Team-Based Problem Solving

by Susan Beaumont

The Senior Minister at First Church was actually looking forward to the weekly staff meeting. For some time the staff had been tip-toeing around problems with the traditional worship service, and today they were going to address the problem head on. Staff members worked diligently to set aside all other normal business so that the entire ninety minutes of the staff meeting could be devoted to addressing this problem.

The staff was becoming increasingly aware of problems with the 8:15 traditional worship service. Attendance had dropped rather dramatically over the previous twelve months. Volunteerism in this worshiping community was significantly down, resulting in great difficulty recruiting greeters, ushers, and lay leaders. Increasingly, worshipers were complaining about the sermons, claiming that they wanted to hear more biblically based messages, although no one could really define what that meant. Others were suggesting that the service was too long and didn’t feed them spiritually. Meanwhile, the 10:00 contemporary worship service at First Church was growing.

So, on this particular day the staff team came prepared to tackle the problem. Everyone entered the room with energy, eager to finally get at the root of the issue. Within the first fifteen minutes key perspectives had been laid upon the table and an invigorating debate was under way. Each staff member had their take on the issue, and each was passionate about a suggested approach to fixing the “traditional worship problem.”

The Senior Minister wanted to focus on declining numbers in worship and talk about what those trends might suggest. Who had stopped coming, which people were still coming, and how did this demographic segment of the congregation compare with others?

Tim was convicted that any solution must incorporate shrinking the worship space so that it felt more warm and inviting. He repeatedly cited statistics concerning an appropriate balance between open and occupied seats.

Sheila believed that the heart of the problem was the preaching style. Although most people couldn’t articulate what they didn’t like about the sermons, Sheila knew that they were reacting to recent efforts to make the preaching more culturally relevant. This crowd simply wanted the good old biblical basics back in their preaching diet.

Glenn didn’t want to talk about any of these issues. From his perspective the whole dilemma rested on a fundamental shift in broader culture preferences. People were simply growing in their appreciation for contemporary worship styles. Glenn didn’t think it made sense to talk about anything else without first exploring the broad cultural overtones.

The Senior Minister did her very best to corral the debate into some kind of meaningful dialogue, but the discussion kept getting away from her. At one point the team spent twenty minutes in dialogue about the layout of spaces in the parking lot, all under the guise of fixing the traditional worship problem. At the end of ninety minutes the meeting drew to a close without resolution. Each staff member left with a sense of yet another failed problem-solving session. Increasingly, this team was becoming convinced that they didn’t have what it takes to solve a problem or reach consensus. What went wrong?

The staff team at First Church struggled with a shortcoming faced by many groups as they engage in team-based problem solving: failure to adequately define the problem being worked upon. American philosopher, John Dewey, once wrote, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” Group-based problem solving requires the formulation of a problem statement that accurately and clearly describes the current condition the team wants to change. Otherwise, each team member engages in debate around closely related but ultimately separate problems. Exactly what is the problem with the 8:15 worship service that the team is trying to address?

Let’s look at some guidelines for writing a good problem statement to better understand what went wrong at First Church.

State the problem objectively. State the problem in such a way that it does not favor one approach over another and does not leave room for interpretation. It should be a simple statement of fact. The staff team at First Church made no attempt to define the problem beyond labeling it “the traditional worship problem.” Were they addressing a problem that was primarily focused on worship satisfaction, spiritual energy, or a shift in worship preferences? Any one of these problems might be a valid problem to address, but if the team doesn’t define a collective problem, every team member will have to define the problem for him or herself.

Keep the statement limited in scope. The problem should be defined so that it is small enough for the team to realistically tackle and solve. At First Church, Glenn appeared to be defining the problem as “a broader cultural shift taking us away from traditional worship experiences.” Glenn may or may not have been correct in his assessment, but the cultural trend is not something that the staff team at First Church can address; they can only address their response to that trend. Defining the scope of the problem too broadly prevents the team from taking meaningful action.

Do not confuse symptoms of the problem with the problem itself. The Senior Minister kept defining the problem as “a decrease in attendance numbers.” Declining participation and satisfaction are symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself. Focusing only on the symptoms of the problem will not allow the team to move forward into creative idea generation.

Do not formulate the problem statement so that it includes an implied cause. Sheila kept insisting that the problem was “a shift in preaching styles at the 8:15 service.” Framing her understanding of the problem in this way prevented the team from considering other possible problem causes.

Do not formulate the problem statement in such a way that it includes an implied solution. Tim fell into this trap by insisting that the problem is, “adapting the worship space to the size of the worshiping community.” Again, Tim’s perspective may have been accurate, but insisting upon the incorporation of this solution into the problem definition didn’t allow the team to consider other possible solutions.

Make certain that your problem statement answers the “so what?” test. Sometimes in our efforts to clearly define a problem we become so specific in our wording, or so focused on a particular aspect of the problem, that the statement no longer passes the “so what” test. When you read the problem statement, do you clearly understand why this is a problem that needs to be solved? For example, this problem statement doesn’t pass the “so what” test: “An increasing percentage of members in the 35-45 year old age bracket are moving from the traditional to the contemporary worship service.” Why would such a shift in attendance, in and of itself, be viewed as a problem?

Once the Senior Minister at First Church had time to reflect upon the failed problem solving session she began to see that the team had not adequately defined the problem to be addressed. She proposed that they try again at the next staff meeting. The following week she invited the team into spirited debate around the definition of the problem itself. The group spent the first forty minutes of the meeting simply trying to gain consensus on the problem definition. At first, members were discouraged. They seemed to be spending excessive time arguing over word choices. The team was convinced that they would once again run out of time without reaching consensus or moving forward. Persistently, after forty minutes the team agreed to define the problem in this way: “The spiritual energy of the 8:15 worship experience has decreased, as evidenced by declining attendance numbers, declining volunteerism, and an increase in complaints.”

A clear definition of the problem as a spiritual energy problem allowed each of the team members to move onto the same discussion page. Within the next 60 minutes the team had collectively named underlying causes for spiritual malaise in the 8:15 worship experience, brainstormed solutions, and agreed upon three specific action steps. The team left the staff meeting feeling confident about their ability to resolve this problem and confident in their ability to work as a team.

Did they tackle the right problem? Only time will tell. The point is that they productively tackled a problem and created optimism about their ability to face future problems together—as a team!

Alban Weekly, 2006-04-03
Number 89