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No. 72 (January 2004)

Effective Problem-Solving: Using What We Know

Includes updates on the Windtunnel Method

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.


By now, many or most people have available to them at least one or more workable methods for solving problems. Some even have known to them a few of our own Project Renaissance methods for solving problems. Yet with nearly all of us, when we run into our own difficulties we tend to fall back into discussing these in pretty much the same ineffectual ways as groups of people do everywhere else, and this almost never leads to solutions.

You really need to

  1. notice when a situation becomes a problem for you;
  2. identify and specify the problem; and
  3. deliberately use a formal problem-solving process to solve it
— unless you are more comfortable lying stalled where you are. Most people are more comfortable lying stalled where they are, including even in the creative problem-solving field itself.

I've seen many programs and groups who are leading advocates of various creative problem-solving procedures. I've watched them fall into the same wallow. They may be very good at coaching other people through THEIR problems, but seemingly helpless once confronted with their own problems.

Years ago I used to watch our own Project Renaissance thinktanks tending toward this same wallow. I found that it took quite an effort then to move even our own people into actual problem-solving processes, though nowadays they do so with alacrity. But noticing, specifying, and solving problems are much or most of what it takes to move ahead. A nice, tight formula for success?....

The firm which has its decision people use formal problem-solving methods; the firm that uses such methods systematically on issues and questions and problems and opportunities and subtle awarenesses of that firm's situation; the firm whose decision people invest even one 2- to 3-hour session per week together in such systematic solution-finding — that firm will burst right through the ceiling.

I recommend for that weekly session a rotation of at least a half dozen or so different problem-solving procedures (literally hundreds are available!) to keep these sessions fresh.

For your firm's first session or so, I now strongly recommend the newest version of Windtunnel, as described further on in this article. The Windtunnel method is less than three years old as of this writing [2004], but already exists in about forty different forms because it is proving to be so very useful. The earlier version of Windtunnel was published here in Winsights No. 55, a few months after we invented it. Windtunnel, a facilitated way to think out loud, is an easy, idea-productive, high-energizing way to get people started into problem-solving. It serves as a complete system in its own right but also combines wonderfully well with other problem-solving methods. We strongly recommend that you start your firm's series of problem-solving sessions with a round or so of "Windtunnelling," especially with the version whose description begins on page 2.

Beyond particular techniques, basic Socratic Method generally is a fundamentally practical issue and a fundamentally human issue. EVERY human being NEEDS, as a hugely important part of his or her development and growth as a human being, to be drawn out at length, in depth and detail, on issue after issue after issue. Most human beings, however, go to their graves without ever REALLY having been heard by anyone on anything. This is not only an extreme waste of human living but of the human resources of your firm, and of its unnoticed strategic advantages.

Nearly every creativity method and creative problem-solving method is a form of Socratic Method. To understand Socratic Method casts all problem-solving and all creativity procedures in a different and much clearer light. To educate yourself in Socratic Method, examine these Winsights articles: Nos. 33, 52, 55, 56, 57, and 63. To understand how to get everyone in your firm or in your group being Socratic to one another and being heard and drawn out in enough detail long enough when air time is normally so limited and costly, see Dynamic Format in the "CPS Techniques" section. I strongly recommend that at some point you DO educate yourself in Socratic Method; you will be astonished at what it can do for you, and for your enterprise.

Regular mutual use of Socratic Method, drawing one another out in depth on their subtlest awarenesses concerning matters of the firm and its possibilities, not only will enable your enterprise to excel spectacularly well, but as a working practice will develop some truly marvelous and brilliant human beings around you, and will give you yourself tremendous leverage on affairs.


Socratic Method builds one's very intelligence
  • Its use 2300 years ago in late classical Greece, and again a few hundred years ago in Europe, resulted in tiny populations of those times producing more world-class geniuses than we have today from among Earth's seven billion people, even with all our Information Age technologies and advantages.

  • In the 1950s, in Higher Horizons 100, an experiment in Hartford, Connecticut, Public Schools randomly selected students, who gained 20 points I.Q. in a semester when their teachers were led to listen to what they had to say, hearing them differently from how they heard their other students even though the teachers reportedly went to great lengths to treat everyone equally. Cutting in the other direction, in the summer of 02, another university experiment found that by making students feel rejected and unacceptable, their I.Q.s dropped 20 points in just a few weeks' time.

  • People who are heard out on matters important to them live longer and in better health. As might be expected, their immune systems are buoyed when they are experiencing being really heard, especially by a meaningful audience. Frantic as the world of standup comedy is, two of its leading members, Bob Hope and George Burns, both lived to longer than one hundred years. Nobel Laureate Stephen Hawking, the great British astrophysicist, has lived forty years longer with his Lou Gehrig's disease than anyone was supposed to be able to. A lot of pretty bright people have been standing very close, to capture Hawking's slightest nuance of thought to an eagerly awaiting world. That is powerful. Your own research department could be producing its own Nobel Laureate, its own Stephen Hawkings but without the wheel chair — perhaps you could each take turns in the starring and support roles. Or you can get an equivalent performance in your marketing department....

Keying in on specific problem opportunities

Here are some specific suggestions to move your group or enterprise into success:

When someone in your presence ventures some grand suggestion, usually someone else quickly voices an objection. Trying to support "rules of creativity," someone else then tries to argue down the objection....

Instead of arguing "yes-but" or otherwise objecting to the objection, here is a more productive path. Make it a point to collect each objection. List the objections on a notepad — or on a flip chart if more than three people are involved or if this is some sort of official meeting. Determine which objection is the biggie to tackle first, and go straight into a problem-solving on that. Never leave yourself stalled-out or stalled-down.

You need — we all need, I think — to make it a reflex to turn each difficulty, every objection, into a formal problem-solving. Most of us know how to problem-solve. We just haven't bothered to actually apply it to our own problems when they come up, much less to do so reflexively. That, I believe, is the step needed for further success.


Formatting the discussion

Dynamic Format is a system of highly visible, noticeable cues through which one — or the whole group — can productively guide an entire group meeting with unusual efficiency. Dynamic Format is the answer to the question as to how even in large groups, most or all participants can experience a lot of meaningful "air time" with Socratic Method — enough to dig up and bring forth their subtlest or deepest awarenesses in any context.

Complete directions for Dynamic Format are given in the CPS Techniques section of this website.

In keeping with this current discussion, I propose an additional new provision for Dynamic Format — any time that you observe a question, problem or difficulty, in objection or discussion, that is not being picked up on as a problem to specifically process and solve:  hold up two index fingers about shoulder high in front of you, palms away from you. That will not only be a good, quick reminder but a good attention-getting gesture. That gesture will signify:

...That formal problem-solving can usefully be done on THIS topic, at THIS point, starting with either or both of these questions ...

  1. What are some of the many good ways to solve this problem?

  2. What are some of the many good ways to turn this difficulty/objection into a major advantage for us?
Whatever further problem-solving process you may eventually use, at first these two questions might best be answered by means of classic "brainstorming," generating as many possible different answers as you can within a limited (5-20 minutes) intense period of time. As many possible answers, right or wrong without regard, just getting as many ideas as possible expressed and recorded.

(You might also find some use for the "Support-First" rule in Dynamic Format — if you observe anyone's idea getting trashed BEFORE it is first supported, clasp your hands above your head for a few moments looking wistfully upward, as if your clasped hands were an umbrella against the objections being rained down.....)

It's best if participants also have had some working experience with and knowledge of basic "brainstorming," the procedure invented a half century ago by Alex Osborn. "Brainstorming" is ancestor to the current Osborn-Parnes CPS method and program, to Freenoting, and to Windtunnel as detailed a few paragraphs further along. Here, in summary, are some of the very basic groundrules or principles of "Brainstorming" (continued on next page):


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