Everything exploded. You’ve got a mess. Now what?
In one of the first posts on this blog, our friend and former partner wrote about adapting his emergency response training as a SCUBA instructor to the business setting. Chris translated the steps for triaging a physical emergency into a basic meeting agenda. It looked very much like the “Red Light” process John used when he worked a computer manufacturing firm, and like the “All Hands on Deck!” meeting I remembered from my time in client services. Since then, I’ve seen many formats for problem-solving meetings, and the basic pattern holds.
Here at Lucid, we’ ran into a thorny problem we need to solve quickly, and that none of us could fix on our own. To find a solution, we used our “Problem Buster” meeting process that we adopted way back when Chris wrote that first SCUBA-inspired post. Happily, our challenge also presents an opportunity to share this process and (a new meeting template!) with you.
When to Use this Process
This meeting format is best for urgent problems that require a speedy tactical response. When you leave the meeting, someone will immediately go out and do something to start solving the problem.
What counts as urgent? “Urgency” is obviously subjective, but we can provide some guidance about the kind of problems that should be addressed by other means.
An urgent problem is NOT:
- An Emergency
Emergencies should not wait for a meeting. In our business, when we have an emergency that requires collaboration to resolve, we all log in to a live chat window and keep voice communication open. In our case, we use either Slack, Skype, or Lucid’s “Meet Now” and swarm on the problem until the crisis passes.
- Chronic or Institutional
The big thorny problems that get baked into how an organization works, that arise out of personality conflicts, strategic blunders, or operational ineffectiveness, require deeper thought and more time to address than this format allows. Leaders should plan Issue Identification and Resolution sessions, with several rounds of brainstorming, analysis, and prioritization, to tackle these big soupy messes.
Some problems become clear as we work on a project. We make mistakes that could be prevented in the future, and we find problems with existing tools and processes that inhibit progress. These kinds of problems are best addressed using continuous learning methods such as retrospectives, postmortems, and after-action planning meetings.
Our urgent problem had to do with an upcoming software release. We’d been working to build in support for recurring meetings in Lucid, and thought we were days away from shipping the release. We were so pleased with the progress and confident in the result that we promised the feature to several clients, and to a prospect scheduled to visit us for a preview later in the week.
But then, calamity! One of our test scenarios completely broke down in Outlook. When we fixed the software to work for Outlook, the Apple Calendar failed. Every fix that made the feature work in one calendar broke the feature for another one. A week of whack-a-mole later and we’re at an impasse. No one knew how to solve this edge-case issue, and we needed to ship the update.
It was time to come up with some new solutions quickly. Urgently.
And it worked! We released support for recurring meetings one week later, using the strategies we identified in this meeting.
Because the situation is urgent, but not an emergency, you have a little time to prepare. We will schedule this meeting with at least an hour to prepare, and up to one day. (Urgency is relative.)
The meeting begins with a situation assessment, in which the team gets a shared understanding of the problem. Then, you’ll discuss the solution goals and constraints; what you want to see happen and what you have to work with to make it happen.
Use the preparation time to write up the facts. Usually one or two people will take responsibility for this basic situation description, which they should write up and add to the agenda before the meeting.
You want succinct answers to questions like:
- What was the original problem?
- What have we tried?
- What have we learned?
- What exactly is the problem we need to solve now?
- What does an immediate solution need to achieve?
- What hard constraints do we have to work within (time, resources, commitments, etc.)?
Important: do not use this meeting to discuss who or what is to blame.
There is a time and a place for root cause analysis. There are occasions when a problem really is someone’s “fault” and they need to be held accountable.
But that’s not what this meeting is about. This meeting is about finding solutions. Describe the problem briefly, factually, and as it exists right now so you can focus the group’s attention and energy on finding the best solution they can, right now. Too much attention on how and why the problem arose takes up valuable time and shifts the group’s energy to fault-finding and away from creating solutions.
Who to Invite
Be aggressive about keeping the group small. Invite only the people needed to understand and solve the problem. In an urgent situation, speed counts, and extra people will require more time to understand the problem and the constraints. You don’t want to spend any time getting someone up to speed who isn’t directly involved.
The agenda is simple. There are no complicated exercises or fancy meeting techniques here - just enough structure to help the group bust through the problem effectively. Here's the step-by-step.
1. Situation Report
Ideally, everyone will read the data about the problem before the meeting. Use this first agenda item to ask and answer questions, and make sure everyone fully understands the situation. Ask everyone to wait to share ideas about solutions for the moment; focus solely on understanding the problem.
2. Solution Goals & Constraints
Next, talk about the solution goals and any constraints on what you can try.
For example, our goal solution included a software release within the week. Our constraints were the impending customer visit and limited staff availability.
3. Brainstorm Solutions
Most likely, people arrived at the meeting with some possible solutions in mind. We still start this agenda item with a few minutes of silent individual brainstorming, which gives everyone a chance to assimilate all they’ve learned into their thinking. Each person writes their ideas separately.
After a few minutes, we all paste our ideas into notes at once, then take a moment to look through all the contributions. In Lucid, we do this by individually typing notes in Lucid, then all hitting “Save” at the same time. You could achieve the same thing using Slack or a Google Doc. If you meet in person, use sticky notes and post them all up on the board at once.
Then, discuss what you see. Ask questions, combine ideas, and prioritize the best ones. If you feel compelled, you can use dot voting or some other way to pick a solution. We often find that we reach consensus without any particular process, and when we don’t, the problem owner makes the final decision.
4. Define the Action Plan
Urgent problems require a tactical response. Once you’ve settled on an approach, get specific. Who will do what, and by when?
5. Confirm Next Steps
Finally, review everything. Does your plan address the immediate problem? Do you know exactly what will happen next? Is everyone clear and committed to what they need to do?
Then, set a time to meet again and check progress. Your plan should include actions that will either solve the problem, or fail to do so. Schedule the follow up meeting for as soon as you can reasonably expect to know whether the plan is working or not.
After the Meeting
Send out the meeting notes and schedule the follow-up meeting. Then get to work on putting your solution in action!
Try the Template
You can find the agenda and guide for this meeting template on our website, and Lucid customers can add the template for use in their online meetings.
Just want the instructions?
If you use this process or one like it, let us know: what did you learn? What worked? How can the process be improved? We use this process ourselves, and any ideas you can share to make it more effective are very welcome. After all, when we’re up against an urgent problem, we love to use anything that helps us solve it faster and better.