To Improve Engagement, Eliminate Your Problem Analysis Virus.

Much good work is being done to create organizations that have engaged leadership, employees, and customers through non-hierarchical (even holacratic*) approaches. Increasingly driven by creativity and self-governing processes, these businesses stand out in intensely competitive markets or sectors.

Meanwhile, in some organizations – even those with an eye on the engagement approach – the problem analysis approach lives on. After all, civilization was built on solving problems, wasn’t it?!

Virus problem monkey
The problem virus monkey

We have been indoctrinated to believe that you must know the cause before you can do something about the problem – Insoo Kim Berg

If we want more enlightened leadership, employee engagement, non-hierarchical structures, creativity, etc., there’s one more thing to put on the forefront of the organization’s agenda – developing a solutions culture. The goal is to move away from, or at least reframe, the people who are experts in defining the problem, fascinating though they may be.

Problem focused experts in your organization are a virus.

Here’s an example to illustrate the virus at work – think about global climate change. The glaciers are melting. Scientists have captured, examined and analyzed the data they need to help explain the root of the problem and its consequences. These scientific experts have also shared their insight into the problem with the general public, we’re well aware of what’s happening. Yet, with all that information, understanding and concern, we are not making much progress. We’re driving the scientists crazy. Why? Because we’re not clear on what we want collectively. The solution to global warming, for some, is to simply reduce our carbon emissions. Others suggest the solution is to increase forest density or put a stop to our consumption mania. Of course, there are others who simply deny the existence of the problem – their solution is to extract more oil faster so they can pay for proof that the scientists are wrong. And so on…

So, you’ve figured out the problem. Don’t build the wrong solution.

The problem focused folks came up with green energy – wind farms, solar power generation – but that’s proven to be an expensive mistake.

Now that you’ve analyzed the problem, assume that the perfect solution will become obvious.

Actually, no. Solutions built on problems are almost always less than optimal. In the problem solving quest, problem analysis is not the issue – it’s assuming that the situation is dire because the experts in the defining problem must be right. They may well be right, but so what?! That’s what slows down progress, especially in human systems. The problem experts:

  • Take credit for defining the problem and force solutions that work exclusively for them
  • Prevent listening and blame others for the situation
  • View people with alternative solutions as less competent than themselves
  • Undermine strategic efforts at engaged leadership and employee motivation and customer focus

What’s the option to the problem virus? And why is a Solutions Culture preferable?

1. Think this way all the time, namely: a) Ask ‘what’s working?’ b) Ask ‘what do we want to be better/different in the future?’ c) Pick some small visible action steps towards that future (see yourself learning).

2. Be clear, this is NOT superficial positive thinking. It’s purposeful thinking about what you want instead of the problem.

3. By all means do the problem analysis. Take it seriously, not literally. Think of it as, a) clarification of what you don’t want to happen and, b) a light to help guide you to decide on what you want to do instead.

4. The most stubborn problem experts will protest. They’ve got a lot to give up, so don’t expect miracles. They will learn something new, but not at the same pace as those building solutions.

5. Avoid worrying if what we want is wrong. It’s more useful to fail-forward and learn early than to chew up significant time and resources with analytics that can be equally wrong. There’s plenty of thinking on the value of making mistakes.

The path to success is paved with mistakes. Great mistake-makers win. Lousy mistake-makers lose. – Dan Rockwell

6. Get unstuck and move forward towards even greater organizational engagement.


So, in building the engaged organization, how do you show the problem virus out the door?



How to get understanding if not agreement

Matt Ridley, the rational optimist, has a wish about, ‘economists versus ecologists and the limits to growth’:

‘If I could have one wish for the Earth’s environment, it would be to bring together the two tribes—to convene a grand powwow of ecologists and economists. I would pose them this simple question and not let them leave the room until they had answered it: How can innovation improve the environment?’ *

ecologists and economistsHow would we use Solution Focus to transform the debate at Matt’s powwow of ecologists and economists?

First of all, lets’ lower expectations and instead consider where we could achieve understanding if not agreement. After all, the powwow would be full of experts anxious to prove that their theory was correct or, at least, superior to the others.

Winners & LosersTo avoid a winners and losers debate Matt’s powwow of experts might apply this thinking:


4 new and better steps for getting expert agreement … and make progress on change.

Using a Solution Focus approach, the powwow participants might also:

Prior to the powwow, the experts might agree on desired outcomes for the event, i.e., imagine what success looks like

During the session, having actively listened to each other, take small steps forward

After the powwow, take what they have in common and publish it (vs. what they found wrong in each other’s ‘arguments’)

Why understanding if not agreement?

  • The issues are complex and the views are based on a multiplicity of expert analysis of the problems.
  • Letting go of long cherished ideas, albeit fear-based, is hard.
  • Reframing the ideas by asking better questions to open up listening and finding common ground helps make progress.

* Why most resources don’t run out – Matt RidleyMake progress visual copy



4 Concrete Steps to get Diverse Experts to Agree on Change

First, the old recipe for getting agreement:

1: Gather cross-sector experts to talk about the problem and boil the ocean.

The problem with understanding something is that it gives us the illusion you can fix it. – Hart Blanton

2: Make sure they are speaking from their expert language silos, albeit it may sound like they are using English.

Winners – Losers

3: Expect adversarial perspectives by assuming that there may be winners and losers.

4. Make sure they feel under pressure to come up with breakthrough thinking even though they are pessimistic it will happen.

5: Get the experts to agree on the problem and still like each other in the morning.

4 new and better steps for getting expert agreement … and make progress on change.

Be the convener of better questions about the past, present and future.

Step 1: Clarify the problem and give the task some context with insightful analysis and storytelling about experiences from different perspectives. Expect and respect disagreement. Help the experts feel they are heard and engaged, and are on an equal footing.

People are trying to collaborate, just not each other’s way. Jim Duval

Step 2: Ask about exceptions to the problem. Assume that among the dense undergrowth of intractable and unsolvable problems there are things already working. Ask ‘Where have we seen examples of solutions that already exist?’ Seek details on the stories about exceptions and weave them into hopeful signs that things can change.

Change is happening all the time…our job is to notice useful change and amplify it – Gregory Bateson

Step 3: Let the experts unleash the potential of their collective knowledge and wisdom. Describe the future without the problem present. Explore possibilities from the perspectives of each of the key stakeholders. Leverage diversity. Endorse and amplify ideas about what’s possible. Ask ‘Imagine Harry Potter’s magic wand transports us into the future and the problem no longer dominates, what would each of the stakeholders now be doing?’ Let them see that they are speaking the same language about the future.

A powerful question alters all thinking and behaving that occurs afterwards. Marie Goldberg

Converge diverse views into strategic priorities

Step 4: Consolidate the rich diverse view of the future into a few strategic priorities. Think about partnership and consortiums to deliver the strategies, not silos. Be very clear on small steps towards making progress on the priorities.

Water the flowers, not the weeds. Fletcher Peacock


What other ways can we help experts agree on the future we want?


Tips on other better ways to convene and agree from my book ‘Monkey-Free Meetings’.