Solving the complex problems that confront companies operating in today’s fast-paced, global business environment requires a new kind of leadership. CEOs, COOs and other positions high up on the corporate ladder carry both great responsibility and authority. However, the most accomplished and nimble of today’s business leaders understand that true accountability and decision-making power is woven into the fabric of their organizations. Being a leader means being a listener, a fact-checker, a motivator, and in some sense, an artist akin to a film director or orchestra conductor.

More and more, business leaders are turning to the principles of Collaborative Problem Solving to address both their immediate and long-term goals. What is Collaborative Problem Solving? Why does it succeed where other approaches fail? And how are business leaders fostering the practice in their own offices?

The 9 Stages of Collaborative Problem Solving

The Collaborative Leaders Network (CLN) is a nonprofit that began as a small study group consisting of “community members, business leaders, and policymakers.” This group formed with the intent of addressing entrenched economic and social issues facing all Hawaiians. They identified stakeholders from among a diverse array of demographic segments and instituted policies and procedures to collaborate on innovative solutions that do not simply create change, but are also able to sustain it. This study group then assessed their own work and sought “to mine their own practices for methods and insights that could be useful to others.”

The CLN has since developed a nine-stage process for facilitating collaborative problem solving.

  1. Clarify intentions.
  2. Perform background inquiry.
  3. Design process.
  4. Launch group.
  5. Analyze issues.
  6. Generate options.
  7. Evaluate options.
  8. Produce documents.
  9. Conduct executive review.

The CLN summarizes this process as one in which “group members engage in clarifying the problem, analyzing potential strategies, crafting recommendations, evaluating draft documents, and delivering a report for which there is a high level of consensus and commitment.” Collaborative problem solving is therefore cross-functional and reaches across traditional lines of division (e.g., departments) traditionally drawn across organizational charts. As such, collaborative problem solving draws upon a number of business skills: statistical and decision analysis, managerial accounting, organizational behavior, operations management, administrative strategy and policy, and marketing.

Managing the Problem-Solving Team

Any given solution arrived at by means of collaborative problem-solving techniques is only as good as the group that generates it. And the group is only as strong as the leadership that takes on the task of determining the group’s composition and facilitating its work. According to famed consultant Alexander Hancock, effective group facilitation is the result of leaders who know “how to help the group learn the appropriate use of inquiry and advocacy, and dialogue and debate in group discussion.” As Hancock also writes, only in this way can the collaborative problem-solving approach effectively tap into “collective wisdom of the group” and build upon that wisdom to engage with difficulties “at the root.”

What Are the Advantages to Adopting a Collaborative Problem-Solving Methodology?

  • Staff, executive and otherwise, who may not have been included in previous discussions are more likely to express a fresh perspective on the problem at hand.
  • Because collaboration entails the sharing of resources, management can focus on issues of resource abundance rather than resource scarcity.
  • Attitudes such as “It’s not my job” and “That’s above my paygrade” have no place in a team environment defined by collective ownership of both problems and solutions (including the implementation of those solutions). Collaborative problem solving can help leaders better identify employees with high future potential — as well as employees who may not be suited to the corporation’s culture.
  • As executive coach Cherry Collier notes, the most productive collaborations thrive on “Yes, and” thinking. This concept, transferred from the discipline of improvisational theater, departs from the stand-bys of critique and instead places its trust in “supporting a suggested idea and building on the idea to make it better.” As such, “Yes, and” thinking encourages both energetic communication and creativity.
  • Success is shared in a collaborative problem-solving environment. This sharing of success promotes a holistic understanding of the business, as well as its mission, values, and goals, at every level of the organization. Employees who feel they possess a personal stake in the company’s overall advancement are more likely to be happier and more highly motivated.

Collaborative problem solving is one of the core components of the leadership training Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi provides via its online MBA. Learn more about how this program can prepare you to take your career to the next level.

Learn more about the TAMU-CC online MBA program.


Collaborative Leaders Network: The Story of CLN

Alexander Hancock: Collaborative Problem Solving: A Systems Thinking Approach

Slate: Getting to “Yes, And”

Forbes: How to Adopt a Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach Through ‘Yes, And’ Thinking