#147 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 3          March 1995

Adequate Preparation:  The Forgotten Step in Problem-Solving Meetings
by William L. Cesario

Mr. 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.

I 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 solve one. 

But 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.

Problem Definition

The 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 generating solutions.

Unfortunately, the initial problem statement:

•           is often based on a limited view of one person or department,

•           may overlook some key elements, or

•           may focus on a symptom of an underlying problem.

Although 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.

Thus 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?

This approach will usually identify previously hidden elements and nuances of the problem, leading to a more inclusive problem statement.

For 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%.

Since 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.

A 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.

With 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.

Another 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.

A meaningful solution depends on incorporating this system perspective:  “If we solve this problem, what will the solution do to the entire system?”

A 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.

Now, we can cast the redefined problem in a standard format by asking how we can:

           reduce costs,

           heighten our company’s visibility,

           improve our analytical processes, and

           increase product quality?

How Can You Prepare?

Typically, 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. 

One 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. 

Data- 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.

To achieve all these ends, I use the SCAMPER technique (from SCAMPER, DOK Publications, Buffalo, New York) in designing the briefing questionnaire.  Scamper is an acronym for:

S--substitute

C--combine/compress

A--amplify/attack

M--magnify/minify/manipulate

P--personify

E--eliminate

R--rearrange

What 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 solution?  What 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?

These and other questions will stimulate attendees before they enter the meeting, so they will explore non-traditional avenues for solutions. 

Ideally, 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 effective solutions.

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