Why Fewer Consultants are Using Problem-Solving

A group problem-solving using the S.O.S. technique.

The default method for solving problems, Problem-Solving, contains a fatal flaw sending consultants and their clients down the wrong path. To increase business performance, problem-solving needs to be removed from leadership and consulting toolkits.

An extreme statement? Perhaps, but the reason is simple.

Define Problem-Solving

First, let’s ensure we agree how problem-solving works and avoid dictionary misalignment. In the most basic terms, you describe a problem, for example, “X is broken”, respond with a list of potential solutions to fix X, then use a process for deciding which solution or combination of solutions to act on.

  • “We should replace part Y.”
  • “We should repair part Y.”
  • “We should replace component Z that includes part Y.”
  • “We should take the Y out of the spare unit and see if that works.”
  • “We should throw the whole X thing away and buy a new one.”

Unfortunately, this approach is invalid when the problem to be solved is one shared by two or more people – which covers just about every time a business leader, manager, or consultant needs to problem-solve.

Individually Rational

Each potential solution suggested by a group member is logical and rational, at least to the person submitting it. Their fellow problem-solvers may agree. However, like-mindedness does not equal correctness.

Or there is disagreement about the suggestions being made:

  • “No, let’s not waste time on the one in the spare unit, let’s just invest in a new X.”
  • “No, an hour stripping it apart to discover the real issue could mean a quick fix. Let’s do that first.”
  • “No, it’s just Y, let’s just get in and replace it.”

The group must now converge on a solution they can all endorse. Perhaps the consultant nudges them towards ‘the right answer.’

There may be a feeling of success, but just as with the situation where they naturally agreed with the suggested solution, resolving their disagreement and reaching consensus only means alignment around what to do, not that the solution is the correct.

Which, too often, it isn’t.

Flawed Solutions

Let’s take the following management consulting example:

Problem: We are 13th in the market.

Potential Solutions:

  • “Change our pricing.”
  • “Change the product mix.”
  • “Shift the distribution channels.”
  • “Conduct a rebranding exercise.”
  • “Accept it and expand into an adjacent market.”
  •  and other potential actions.

Again, all logical and rational actions which might solve the problem.

The consultant may have inspired the client team into further-out-of-the-box thinking and offered additonal options to consider:

  • “Buy the market leader.”
  • “Roll up the smaller players.”
  • “Turn your software into open-source available for free and switch to be a services company.”

The group can now apply sorting, grouping, and ranking to come up with the best way to move up and out of 13th place.

(Some will say this is wrong, and the correct solution is to conduct root-cause analysis and find the source of the problem, then problem-solve that. But this is no better; just a delaying tactic. Root cause analysis may more accurately define the problem, say, that management is not willing to invest sufficiently in R&D and marketing, but when they apply problem-solving to that problem – coming up with a list of potential actions to stop management under-investing – they run into the same flaw.)

Problem-Solving’s Business Flaw

Our research showed that when the team was told the problem that they are 13th in the marketplace and requested to solve the problem, they each had a view (with varying degrees of clarity and conviction) of where those actions should take them:

  • One person was making suggestions intended to get them into the Top 10 within 2 years.
  • One colleague was aiming to get to the Top 5 in 5 years.
  • Another colleague was thinking how to get into the Top 3 in 3 years.
  • And another colleague had no specific thought on where it would take them; they were just being a good team player and thinking of things to do solve the problem.
  • And the consultant facilitating the problem-solving didn’t have any specific outcome in mind other than to help get the client somewhere better than 13th. After all, the client didn’t say, “Get us to #1”; they asked her to solve the problem.

Do you see the flaw? The group was not solutioning how to attain the same future state. Their means were aimed at different ends.

Where Problem-Solving Works

Problem-solving is only appropriate when used by one person for one person’s needs. Let’s take this example:

Problem: I am hungry.

Potential Solutions:

  • Wait until the next meal.
  • Buy a chocolate doughnut.
  • Blend a kale smoothie.

It is my problem, to which I can, alone, find a solution that works best for me. Unlike business problems,

  • There is no consequential impact on others, and, 
  • No role for others in my decision-making, and,
  • Nor does the solution require action by others to produce the desired outcome.

In such situations, my brain develops and evaluates my multiple, competing objectives such as:

  • pleasure of the eating experience,
  • effort required to feel satiated
  • elapsed time to becoming satiated
  • short and long term health consequences
  • level of cost

in a nano-second.

This led me to buy the two doughnuts now and promise to cook grilled chicken and boiled kale for dinner to compensate.

You might make a wiser choice, but that is OK, this was just about me.

Solving Problems Involving Two or More People

Problem-solving’s lack of a shared outcome towards which to solution is a problem because SchellingPoint’s analysis of over 330 organizational initiatives showed that groups are never fully aligned on target outcomes. On average, a business team with a shared situation will express 18 desired outcomes but only agree on 5.

A ‘good’ problem-solving facilitator may bring a group’s list of solutions to a consensus path forward, or a leader may step in and dictate the path forward, but both approaches leave silent resistance and compliance, compromising genuine commitment to the solution.

Therefore, replace two-step problem-solving with three-step situation-outcome-solution (S-O-S):

  1. Situation

Describe the current or projected situation, and the negative consequence of not responding to it. When all persons agree with these two aspects of the situation, conduct step 2.

  1. Outcomes

Define the required outcome by flipping the negative situation 180 degrees into a positive outcome. For example:

  • “We can’t do this” becomes “Ensure we can do this.”
  • “They won’t do that” becomes “Ensure they do that.”
  • “Bad thing Z will happen” becomes “Ensure bad thing Z never happens.”

Convergence on the required outcome may occur naturally. When it does not, ask for the the objectives driving people’s preferences. When those are listed and ranked, you select the right outcome(s) for the group, and their organization with whose strategy the outcome(s) should be vertically aligned.

When all persons endorse the required outcome(s), conduct step 3.

  1. Solution

At this point, with the context of a target outcome defined, the solutions offered are more specific and relevant rather than a litany of rational ideas with varying value to the outcome. Also, a positive side-effect is that our brain works well thinking how to flee problems but performs better ideating how to create positive futures.

Practitioner’s report that groups naturally align far more often and faster with less need for facilitation.


When does S-O-S not work?

This Situation – Outcomes – Solution (S-O-S) method works for topics large and small. It has been successfully applied to thousands of problems, from large situations, such as “We have a broken merger” to relatively small situations, such as “Staff joining the R&D team are taking too long to come up to speed.”

However, S-O-S is not as simple as Problem-Solving. You have to define the required Outcome(s) and confirm each group member agrees with them. People who find one minute to be 59 seconds too long and prefer to ‘get straight to it’, don’t want to take the time to get it right, seeing better future outcomes as a vague, intangible concept.

If my argument hasn’t convinced you of the personal and client ROI, try it on the next three problems you are involved in solving. Think of yourself not as a problem-solver but as an outcomes-generator.


Out of Scope

You can use S-O-S solo to solve personal problems such as deciding between a groaning stomach, a doughnut or a kale smoothie. Especially next time you suspect you are about to make a poor choice. However, you are on your own; we only take support calls for business uses ;-).

I would enjoy hearing about your experiences replacing P-S with S-O-S. Please send examples to mtaylor@schellingpoint.com for possible inclusion in an update to this post. Or send me situation statement and outcome proposals you want vetting.  (Hint: New practitioners’ most frequent error is including action verbs in the outcome statements.)

To learn more about this method and others in the Strategic Collaboration Core Skills curriculum, see here.

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