June 2002

What do you do when you are in a room with several technical geniuses who can't agree on how to solve a problem?

This was the question that William "Bud" Werner put to the 24 people who attended the June 19 NJSPIN meeting at Telcordia's RRC facility in Piscataway. While going around the room during introductions, Bud asked each SPIN member to describe the problem solving model favored by their organizations. What quickly became apparent was that most organizations don't seem to have an "official" problem-solving model. Bud observed that various ad-hoc approaches to problem solving will generally work 99.9% of the time; his specialty is getting people to address the other .1% of those problems in a more structured manner than they may be used to. His talk on "Critical Thinking for Leaders" presented a broad overview on how to accomplish this.

The problem-solving process must be a step-by-step approach that is repeatable, has a specific end-result, and logically flows from beginning to end. However, it is important to realize that no model should "make" a decision. The model should only be used to get data to the people who will make a decision. An independent facilitator is instrumental in culling this data and making sure it gets to where it is needed.

In any problem situation, issues must be recognized, separated, and prioritized. Bud spent considerable time on the prioritization aspect, citing the often-heard maxim that can be roughly paraphrased as "all issues are a top priority." In order to prevent the gridlock that can occur when trying to address every issue at once, Bud's practice is to write down each of the issues separately and to get each interested party to justify their relative importance in front of their peers. A type of scoring technique can make the prioritization of issues flow more smoothly, though care must be taken to keep the scoring process itself from being manipulated for political purposes. The best way to keep this from happening is to have an independent party perform the scoring.

Risks must also be factored into the problem-solving process. This involves more that simply creating contingency plans. It means adding triggers to the project schedule in such a way that the project team knows when to use the contingency plans.

Among the anecdotes that Bud used to illustrate the use of this problem-solving techniques were several case studies from the nuclear industry.

Business Items:
Next month's meeting will be held at the Telcordia RRC facility. The topic for the presentation will be software testing, and will be given by Jim Heil.