How to Use Collaborative Problem-Solving to Get to the Right Answers--Quickly

Entrepreneurship and Networking
10 Minute Read
October 4, 2021

Faced with a tough decision that needs to be made quickly, most leaders' command-and- control instincts kick in. They are often wrong. In a world changing at an extraordinary pace, expecting a leader under pressure to make the call alone is to overlook the talent in the team.

The better answer is quick-fire collaboration. Today's economy demands that value be extracted from the interdependencies within a team. The real challenge of rapid decision-making is to adopt behaviors and practices that accelerate team collaboration.

Rapid, collaborative decision-making is at the heart of the principle I call co-elevation. By definition, co-elevation happens when a team is committed to the growth of the business-- and one another. They go higher, together. They don't just co-exist. When team members merely co-exist, and collaboration is the exception rather than the rule, attitudes of resistance and resentment often take hold. Co-elevating teams prosper because they share the weight of the toughest decisions. (You can find tools and resources at

Collaborative Problem-Solving

One symptom of a team struggling to collaborate is meetings being used for report-outs. If your best people meet to read out reports rather than to solve problems, you are wasting the most valuable resource you have. Collaborative problem-solving (CPS) changes that by breaking down group conflict avoidance and encouraging candor.

CPS takes a single, business-critical question and makes it the focus of a 60-to-90-minute meeting. You need to craft the question carefully. It could be about upside potential. It could be about mitigating downside. Everyone preps by drawing in data or insight from their wider teams. Everyone is also clear on who will make the final decision, or who "owns the question." The aim isn't consensus--far from it. The aim is robust dialogue. If that's the setup, there can be no resentment if one idea is picked instead of another.

But the most powerful element of CPS is the breakout. For half of the session, the team breaks into small groups of three or four people to discuss the question and report back. In these small groups, people have more courage. They will self-critique and weed out weaker ideas. The temporary tribes that form in the breakout rooms establish a bond that would make people lose face if they watered down their discussion too much.

This kind of collaboration is action-oriented. Eric Starkloff, CEO at National Instruments, who consistently deployed CPS with his team at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, told me recently: "The one change that's been the most tangible to me has been the ability to escalate and make critical business decisions faster, and that stick more, because the process of doing it is collaborative and therefore the buy-in is higher."

Collaboration in a Remote World

Entrepreneurial companies are rightly concerned that collaboration suffers in a remote environment. But going remote is no excuse to stop collaborating. Tools like Zoom make it easier than ever to create CPS cycles unencumbered by moving chairs and switching rooms. It's vital, right now, that these kinds of concerns are heard.

We collaborate because inclusion leads to innovation. Diversity of perspective enriches discussion and inspires breakthrough thinking. With CPS, collaboration can be fast, and with co-elevation, leaders don't have to carry the weight of tough decisions alone.

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

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