In my experience in the business world, which has at times been deeply worrying, prompted me to grow, and helped me to develop my moral sense, I have learned a great deal. One thing I have learned about in more depth than I thought possible was problem-solving. I was able to experience the problem-solving strategies of myriad individuals of many ages (18-80) and many cultural backgrounds to help them identify and overcome the gaps in their approaches to problem-solving.
I noticed that many of them did not have a very comprehensive set of problem-solving skills, and so I developed a course on problem-solving to help them build those skills and cement them with lots of hands-on practice. I plan to re-develop that course at some point, but in the meantime I have some thoughts about how conflict is created in an organization by both uniformity and diversity in the problem-solving approaches used by its members.
Specifically, in the past three years as I have worked in the IT field, I have noticed a persistent pattern of conflicts arising between people who fall into two basic categories of problem-solving approaches. As a disclaimer, I realize that this is not a good taxonomy of problem-solving approaches and that problem-solving approaches can be described along many an axis. That said, I will offer the following two approaches for consideration:
- Systematic problem-solvers approach problems by default as being soluble by the application of physical or mental (or both) tools in process-based or methodical ways.
- Collaborative problem-solvers approach problems by default as being soluble by reaching out to and collaborating with other persons to find an agreed-upon solution.
The collaborative problem-solvers often don’t understand why the systematic problem-solvers are prone to not reaching out to others when there is a problem, and likewise the systematic problem-solvers often don’t understand why the collaborative problem-solvers are prone to reaching out to them for what seems like every little problem. They are both simply using their default strategy for problem-solving, and this does tend to generate conflict because we human beings are not particularly good at understanding the limitations of our own approach of the benefits of the other approach. What aggravates the conflict is that we human being are very good at understanding the benefits of our own approach and the limitations of the other approach, which can lead to us being very condescending about how stupid others are for not just using our obviously correct approach.
This conflict tends to break along certain lines within the organization. For example, IT and accounting employees tend to be systematic problem-solvers, and managers and human resources employee tend to be collaborative problem-solvers. Obviously, not every employee in those groups will fit into those categories, and that can create internal conflicts with a department. In addition, the complete lack of diversity in problem-solving approaches can become a serious problem when there is perfectly normal human in-group bias at work, a bias that leads us to be more likely to hire people who fit in to our group.
When your business only hires collaborative problem-solvers, who performs the tasks that require systematic problem-solving, and how well can they actually perform them? When your business only hires systematic problem-solvers, who performs the tasks that require collaborative problem-solving, and how well is that going to work out? Isn’t the disjunction between their job duties and their problem-solving approach going to lead to mediocre performance and be aggravated by the stress of having to work outside of their natural skill set for most of the day?
So how do we turn this quagmire of conflict and inefficiency into something that can be constructive for our organization?
- Be strategic about building diverse teams by hiring collaborative problem-solvers for the positions that require using that approach most of the time (e.g. HR employees) and hiring systematic problem-solvers for the positions that require using that approach most of the time (e.g. IT employees).
- Hire very carefully for positions that require a strong blend of both approaches, such as an Chief Technology Officer or a Database Analyst for the Human Resources department. The employee needs to be at least competent in both approaches and understand the value of both.
- Build an awareness within your organization of which type of problem-solving approach each individual uses, making sure to emphasize that both are valuable and that both are not effective for solving all problems.
- Cultivate a capacity for both approaches within yourself so that you can better understand your employees and set expectations that are appropriate for them and their role, and also so that you can help your employees develop that same capacity so as to improve their effectiveness.
In this way, we can turn a serious weakness for our organization into a great asset so that we can do business efficiently and reduce productivity losses from interpersonal conflict. We can transform an organization of individuals who cling to either their collaborative problem-solving or systematic problem-solving approaches into an organization that has an integrated systematically collaborative and collaboratively systematic approach to problem-solving, an organization in which our collaboration is process-driven and methodical and we collaborate effectively to use our methods and processes to drive our business.