October 13, 2017 Carly Rospert

A Strength-Based Process for Problem-Solving

Something we have set forth from the very beginning with the Strong Cincinnati initiative is that we don’t have all the answers. Actually, we believe something quite the opposite, that neighbors in Madisonville have everything the need already within them to create positive change in their neighborhood and our role is to activate their strengths to support the realization of their ideas.  This doesn’t mean that project teams won’t face challenges, it does mean, however, that the way we help address those challenges looks differently.

Do we have ideas on solutions for the challenges our project teams face? Yes, and when appropriate, we share suggestions; however, dictating exactly how a project should unfold or how to navigate each setback does not provide an opportunity for learning or an opportunity to pull on an individual’s strengths to overcome challenges. (It also would likely lead to a less effective solution).

We recently held a group coaching meeting with all the Strength Project Teams to help leverage our collective knowledge to overcome each project’s most pressing challenge.  I offer the process below as an option to help groups problem-solve in a way that emphasizes learning, builds problem-solving confidence in individuals, and increases peer-connections.

(The following process was adapted from the well-known Consultancy Protocol, streamlined and shortened for our group’s specific needs and time limitations)

Step 1: Identify Project’s Biggest Challenge (15 minutes)

Each project team  identifies the biggest challenge they face in implementing their strength project. This challenge also must be one they would welcome help from the group in solving. Each team frames their challenge in the form of a question that they could pose to the group. This step can be done ahead of time or as part of the meeting.


Step 2: Project Context & Challenge Question (2 minutes)

A representative from one of the projects presents to the group by giving a brief explanation of their project and shared the challenge question they want the group to discuss. Our project teams have surface-level knowledge of each other’s projects, so we asked individuals to share the following information to give all participants a deeper understanding of each project: (1) Project goal, (2) Progress to date, and (3) Project challenge question.

To keep later discussions focused on the challenge question, we asked the presenting team to write the question on flip-chart paper and place it on the wall.

Step 3: Clarifying Questions about Project (3 minutes)

In this step, the group gets the chance to ask clarifying questions about the project that are important to understand before they can discuss the challenge question.  The project team representative answers the questions with factual statements (rather than defending or slipping into an extended explanation). This is not the time for advice giving or questions of “I think you should…” or “have you considered…” This section can be difficult to facilitate as you want to keep the group on task but also don’t want to stifle conversation for the sake of process rigidity. Gentle reminders of “Remember the next section will be time for sharing advice or ideas” or “please keep your questions focused on information you need to be able to deeply discuss and provide ideas around the challenge question” can help the group stay on task.

Step 4: Group Discussion of Challenge (5 min)

Next, the group discusses the key challenge question, offering ideas or questions for the project team to consider.  During this time, the project team does not respond or participate in the discussion.  They are encouraged to quietly listen and write down notes during the conversation. It can be difficult for individuals to refrain from responding to the group’s questions or clarify misunderstandings. It is important to remind the group to be mindful about their listening. Often, we listen in order to respond which can limit what we hear because we are busy to formulating our responses or defending our positions.  Let the groups know that listening without the expectation of responding can lessen our instinct to defend our work or make excuses and instead opens our ears to hear ideas differently and catch important pieces that we might have otherwise dismissed.

Step 5: Project Teams Share Insights (2 min)

Members from the project team who shared the challenge question are now given the opportunity to respond with insights they gleaned from the discussion. These insights should include interesting ideas they heard that they would like to explore further, a new way of looking at the challenge not previously considered, or key steps they plan to take based on the discussion. This time should not be used to correct misunderstandings from the discussion or as an opportunity to list out all the things they are already doing that the group suggested. If this starts to occur, gently follow up with: “What is something new you learned from the discussion?” or “how will what you heard inform your next steps?”

Step 6: Applaud Team’s Bravery and Move to the Next Project

Through this process, individuals are asked to be very vulnerable, sharing a challenge that they admittedly need help with and be open to receiving advice from individuals who have less knowledge about the project. Make sure to acknowledge that bravery involves risk and vulnerability. Often a simple applause will suffice.

In the Strong Cincinnati initiative, we use the 24 VIA character strengths as a positive language to recognize and appreciate others.  To appreciate each team’s bravery and strengths, we asked each participant in the group to fill out a strength spotting card for the project team that shared their challenge question.  They passed the card to the project team during this step as a more specific way of appreciating each other’s contributions. This strength spotting contributed to an overall atmosphere that was positive and constructive.

When we used this process with our strength project teams, every team walked away with new ideas on how they might approach their challenges and experiences a deeper connection to other project members.  This was not a prescriptive approach to problem solving, yet teams got what they needed to re-energize their efforts to overcome challenges and set-backs during implementation.