Why Groups Struggle to Solve Problems Together

December 06, 2019

Why Groups Struggle to Solve Problems Together

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Why are so many meetings so unproductive?

Many professionals, fed up with calendars chock-full of long, disorganised, soul-bruising sessions, resort to uncharitable, even cynical explanations:

  • Leaders are too lazy to craft thoughtful agendas.
  • Managers hold pointless meetings as a way to flex their power.
  • Distracted attendees, selfishly preoccupied with their own work, come woefully unprepared.

But if we want an accurate, rather than merely cathartic answer to the question, we’d be wise to consider Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by misunderstanding.

After more than a decade of working with prominent organisations to fix broken meetings, I’ve come to learn that many bad meetings are more adequately explained by a simple, flawed assumption. We assume that intuitive problem solving, a highly effective approach for individuals, will, in the context of meetings, prove just as effective for groups. But often, it does not.

When Individuals Solve Problems Intuitively the Result Is Magic

To understand what intuitive problem solving is, we need to recognise first that when working out any problem, from picking out a necktie to solving a quadratic equation, we make our way through five stages:




You might assume that we move through these stages sequentially to solve problems. But in the past several decades, psychologists have discovered the opposite to be true. Rather than advance through the stages in order, we tend to do so in a manner that is rather unsystematic.

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) — Indian. Upon evaluation (stage 3), however, you fear your hefty Chicken Tikka Masala go-to might outsize your appetite. At this point, you take a step back and define the problem (stage 1), asking yourself “What kind of meal would leave me feeling satisfied but not overly stuffed?” A better question leads to a better answer: sushi (stage 2). You do a quick gut check to make sure sushi is truly what you desire (stage 3), and you move forward with your order (stages 4 and 5).

This is called intuitive problem solving, and it comes so naturally to us that, when we solve problems in this way, we’re wholly unaware that we are doing it. All we have to do is place our attention on the problem and, much like a car’s automatic transmission, our brain shifts gears for us. As a result, intuitive problem solving is remarkably efficient. Magical, even.

When Groups Solve Problems Intuitively the Result Is Often Chaos

Intuitive problem solving is so magical for us as individuals that we assume it should fare just as well for groups. 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, all too often, this turns out to be a mistake.

In order for groups to collaborate effectively and avoid talking past one another, members must simultaneously occupy the same problem-solving stage. But because intuitions are private to their owners, attendees in group meetings are unable to easily discern what problem-solving stage they each are on. Consequently, members unknowingly begin the meeting on different stages.

Imagine a software team who gathers to discuss a disgruntled VIP customer, threatening, quite publicly, to jump ship to a competitor. While one attendee thinks the path forward is obvious and focuses on crafting an implementation plan (stage 5), another is intent on generating alternative solutions (stage 2), while yet another attendee is still trying to figure out whether the exit of this pompous hellion is, in fact, even a problem (stage 1). Perhaps it’s a blessing!

As the meeting progresses, things get even more chaotic. Without realising it, each attendee continues to switch stages without notifying others. The result is a disorganised meeting that traverses many stages, yet conquers none.

To solve problems as a group, we need to jettison the assumption that intuitive problem solving is sufficient, and instead embrace a more methodical approach — one that homes in on just one problem-solving stage. In other words, we need to stop with the automatic, and start learning to drive stick.

The Power of Methodical Meetings

In a methodical meeting, for each issue that needs to be discussed, members deliberately and explicitly choose just one problem-solving stage to complete.

To convert an intuitive meeting into a methodical one take your meeting agenda, and to the right of each agenda item, write down a problem-solving stage that will help move you closer to a solution, as well as the corresponding measurable outcome for that stage. Then, during that part of the meeting, focus only on achieving that outcome. Once you do, move on.


A Template for Conducting a Methodical Meeting


If you don’t know which problem-solving stage to choose, consider the following:

Do you genuinely understand the problem you’re trying to solve? If you can’t clearly articulate the problem to someone else, chances are you don’t understand it as well as you might think. If that’s the case, before you start generating solutions, consider dedicating this part of the meeting to defining the problem (stage 1) and ending it with a succinctly written problem statement.

Do you have an ample list of potential solutions? If the group understands the problem but hasn’t yet produced a set of potential solutions, that’s the next order of business. Concentrate on generating as many quality options as possible (stage 2). Even if you end your discussion with only a slightly longer list than with which you began, you’ve made important progress.

Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of the various solutions? Suppose you have already generated potential solutions. If so, this time will be best spent letting the group evaluate them (stage 3). Free attendees from the obligation of reaching a final decision—for which they may not yet be ready—and let them focus exclusively on developing a list of pros and cons for the various alternatives.

Has the group already spent time debating various solutions? If the answer is yes, use this part of the meeting to do the often difficult work of choosing (stage 4). Make sure, of course, that the final choice is in writing.

Has a solution already been selected? Then focus on developing an implementation plan (stage 5). If you’re able to leave the conversation with a comprehensive list of actions, assigned owners, and due dates, you can celebrate a remarkably profitable outcome.

Most bad meetings are not caused by lazy, power-tripped leaders, or entitled, self-centred attendees. Instead, they are caused by a simple mistake made by everyone involved. We assume our go-to way for solving problems alone, intuitively, can be effectively deployed to solve problems together. But more often than not, it can’t. Instead, we should hold methodical meetings, discussions that deliberately and explicitly aim to conquer just one stage at a time.

Granted, conquering just one problem-solving stage, I’ve come to learn, sounds a bit underwhelming to some — like taking a small bite out of large woolly mammoth. But 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 leapfrog ahead, sometimes to the very end of the problem-solving life cycle. As the famously methodical Steve Jobs once noted: “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”


This article was originally written by Al Pittampalli, who is the founder of the Modern Meeting Company and the author of "Read This Before Our Next Meeting". Full credit goes to the HBR, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.

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