Magazine article Training & Development

How to Run a Problem-Solving Meeting

Magazine article Training & Development

How to Run a Problem-Solving Meeting

Article excerpt

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy always had the power to return home just by clicking the heels of her ruby shoes together three times.

Of course, she didn't know she had that power until the Wizard told her.

In many organizations, teams and problem-solving groups also have the power to get the results they need. But talk to many that have used those forums, and you're likely to get a stream of invectives. To ensure excellent outcomes, it would help if each team had a wizard, better known as a facilitator.

Management usually invites a facilitator to help a team meet its objectives. Facilitators can be external consultants or internal staff members. They need not be technical experts, but they should be experts in group process - how a group conducts business - rather than in the tasks or business at hand.

For example, a team may meet to discuss strategic planning, which is a business issue. But group process examines how the team addresses strategic planning: who communicates with whom, how decisions are made, how responsibilities are assigned, who leads the group, and how the team uses its time. High-performance teams monitor both their results and process. That's the only way they can ensure they are doing the right things the right way.

Typically, managers try to perform the roles of manager and facilitator - a difficult, if not impossible, task. Facilitators should not have an investment in any particular solution. Their neutrality opens the door for innovative strategies.

Problem-solving meetings are different from regular staff meetings. They usually involve a task force or "tiger team" composed of content experts from different areas of the organization. Typically, a problem-solving team will work until it finds a solution. It may meet several hours or several months, depending on the problem. Once they agree on a solution, team members assist the rest of the organization in implementing it.

Every meeting has three stages: preparing and planning, conducting, and evaluating. A facilitator must manage each stage effectively.

Stage I. preparing and planning

Preparation is critical to a successful meeting. Prior to the meeting, the facilitator should meet with the team's manager to discuss which topics to cover and the expected outcomes. If necessary, the facilitator should help the manager clarify the meeting's objectives. For example, if the goal is to downsize a work unit, management should be clear about what it wants the team to accomplish. Is it to determine the number of people to cut? The percentage of cuts? The organizational structure after the cuts? The people who will be affected? Or, all of the above? If management is unclear about desired results, the chance of success is greatly reduced.

During this stage, it's essential to consider team membership. Too often, the wrong people are invited to participate - such as when team members are selected for political reasons rather than their expertise. Clearly, that's a waste of time for the individuals and the team. In fact, it's likely to be a distraction. Only people who can help a team accomplish its objectives should participate.

It's also important to consider the number of team members. Teams are most effective when the members can communicate with each other and when each has an opportunity for "air time." Teams of six to 12 members are best; any larger, and it's difficult for everyone to contribute.

Establishing an agenda is another critical planning activity. (See the sample agenda on page 12.) Distribute the agenda to all team members several days before the meeting, and ask for their input. That gives them a chance to contribute to the meeting content, and helps them commit to the task. It also gives them time to prepare.

From the facilitator's standpoint, preparation involves gathering the information, materials, supplies, and handouts for accomplishing team goals. …

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