The Standard Agenda
The first step in the standard agenda is problem identification. Too often, groups jump into a discussion without a complete understanding of what the problem that they need to solve really is. A problem can be defined as a discrepancy between a present state of affairs and a desired state of affairs. To define a problem, then, group members need to state explicitly what is currently bothering them and what they desire. Defining the problem can often be the most difficult step in problem solving. Let’s look at an example. Most of us feel that our campuses have a parking problem. But what does that really mean? Does it mean that there are currently not enough spaces and that more are needed? (And if so, how many more?) Or does it mean that there are plenty of spaces but that they are too far from classroom buildings? Or could it be that spaces are available at some times of the day but not at others? it is important to be clear about which – if any – of these possibilities we mean, for each leads us to a different solution.
In the first case, the solution may involve setting aside new spaces or cutting down on campus traffic. In the second, it may necessitate moving spaces or classes or providing shuttle service. In the third, it may mean rescheduling some activities. Only when the definition of the problem is concrete and clear can the group move on to the next step.
Dan Rothwell gives two interesting examples of how the way a problem is framed affects the way it is ultimately solved. In the first example, a service station manager found that his soda machine was out of order when customers who lost their money complained. To solve the problem, he put an Out of Order sign on the machine. Customers ignored the sign, continued to lose money, and continued to complain. He finally solved the problem by changing the sign to read $2. No one bought the soda, and no one complained. In a second example, a convenience store had a problem with teenagers loitering outside. Instead of looking for ways to confront the students, the store owners simply piped Muzak into the parking lot. The kids found the bland music so objectionable that they soon found another hangout.
Rothwell explains that in both cases, the solution became achievable as soon as it was framed in the right way. In the first example, the service station manager stopped asking himself, “How can I let the customers know the machine is out of order?” and instead asked, “How can I stop customers from putting money in the machine?” In the second example, the proprietors were successful only after they stopped thinking in terms of force and started to ask, “What will motivate the teenagers to leave on their own?”
The second step in the standard agenda is
problem analysis. David Johnson and Frank Johnson, drawing on the work of Kurt Lewin, suggest that one of the best ways to diagnose a problem is to view the current state of affairs as a balance between two opposing forces: restraining and helping forces. Restraining forces are forces that are negative in direction. If they prevail, the current state will get worse. Helping forces, on the other hand, are forces that are positive in direction. If they are strengthened, the current state will move closer to the ideal. This land of analysis is called force-field analysis. By listing restraining and helping forces, group members understand the problem better. They know what they have going for them and what they must overcome. When it comes to solving the problem, they can look at solutions that either increase helping forces or remove restraining forces.
Assume that a school curriculum committee has decided that a new experimental course is needed to update current offerings. Through force-field analysis, the committee finds that one of the major restraining factors is parents’ resistance to the course and that this resistance is based on a misunderstanding of what the new course is all about. The committee also finds that the helping forces include the tact that current faculty members can teach the new course and that the faculty as a whole supports the idea. The group now knows that it can enlist the teachers’ aid and that the solution should involve educating parents and removing their fears. Of course to reach this conclusion, committee members had to do solid research on what was causing the problem.
The next step in the standard agenda is criteria selection. Before they begin to offer suggestions, group members should establish the criteria they will use in judging solutions. One group may decide, for example, that its solution must be rapid and reasonably cheap and that it must change the status quo as little as possible. Another group addressing another problem may decide that it wants a long-term solution and that money is no object. The time to decide on criteria is before members’ egos get too involved in specific decision proposals.
The fourth step is solution generation. Here group members attempt to generate as many alternative solutions as possible. To do this, they may use methods like brainstorming, a method we will look at shortly when we examine ways to enhance group creativity. The important point is to identify a number of alternatives rather than being satisfied with the first one.
In step five of the standard agenda, solution evaluation and selection, alternative solutions are evaluated and the best one selected. Now it is a simple matter of looking at each solution and measuring it against each criterion. The solution that meets the most criteria (without causing additional problems) is the best solution. Finally, in step six, the group follows through with solution implementation.
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