Problem Constellation

Anyone who has tried to facilitate meaningful team discussion around a problem will know that it’s not easy. A common “team discussion problem” is to have one or two well intentioned individuals monopolize the conversation… leaving you to wonder, what are the others thinking? What are we not hearing or not talking about that we should? I’d like to suggest a quick and effective technique to help align the team when it seems like the discussion might be in trouble.

It’s a hack of the “Constellation” exercise… but it is focused on understanding problems, so let’s call it “Problem Constellation”.

Facilitator stands at one end of the room. Line up the team at the other end of the room facing the facilitator.

Facilitator will make statements one at a time and, for each statement, participants must take a step forward if they agree with the statement. If they cannot agree with a statement, they should not step forward. If at any point a participant cannot agree, he must stay put for the remainder of the activity (even if he agrees with subsequent statements).

During this exercise, no one should speak but the facilitator. The intention is to stop group discussion and take a moment for everyone to reconcile and become aware of his own state of mind on the problem. The facilitator then makes sure that everyone is clear on the instructions before starting with the first statement for consideration.

Here sample statements (order is important)…
1. I know that ____ is a problem.
2. I believe there is value in solving this problem.
3. I believe that ____ is the root cause of the problem.
4. I believe that ____ is the most effective solution for this problem.

At this point, it’s a good idea for everyone to take note where they are and where the rest of team is positioned. The participants closest to the facilitator are those who are in agreement with the potential solution to the problem. Those furthest away from the facilitator are the people who need to speak. Then the facilitator walks to the back of the room and begins reading the statements again, only this time, the team will hear from the people furthest away from the perceived solution.

I have found this activity to be very effective at surfacing assumptions and validating our understanding of a problem as a team. It has “quieted” the “solution influencers” for a moment and allowed relevant information to come forward. It has also “quieted” unqualified participants in the discussion… that is to say, if someone cannot attest to “knowing that there is a problem”, then their role might be to support, observe and understand rather than “drive or influence a solution”. Bringing this awareness is something that the facilitator can help to do.

I have used this technique for controversial problems as well as for teams with more introverted participants and found it to be very effective at gaining a collective understanding. The best part of it all is that the whole activity takes only a few minutes to setup and run.

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