4 exercises to ignite creative problem solving on teams

Want to inspire a more productive approach to problem-solving? Start by asking the right questions. Try these four exercises with your team
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Asking the right questions in the right way can be transformative. As a leader, you need to ask questions in a way that will challenge your people to think and ultimately behave differently.

Alan Mulally, a former CEO of Ford Motor Company, did just that, changing a culture of fear that existed at the automaker with a simple question. As the story goes, an executive once showed up at a staff meeting showing a red status on an important vehicle program, signaling that the program has serious issues that could lead to a significant delay or higher than expected costs. Everyone in the room held their breath, expecting a furious public dress-down. Instead, Mulally asked the room, “Okay, what are we as a group going to do to fix this?”

Within weeks, Mulally saw status reports go from all green to a rainbow of colors. Employees were no longer afraid to speak up about the challenges they were facing because they recognized that they would get help from across the company to solve the problems together.

[ For more tips on building a healthy workplace culture, read 7 ways to foster a culture of learning in IT. ]

This example shows the power of asking the right questions. But how do you know which questions to ask? Here are a few ways to approach asking transformative questions that may prompt your team to think creatively:

1. Change the frame of reference

I recently spoke with clients about moving to the cloud. They told me all the reasons why they couldn’t use a public cloud: IT won’t support it, security is an issue, they have specific architectures needed, and so on. Instead of trying to convince them otherwise, I told them to pause for a second, and I asked them if they were a startup building this type of solution, would they build their own data center or put it on the cloud? The answer from everyone was “Put it on the cloud.” My next question: “Okay, what do we need to do to get there?”

My clients were constraining themselves because of their existing frame of reference and beliefs around that. If they were starting from scratch, they would start in the cloud and work through the security and architecture challenges. The solution wouldn’t be constrained by the existing environment.

To see things from a different perspective, sometimes you need to change the lens people are looking through.

To see things from a different perspective, sometimes you need to change the lens people are looking through.

2. Play with the constraints

Sometimes it’s helpful to brainstorm a problem without worrying about traditional constraints like the budget or internal politics. Start with the ideal solution and explore how you can work to make it happen. Once you have the vision and your team is aligned around it, your desire to work through the constraints and map out the steps to get there is much higher. If you get mired in the small first steps, you will never have people supporting the vision and the ultimate goal.

On the other hand, imposing constraints can also stimulate creative thinking. Suppose a team has a radical idea which they think will lead to a tremendous new business opportunity, and they want $1 million and six months to address it. Challenge them to run a small pilot – with only three weeks and $50,000 budget – to prove the value of the idea. You might be surprised by what they come up with.

3. Look beyond the first obstacle

People often point to one particular issue as a roadblock when there is much more to the problem. One simple approach is to ask, “If that problem was overcome, what would be our next challenge?” Asking that question, repeatedly if necessary, is the only way to understand the root challenges of a problem.

My team once told me the reason we weren’t moving fast enough on a project was because of purchasing constraints. By drilling down, we discovered that purchasing was only part of the challenge, as the contracting methods that the legal department forced us to use didn’t fit the circumstances.

But we didn’t stop there. Ultimately, we uncovered our root challenge: Our people lacked the technical knowledge and confidence to fully grasp the new approach being proposed by a partner. Even if we removed all those other constraints, we would not have been able to execute without uncovering this too late to mitigate the challenge.

Instead of fixing the “purchasing problem” and getting nowhere, asking the right questions led us to fix what needed fixing and concentrate on the root challenge. Gaining further insights from the partner, educating our teams more, and making it a learning opportunity created much greater value for us.

People have a habit of taking an opinion, or a limited understanding, at face value without exploring whether this position has any basis in fact.

4. Confirm what you think you know

People have a habit of taking an opinion, or a limited understanding, at face value without exploring whether this position has any basis in fact. This is usually not done intentionally, but it’s just how people communicate when they want others to see their perspective. To work through this, I double-check people’s assumptions on a topic by asking about the source of their information.

In a discussion about continuous delivery (CI/CD), a client lead recently stated that integration of two well-known open source tools was not possible. Knowing this wasn’t true, I asked the client to clarify why they believed this and where they had heard about this issue. Turns out they had never personally looked into it and instead just took what someone on their team had told them. While the person wasn’t happy to be corrected in front of their peers, it helped the team members see that they needed to dig a little deeper and modify their approach to validating what they were told.

Asking the right questions is not just about “Why are things green or red?” It’s about thinking creatively about the challenges and constraints. Strong leaders need to be able to ask questions to get to the root problem and ask questions that spark an insightful response. A leader must challenge their organization and people to broaden their points of view and bring new ideas and thoughts to the table.

Lastly, it is also about engagement - getting the team to be open and transparent about the challenges they are facing and opportunities for improvement, which brings people together to learn and achieve more than possible individually. Creative questions allow for innovative solutions and will ultimately build a more creative and resilient team.

[ Get The Open Organization Workbook, a free download with advice from more than 25 experts on building transparent, collaborative organizations. ]

Ryan Talbott is responsible for Business & Technology in the US Midwest and Europe for Altimetrik. Over the course of his career, he has built a track record of developing business and IT strategies and creating, inspiring and leading high-performance teams.