our formulation reveals that trace
quantities of “alpha-betazate” (an impurity in one of the
compounds in the formulation) are fifty-times higher than in our
competitor’s formulation, and this may be the reason for our
product’s reduced effectiveness.
this new perspective, we may modify the problem statement to that
of “What company supplies this compound with greatly reduced
levels of alpha-betazate?” and/or “How can we cost effectively
process this compound to extract the contaminant, reducing its
presence to, at a maximum, the level at which it’s present in
the competitor’s formulation?”
This statement now directs us in a very different direction
in search of potential solutions.
approach to redefining the initial problem statement is to broaden
it—to consider the whole system.
Organizational problems don’t exist in a vacuum, and
solutions will affect people, departments, schedules, and
procedures inside and outside the corporation.
By considering the system elements, we’ll gain insight
into the true nature of the situation and further improve our
initial definition. Also,
many systems have actually evolved and grown around the problem.
For instance, analyses of components may be structured
around a particular technique that the company previously had most
success with. But
that technique may not be the best for today’s needs.
meaningful solution depends on incorporating this system
perspective: “If we
solve this problem, what will the solution do to the entire
system approach will:
broaden our view of the problem,
define the problem more expansively, broadening the number
of areas to explore for a solution, and
decrease the likelihood of duplicating past solutions.
we can cast the redefined problem in a standard format by asking
how we can:
heighten our company’s visibility,
improve our analytical processes, and
increase product quality?
Can You Prepare?
preparation for a meeting (for problem-solving or anything else),
involves gathering data and finding facts, with no consideration
to the benefits of creative thinking beforehand.
Nevertheless, stimulating creativity of the attendees will
enhance their ability to generate ideas and ultimately make the
meeting more effective.
method for achieving this is sending a briefing questionnaire to
participants about two to seven days before the meeting.
This document is designed to broadly stimulate thinking
about the problem and help participants invent multiple solutions.
and information-oriented exercises may be a component of the
questionnaire, but its focus should be divergent and creative, to
help participants see the situation from new perspectives and
facilitate seeing new connections between disparate elements.
This approach, along with the recommendation for a
nonjudgmental response, expands the solution universe and the
originality and creativity of the meeting.
achieve all these ends, I use the SCAMPER technique (from SCAMPER,
DOK Publications, Buffalo, New York) in designing the briefing
is an acronym for:
kind of questions can result from SCAMPER?
What can we substitute for an element of the problem, to
solve or simplify it?
What elements of the problem might be combined to lead to a
elements could be combined with aspects of the overall system?
What elements in the problem (or system) can be eliminated
to simplify the problem?
What if we try to rearrange various elements?
and other questions will stimulate attendees before they enter the
meeting, so they will explore non-traditional avenues for
we'll pursue similar questions during the meeting to broaden our
capacity to generate ideas, use technical knowledge and creativity
more effectively, energize the group, and ultimately invent more