Tag Archives: problem solving

Stop and Think

By, Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

When you have a problem to solve or decision to make do you take the time to Stop and Think?

As simple as it sounds, most people don’t take the time to Stop and Think about the problem they are trying to tackle or the decision they are trying to make and end up wasting a lot of time. The excuses people make include:

“I already know what the cause of the problem is, or I have a good Idea which choice I should make.”

• “I don’t have time! If I stopped to think about every problem or decision I have I would never solve any of them.”

• “I never consciously thought about it!”

Stop and Think will help make you more efficient in your problem-solving and decision-making and you will realize many benefits. Among them are:

• It will clear your head from the cacophony of daily business noise to focus on the specific situation needing to be addressed.

• It allows your brain to question what your “gut” may be telling you is the best course of action and prevent you from making a snap decision – getting you to use facts over your opinions.

• It is a wise investment of your time. People attribute Ben Franklin with the quote, “Haste, makes waste.” Four or five minutes taken on the front end will save you hours of rework repairing a snap decision that was bad or the incorrect solution to a problem.

• It minimizes your chances of falling into the time-wasting syndrome of “analysis paralysis” because you will take the time to define a list of that data you determine is necessary to arrive at the best outcome and identify the specific sources from which that data will be gathered.

• Finally, when working with others, consider the purpose of Stop and Think similar to a huddle in football before a play. When the huddle breaks the players go to the line knowing what their individual responsibilities are to successfully execute the play called by the coach.

Stop and Think is a critical thinking process. Characteristic of all critical thinking processes there is a list of logical tasks defined by a series of questions you should ask yourself. The answers to those questions help you to formulate your game-plan for tackling your situation. Here is a look at some of the questions you must answer and tasks you must accomplish before running out onto the problem solving and decision-making field.

1. Have you created a clear description of your problem, decision or goal? John Dewey, an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform, said, “A problem well-defined, is a problem half solved.” What he was referring to is that when you take the time up-front to develop a concise problem or decision statement it helps you to eliminate areas you should avoid because those areas have nothing to do with your current challenge. I.T. professionals consider this as avoiding “scope creep.” That’s where your workload expands into doing work not directly associated with your primary task or wasting time to gather information which – in the end – proves to be irrelevant.

2. How does this relate to my goal, objective or mission? Answering this question will allow you and your team to tie the successful resolve directly to your overall purpose. When you do this, you will recognize the level of importance that this decision of solution has to the overall progress of your project or job.

3. What is the urgency and risk associated with this dilemma? Prioritizing tasks is an important concept in managing one’s time and project plan. By identifying the issue’s urgency and risk you will be able to balance this problem or decision among the many other things you need to accomplish.

4. How much time do you believe will be needed to solve this problem or make this decision? Everyone works well when deadlines are established and known by all. Create that deadline. If not, you will find yourself viewing procrastination as an option. It shouldn’t be!

5. Define your criteria in advance? Establishing criteria in advance allows you to pinpoint the specific information you will need to gather which prevents you from drowning in a sea of information and wasting time in that dreadful time waste known as analysis paralysis. Your criteria will also help you frame up your problem or decision and identify the source where that information can be obtained.

So, with your next problem or decision resist the urge to jump in with both feet. Stand at the edge – Stop and Think – and carefully map-out the game plan you will follow with an accurate and concise assessment. You will save a lot of time and frustration.
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Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on this blog, Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Has Brainstorming Become the IBM Selectric® Typewriter of Creativity?

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

Is it time to send brainstorming to the Smithsonian Museum to put on display with other antiquated business tools such as typewriters, overhead projectors, slide carousels and fax machines?

I believe if advertising executive Alex Osborn – who is known as the father of brainstorming – were still around even he’d be disappointed that brainstorming has become ineffective in today’s business world. Its ineffectiveness has many business consultants and academicians encouraging companies to no longer conduct brainstorming sessions because they are a waste of time. In his book, Your Creative Power (1940), Osborn outlined in detail how to brainstorm and included guidelines with an extensive flowchart. Unfortunately, over time the basics he described have been ignored or overlooked and now cause many business people to roll their eyes at the thought of participating in yet another brainstorming meeting.

Osborn’s concept – and the ultimate success he derived as an ad exec from the process – was based on the theory that if you brought a group of people together from different backgrounds and with different experiences you will end up with a wealth of great ideas. It makes sense. However, a study conducted at Yale University in 1958 (and many more studies since then) revealed that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone.

So, should we throw brainstorming away? Is it as outdated as typewriters in today’s business world? Or, can we revive brainstorming and make it a productive critical thinking tool once again that spurs creativity? These are serious questions that we must ask especially since many work groups still engage in brainstorming sessions to solve problems and develop new ideas but are sadly disappointed by the results. Here are some suggestions to salvage and reinvigorate Osborn’s original brainstorming technique:

Limit the size of the group – Keep your brainstorming session to seven people or fewer. Many times if the group is larger, some people will take advantage of the “free ride effect” or “social loafing” and sit back and watch other people do all the work. In short, they sit there texting or playing Candy Crush® and don’t participate.

Create a “creative environment” – If you want people to be creative you have to set the mood which makes them feel creative. You wouldn’t expect a group of chefs to prepare a gourmet meal by putting them into studio apartment-sized kitchen with limited pots and pans and cutlery. You need to put them in a facility that allows them to showcase their talents. The same holds true for a management team. Most people are running from one meeting to another and by putting them into a typical stale corporate conference room and expect them to be creative is futile. The furniture and the walls are screaming at them to “think inside the box” and maintain the company’s status quo. Plan on preparing the meeting room in advance to elicit excitement and cause a “paradigm shift” in thinking. Consider the following:

  • Rearrange the furniture – or move the furniture to the hallway and have everyone sit on the floor.
  • Bring in toys for the meeting participants to play with, such as Play-Dough®, Nerf Balls® or other Dollar Store-type trinkets.
  • Make everyone write with crayons on construction paper or large colored Sticky Notes®.
  • Bring in music which will help people relax and forget about tasks – for a little while – that they need to do when they leave your meeting.

Set ground rules – Don’t start by saying, “Here’s the problem. What ideas do you have to solve it?” Implement some of Osborn’s original guidelines which led to his success:

  • Set a goal for the number of ideas you want to identify and a time limit for the actual brainstorming. This creates a sense of urgency and a deadline.
  • Defer judgement during the actual brainstorming session. Don’t comment on any idea until the brainstorming part of the meeting is over.
  • No “Killer Statements” (i.e. “That is a stupid idea.” “You’re out of your mind,” etc.)
  • Encourage “freewheeling.” Ideas that are way “out of the box” can sometime yield way to more “grounded” solutions.
  • No idea is a bad idea – Capture EVERY idea uttered on a flip chart or white board.

Schedule time to warm-up – Professional athletes don’t just run out onto the field (or court) and just begin playing. They warm-up and stretch. Give your team a chance to warm-up by brainstorming on an unrelated, non-business problem, such as, “How many ideas can you come up with for empty tin cans?” This will get the creative engine in their mind revved up and prepare them for the primary concern about which you called the meeting.

Don’t select an idea in the same meeting you created it – You don’t have the facts available to you in the meeting to decide if an idea will actually work or not. Assign ideas to people to gather relevant information so the team can accurately assess the ideas at a later meeting. If not, you may eliminate ideas based upon assumptions, opinions and guess from alleged subject matter experts or “authority” in the room.

Allow people a few minutes to brainstorm individually before opening the group brainstorming session – Introduce the problem and give people five minutes to brainstorm on their own. Then go around the room and record the ideas they identified. This will give the group a head start and get people thinking. Then open the floor up to the typical group brainstorming session.

When you go the extra mile and adhere to Osborn’s original concept, you too, can be as successful as he was and help avoid throwing brainstorming into the category of outdated business tools.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Critical Thinking Starts with an Open Mind

By Lou Quinto, Executive Coach and Speaker

I’ve spent a significant part of my career teaching and coaching executives in the area of critical thinking. A large portion of my work involves introducing formal processes – tools – such as SWOT Analysis, Deviation Analysis, Force Field Analysis, Fish Bone Diagrams and Affinity Diagrams to name a few. But just like the tools in a mechanic’s tool box, if you don’t use them properly you won’t get the job done correctly.

What I’ve discovered is that when it comes to solving problems, making decisions or creating strategic plans the processes you use require one important ingredient – an open mind. Without maintaining an open mind any formal process you use will amplify the old adage “garbage in, garbage out.”

What do I mean by that? Every critical thinking process is only as good as the facts that you put into it. And those facts, must include information and data that not only supports the perceived decision your gut tells you to make – or the cause of a problem you assume to be the root of your troubles –  it must also include data which contradicts your assumptions.

Most people, however, suffer from a common critical thinking malady called “information bias.” Information bias is seeking and selecting information or data that only supports your assumptions. Simply put, we avoid facts that go against our beliefs and experiences. To be good critical thinkers we must maintain an open mind. Being open minded means that we must not just hear, but listen, to facts that are opposite from our established beliefs.

At work, this would include listening to people in other departments who may not look at a decision or a problem through the same glasses as you do. For example, if you work in accounting you might only see a solution from a dollars and cents, or profit and loss perspective because that it what you have been educated and trained to do. It’s your job! Therefore, you could easily dismiss information and data from sales, marketing, operations or IT because those opinions may be more cavalier toward budgets and spending money to accomplish their goals. That’s their job!

At home, this might mean listening to your spouse, or your children more carefully to understand their frame of reference even though your gut may be screaming at you that what they are saying is wrong. Or, in this election year it may mean mean not relying on that cable news station that only reinforces your political views and watch another cable news show that you believe presents information and points-of-views that only represents “the other side.”

The root cause of “information bias” tends to come from our egos. Face it, nobody likes to think our beliefs and opinions are wrong. In these instances, human nature dictates that we take the “fight” response when what we believe to be true – or right – is challenged.

When I coach people on critical thinking I use the analogy that our minds are like attics, garages or basements – places we tend to store stuff of which we can’t or don’t want to let go. But just like our attic, garage or basement every now and then we need to purge our mind of information, experiences and beliefs that no longer fit; don’t work; is obsolete or outdated in order to make room for new information, new experiences and new beliefs.

So how do we become more open minded and begin the process of purging our brains of outdated or obsolete information and beliefs to make room for this new information? Here are some suggestions on ways to begin the process:

  1. Read more books or watch documentaries on subjects that you know nothing about. When we are introduced to subjects of which we know nothing about our brain tends to draw correlations to that new information with that which we already know. It helps us grasp a better understanding. It’s like standing in front of a mirror, holding up a piece of clothing, and asking yourself; “Does this fit or how do I look in it today?”
  2. Expand the nucleus of people with whom you associate. We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people. Introduce yourself to new people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Our natural temptation to “be part of the group” will cause us take in new information and listen to different perspectives in a “safe environment.”
  3. Enroll in class that challenges your natural talents and curiosity. For example, take a pottery or painting class – something you have never done. Performing the techniques to accomplish the art form will force you to think and act differently. In addition, there is a strong possibility you will interact with people that don’t share your knowledge and beliefs. This again will provide you with a “safe environment” to challenge your way of thinking. It may also spark an idea which might help you solve a pressing problem at work or at home.
  4. Focus on how you accept feedback, especially that which is intended to be constructive. Do you adapt the natural “fight” response? This means that you always want to justify why you did what you did regardless of other people’s suggestions on doing something a different way. If you do, then this might indicate a low level of mental willingness to accept new information or different points-of-view.

Information, technology and circumstances are constantly changing. Your ability – and willingness – to regularly consider new data and changing perspectives will help you become a better critical thinker.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Critical Thinking or Creativity: Which is Most Crucial

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

Imagine this, experts are divided on which skill is most important to business and personal success – critical (rational) thinking or creativity. It’s like watching FOX News and MSNBC report on the same event, but as usual, both reach different conclusions. Who can you trust?

So, which skill – critical thinking or creativity – is most important?

They both are! They’re two sides of the same coin.

Experts do agree that both critical and creative thinking are essential. Some even include creative thinking under the category of critical thinking. Why are both critical and creative thinking essential? To solve problems you must think deductively and rationally (critically) whereas in other instances you need to think expansively and innovatively (creatively). If you were to approach all problems from a purely rational, deductive manner, you would never exceed current levels of achievement. Conversely, if you were to approach all problems creatively, you would never understand why something wasn’t working and be able to take corrective action. Many problems require a blend of the two approaches. To focus on developing one and ignoring the other not only risks ineffective problem solving but it runs the risk of stifling “forward-looking” or “progressive” solutions and reactions.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him atlouquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Breaking Through Groupthink with Simple Questions

By Lou Quinto, Executive Coach and Speaker

How many times have you been in a meeting and have been afraid to say something because you believed it went against what the group was thinking? Or, worse yet, nobody in the meeting spoke up because everyone believed it’s not what the “authority” in the meeting (or residing in Mahogany Hall) desired.

It’s common place and happens far too often. In fact, it can set an organization up for failure or be an impediment to complete success.

This phenomenon is known as Groupthink. The group dynamic syndrome was identified and explained by social psychologist, Irving Janis in 1972. In his book, Victims of Groupthink, Janis outlines what he calls “Eight Symptoms of Groupthink.” In the situations described above, two of those symptoms are occurring. First, Self-Censorship. This is where an individual(s) withhold any doubts and deviations from what is believed to be the group’s perceived consensus. The second symptom is Direct Pressure on Dissenters. This is where members of the group believe that they are under pressure (both real and perceived) not to express arguments against any of the group’s or organization’s views.

In my work assisting clients to resolve problems, to make decisions and to develop strategy, I have personally witnessed bona fide “subject matter experts” sit quietly while they knew that the group’s final solution, decision or strategy was either extremely risky, or downright wrong. We are social creatures and one of our biggest fears is losing favor amongst our peers or being seen as someone that causes trouble or creates conflict. Therefore, our individual need for acceptance many times trumps what we know is best for the group or are keys necessary for its success. We protect our status by simply providing no opinion at all.

People who lead groups or facilitate meetings need to be keenly aware of this group dynamic. As I always tell my clients, you can’t judge a meeting by how few differences and conflicts the group had, but instead by how many a group had and most importantly how they dealt with or resolved the conflicts. If you had differences and conflicts then you had a great meeting. If you had none, then I suggest you look in a mirror because you have been blind to potential risks and failures.

The prescription to Groupthink that I offer my clients is a process that I have adapted from several different facilitation techniques. I call it the “PIVOTS Maneuver.” I coined the phrase from a debating tactic. During a debate a participant might clarify a question or stated position by “pivoting.” This involves listening to others’ opinions, understanding their position, and then finding a common goal in that opinion and convincing them that your solution to achieving the goal is the best by offering facts that are not present or were not considered by the other person.

PIVOTS is an acronym for a series of questions that permit individuals in the group to explore a solution, decision, or strategy from several different perspectives. By asking these questions you are “giving permission” to everyone to explore and offer answers to those questions in a “safe environment.” The key phrases in the previous sentence are “giving permission” and “safe environment.” When people believe that they have “permission” to speak up and that there will be no retribution or consequences, only then will they know the environment is “safe” to offer up differing opinions or contradicting facts.

Here are the PIVOTS questions:

PWhat are the Positives that can result from our solution, decision or strategy?

IWhat additional Ideas do you have regarding this solution, decision or strategy?

VWhat Vulnerabilities do you believe the group might face on account of this solution, decision or strategy?

OWhat Opinions – feelings or hunches – does this solution, decision or strategy conjure up in your mind?

T What Truths — facts — do we know that will support the solution, decision or strategy we are recommending?

SIn moving forward with this solution, decision or strategy; what are our potential next Steps or required actions?

Next time you’re leading a meeting and you detect Groupthink to be setting in, call time out and lead the group through these questions one-by-one and record every answer on a whiteboard or a flip chart so that everyone can see them. By “pivoting,” the symptoms of Groupthink will evaporate because you have encouraged the group members to turn over every stone and to explore every objection, fact or opinion. This facilitation technique can be successful to help “neutralize the intimidator” in the room and to also crack away at a silo-like or authoritarian culture that might exist throughout the entire organization.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Turning Negative Thinking Into Positive Results

By Lou Quinto, Executive Coach and Speaker

When my youngest daughter was in kindergarten, she was learning her numbers from 1-100. Her teacher sent home a newsletter with some games we could play with her at home that would help her in this learning quest. One of the games she suggested was “Guess the Number.” This is where you – the parent – think of a number in your head and your child has to guess what number you have selected.

“Alright Tess,” I said “Let’s play a game. (Over the years I have found children -and most adults – prefer to play games, than to do homework!) I am thinking of a number between 1 and 100. Your job is to ask me questions to figure out what that number is.”

She sat down next to me and with a huge smile expressing her excitement said, “OK, dad.”

Putting my hand to my forehead and massaging it as if I were actually rubbing the number into my head I said “O.K. I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 100… Got it…. Go!”

Using information of which she was confident, my daughter began by guessing. “Is it one?” No. “Is it two?” No. “Is it three?” Uhhhh, No!

I soon realized the game which I originally thought would end quickly could painfully involve 100 questions (99 of which would be wrong!) By the time she asked, “Is it 18?” it dawned on me that I didn’t have to use the number “65” that I had chosen. So I shouted, “Yes Tess, it’s 18!” We both clapped and I gave my five year-old daughter a hug for her Mensa-like accomplishment.

She was excited and so proud of her demonstration of superior intellect that she demanded we play again. So I obliged. This time when I told her that I had selected my number her first question was different than before. She didn’t start with, “Is it one?” Instead she asked, “Is it 18?” I realized how quickly she had learned a problem solving process that so many adults use to solve problems in their professional and personal lives, and that is going back to what it was the last time. Sadly, that problem solving process is incredibly ineffective.

When teaching or facilitating I find most people immediately assume that a problem occurred because of the same cause which created the same or similar situation the last time. Whether it’s a software problem, a new product, or a manufacturing process, we often jump to solutions because they worked the last time. Thus, ignoring new data and contradictory evidence. Our experience can actually lead us astray as we compound the problem by seeking data that supports our conclusion – a phenomenon called “confirmation bias.”

In “Guess the Number,” the best first question is the one that eliminates the most possible choices. For example, if we ask, “Is it greater than 50?” With one question, we may not know the answer, but we definitely know what the answer is not, and have immediately eliminated 50% of our problem. Continuing that line of thinking, if we discover the answer is not greater than 50, our next question might be, “Is it greater than 25?” So in just two questions we identify what the answer “is not” and have eliminated 75% of our possibilities. If you continue to play the game out you will be surprised at how “few” questions you need to ask until you get down to just one number from 100 possibilities…

There is power in this type of negative thinking, and when we’re looking for the root cause to problems, asking questions which help identify what it “is not” can have tremendous benefit such as saving time and becoming more productive. When attempting to solve your next problem, here are some tips to try:

1. Ask what the problem could be, but is not. Don’t just describe what the problem is. Spend time identifying what the problem could be but is not.

2. Don’t ask “Why?” Ask “Why Not?” instead. Often we encourage confirmation bias by asking people to justify why they believe something is the root cause of the problem. Instead, ask people to uncover data that explains why a potential cause is not the root cause. If you can’t identify any “why not’s,” then it could be your most likely cause.

3. Seek to eliminate possible causes first, rather than confirm them. Just ask, “Which possible causes can we eliminate because they would cause a problem we are not seeing?” For example, let’s say you can’t open an email. It might be a problem with your internet service provider. But, if another computer in your house uses the same connection and it’s working just fine, then the blame lies elsewhere.

So, turn on your negative thinking. Over the past 25 years, I have seen such thinking save my clients time, energy and money they might have wasted implementing the wrong fixes.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Collect Information, NOT Data

You can’t solve a problem without good quality information. If you recall the reports of unintended acceleration that Toyota experienced a couple years ago, you know that one of their challenges was the inability to duplicate the problem. Therefore, their best source of information was from a driver who was collecting information as they were hurtling down the road trying unsuccessfully to bring their car to a stop. Obviously, not the best frame of mind for information gathering.

The challenge that many people encounter is that they engage in “activity-centered fallacies” of gathering too much data in the hopes that the cause of the problem will emerge. Such was the case in this example where an airline collected mountains of data in an effort to solve a problem. Instead, the cause of the problem was something quite simple and they already possessed the information they needed to solve it. So where does one stop their information gathering efforts when trying to understand a problem? I’ve found that targeting your efforts to answer a few critical questions will provide a good definition of the problem that will often allow the cause of the problem to emerge from all the data. Here are the questions:

◾ What is the item (or person) with the problem? \ What similar item might also be experiencing the problem but is not?
◾ Where is the specific problem occurring? Where other problem(s)can be occurring but is not?
◾ When was the problem first observed? When might the problem have first been observed but was not?
◾ How often is the problem occurring? How often could the problem be occurring but is not?

Answers to these questions provide an excellent description of your problem. When you can answer these questions with reliable data, usually the cause of the problem will quickly become evident.
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Action Management and Associates

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