Why Problem-Solving Meetings are a waste of time & what to do instead

How many times have you been in meetings where you are supposed to solve a problem, but you just ended up finding more problems, or complicating the initial one while struggling to commit to any solution?

Don’t worry, it just has to do with how the human mind works. If you know how to activate the proper part of the team ‘s brains, you will have the required result with a different meeting form.

Because of the way the mind works ‘how do we solve this problem?’, is the ‘wrong question’ for the mind to answer. Therefore, you will just waste your time when you stage your meeting in this structure.

Neuroscience explains the 3 reasons why this is the case:

  1. The ‘mind-software’ can only interpret any ‘command’ as an affirmative one! Try to say to someone: ‘don’t think of a red apple’ and ask her what she thought about. Surprise: She thought of a 🍎 ! Likewise, when the mind hears ‘I don’t want this problem’, it translates ‘I want problem’, therefore looking to find more problems.
  2. The mind is programmed to seek first what seems most familiar and known, rather than what is new and unknown. This comes from the old programming of our ‘reptile brain’, the only aim of which was always to help humans survive -that is, to remain safe- therefore seeking to find familiar rather than unknown things. A problem is a known fact while its solution is something still unknown which the reptile brain cannot recognize.
  3. The same part of the brain, being always in a ‘defense mode’, makes it much easier for a person to stay with ‘negative’ considerations , because its primary role is to seek ‘danger’ rather than seeking ‘contentment’ (this is why many people, who have let this mode of their brain take over, are falling in the loop of constantly having negative thoughts and behaviors). Therefore, when we give our brain a mixed message like ‘solve this problem‘, the brain is trained to focus on the ‘negative’ side of the message (problem) rather than on the positive (solution).

For all the above reasons when a team focuses on ‘solving a problem’ the result is weak. Sooner or later the team dwells on the negatives, finds more problems and makes things look even more complicated than before. Ultimately, the team often comes up with hasty, weak or incomplete solutions.

In addition, the brain gets more quickly tired when working for ‘problems’ because of the ‘chemistry’ related to the problem-focus approach. This make teams even more ineffective after a while and meetings can get very long and heavy.

So, what do you do when you really want to solve problems?

The answer is that you must setup your meeting on a different basis, effectively forming the right question for people’s minds to answer. You can do this by the following 3 simple steps:

1. Summarize the facts

Quickly address the situation. Just state the facts that you want to change but don’t make judgements and don’t label the situation as a ‘problem ‘. In fact, don’t label it at all! For example: ‘x % of our customers are dissatisfied with a, b, c. The process such and such is related to this result in such and such way’.

2. Paint the end-picture

State a specific end-objective, by articulating in a positive way where exactly you want to go. For Example: ‘we want to x% of our customers to be happy and we need processes y and z to support this as a priority’. At best link this objective to the overall company vision or mission, to invoke the positive chemistry (dopamine, serotonin) to the minds of people who are already connected with it.

3. Ask ‘How?’

Ask ‘How can we get there?’ or even better ‘What would be the best way to get there?’ and let discussion begin while moderating the discussion whenever required to maintain the focus on the end-result and the solution required.

A key for the above process is to be well-prepared before you ask the right question, by having completed beforehand any structured observations, research or analysis required for the step 1.

In a nutshell, science has proven that the following quote is true even for business meetings: ‘The important thing is not to find the right answers but to ask the right questions.