5 steps to effective problem solving within teams

A “single-question format” should be used when evaluating workplace issues. This method can help employees avoid letting emotions influence their problem-solving skills.

Working in teams can be enjoyable, but it can also be frustrating when problems emerge. Balancing the personal vs. professional line can stymie problem solving efforts and for many, environmental considerations such as team politics or employee tenure can cause us to ignore issues. Overcoming this can be difficult and like any experience, negative experiences can dramatically impact the outcomes a team produces. 

Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson provide a framework that applies to both work-related problems and conflicts that occur within teams. LaFasto and Larson have coined this framework “The Single-Question Format.” While there is no one right framework for solving every problem, the Single-Question Format is applicable to professional and team problems. 

The Single-Question Format

  1. Identify the problem.

If asked to drill down the problem in front of you to one key problem, what would that be? Once the problem has been identified, how could you phrase it into a question? 

For example, if my problem was narrowed down to timeliness, a question I could ask would be, “How can our workflow be improved so we can meet our deadlines?”

By turning the problem into an open-ended question, we can remove some of the defensiveness that may emerge if the problem was addressed by saying something such as, “We missed another deadline. Why can’t anyone get their job done on time!?” 

  1. Create a collaborative setting.

When working through a problem, whether it be task related or team related, ensure there is agreement to consider the following:

  • Invite and listen to all points of view
  • Remain fact-based in judgement
  • Be tough on the issue, not each other
  • Put aside any personal agenda

When setting expectations around how problems will be addressed and resolved, it is important to discuss any assumptions or biases. For example, using the problem of timeliness, we can ask questions such as:

  • What assumptions are we making on this problem?
  • What barriers do we have that could prevent us from solving this problem? 
  • What experiences are informing our perceptions of this problem? 

Asking questions around assumptions and biases helps bring to light the barriers that may not be visible to others on the team. 

  1. Identify and analyze the issue.

Before responding to the single issue, discuss what additional issues are connected to the problem. Using timeliness, we can ask:

  • What do we think is causing these timeliness issues?
  • What processes do we need to look at?
  • What knowledge or training are we lacking around being timelier? 

When we identify the additional issues around the one problem, we invite perceptions from all those involved which opens more considerations around what is causing the problem. 

  1. Identify possible solutions.

When teams and employees are constantly faced with work-related issues, complaining and frustration can become common, thus making it difficult to identify solutions. 

For any problem that has been identified, consider two to three solutions for that problem. The solutions don’t need to be perfect, so brainstorm away. The goal is to shift our mindset to becoming solution focused. 

With the timeliness issue, what are some possible solutions?

  • Make sure everyone knows all deadlines and what they are supposed to be doing.
  • Build in a buffer so there are a few extra days before the actual deadline.

Be open to hearing what others are offering as solutions. There may be an idea you can use to help solve the problem in front of you.  

  1. Resolve the single question. 

Now that you have done the work to identify the problem, considered any assumptions, focused on the facts, and identified solutions, you can determine potential solutions. 

It can be easy to fall back on the saying, “We have tried that before and it didn’t work.” Be careful about letting that stop the brainstorming. More than likely, the situation may be different, employees may be different, the expectations may be different. Challenge yourself to commit to thinking through each available solution. 

Finally, if you are really struggling, ask others who may not be on your team or even in your line of work. The additional insight might inspire new thinking around how to address the problem. 

In today’s workplace, we are constantly moving from one problem to the next. Having a framework like the One Single-Question Format can help us slow down, think through the real issue, identify solutions, and make informed decisions that will hopefully provide a solution effective enough that the problem does not re-emerge.