U. S. Congress and Creative Problem Solving

In an informal conversation this week after an hour on the tennis courts, some of us were talking about the upcoming political race for president and what it might take to have a new workable and effective approach to some of out ongoing national problems.  One of our group wished that Congress would take the lead in coming up with some effective solutions.  He seemed to think that was part of their responsibility as elected senators and representatives.  Why couldn’t or wouldn’t they?  It was a good question I thought.  It reminded me of the experience that I have had with corporate bureaucracies and creative problem solving.

In my early management days, I was introduced to a man named George Prince.  George had written a book published in 1970, and still in print a decade later when he gave me a signed copy.  The book, titled The Practice of Creativity, was followed by several articles in the Harvard Business Review and the development of a course called Synectics .  At the time I met him I was the manager of a department whose mission was to help Corporate Management of our various industry segments find effective ways to improve efficiencies and improve their results.  His course held in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Harvard Square seemed like something that would help us with finding new, creative solutions to old problems. So we spent a week learning things that proved helpful to me in that and subsequent jobs.

Some of the things that he suggested that were impediments to group problem solving included:

  • Self Censoring:  We all have a tendency in groups to self-censor ourselves whether we realise it or not.  We don’t put out on the table ideas that are obviously not workable.  We would get ridiculed by the people in the room.  Not fun!
  • We tend to listen to evaluate:  Often the first comment to hit the table after someone suggests an idea is directed at the negative – what is wrong with it.  The idea then tends to die before anyone gives it any more thought.  And the person that offered the suggestion may then be reluctant to offer any more.
  • Pigeon Holing:  Putting a tag on an idea or putting it in a bucket without really thinking about what might be what might be new or different about it.  (“That’s a typical accountant suggestion” or “a typical conservative idea”.)

To get participants to bring speculative problem solving powers out, Prince’s reasearch group found that one needs to protect them from “risk”.  In order to do that they developed a process in two or more phases.  Phase one is like the “brainstorming” process that I first learned about in a public seminar when I was in high school.  In it there is no evaluation allowed and participants are encouraged to come out with seemingly irrelevant thoughts and unworkable ideas or dreams.  These may spark some thoughts in others of the group that are “outside the box”.  So any thought expressed is “risk free” of ridicule, evaluation, or pigeon holing.  In the second phase is when evaluation takes place.  The most promising ideas are picked from phase one and are called “beginning ideas”.  Beginning ideas are always thought to be ideas with both good points and flaws.  Each one selected is evaluated individually, and the rule is that anyone commenting on the idea is required to find at least 3 things that they like about the idea before mentioning even one negative.  The approach is to identify and keep the good parts while working on ways to fix the flaws.  Their research had found that often beginning ideas are thrown out completely – the bad with the good – and the good parts get lost if they are not identified.

Could our representatives follow George Prince’s process and find new and better solutions to today’s problems?  I have no doubt that they could, but there are some environmental things that get in the way.  One of the big things are the open meeting laws.  The open meeting laws are well intended – they are supposed to keep the voter’s in know about how their representatives are representing them.  That idea is no doubt good, we need informed voters.  But if one wishes to take the risk out of discussions, they are a problem.  I remember having a group at work from different areas working on a direction for something.  The first meeting was pretty open and productive.  In the second meeting , the person assigned to taking notes on what we had done, decided she would bring a voice recorder to the meeting so she could do an accurate write-up.  The tape recorder in the middle of the table changed the whole tenor of the meeting.  The idea that everything said at the meeting would be recorded was inhibiting to the discussion even though it was only going to be used by the one person.  I was surprised at the amount of impact on open discussion from that.  But if a single person who is part of the group can cause that, think how much more the risk would be increased by a TV camera or a newspaper reporter in the room.

A few years ago, I lady in a small town not far from here was  on charge of a function supported by the city, had a problem getting her board to work together.  Whatever the problem was that had sparked the problem, had hit the papers. She thought maybe the only way to  get the group back together was to have a closed-door meeting where everyone could say what they thought without the risk that it would be reported in the papers the next day.  I agreed with her, but the group was subject to the open meeting laws so how could she do that?

The worst thing may be to have a TV camera news tape of a session or a newspaper reporter in the room.  The news tape will likely be edited to a 10 second sound bite, and the reporters story will likely have the newspaper equivalent.  Any comments will taken out of context and may be sensationalized to attract more viewers and readers.  A few years ago I was in a training program for the additional duty of being the company Crisis Communication Manager.  An ex-CNN reporter teaching the class told us to get our point down to a couple on sentences that we wanted to communicate and regardless of the question asked by the reporter, that should be our answer.  In 1787 when the U.S. Constitution was written, this was not a problem.  It took probably 2 or 3 weeks to get news to the hinterlands and what was reported was probably what was done.  We judge people today on what they say, not what they do, and they are not allowed to change their mind without it being reported on the news.  In the corporate world the thinking today is to judge people on the “results”, not on what they say, or even what they “do”, on a daily basis.  Freedom of information is a good idea up to a point, but at some point it may be too much and become a problem.

So could we have our elected members to Congress come together to support new creative solutions to some of our problems?  Maybe, but probably not unless we find some way to change the environment in which they work.

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About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
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