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close this bookGuide for Managing Change for Urban Managers and Trainers (HABITAT, 1991, 190 p.)
close this folderPart I
close this folderAction research and planning
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentBuilding a problem-solving relationship
View the documentProblem identification
View the documentAnalysing the problem
View the documentPlanning a course of action
View the documentExperimentation and redesign, implementation, evaluation

Building a problem-solving relationship





Topic: Building a problem solving relationship

Time required: Approximately 1 - 1 1/2 hours

This session is designed to help the participants understand the importance of reaching out to others who should be involved in problem solving (or tapping opportunities) and how to build an effective working relationship with these individuals, groups and organizations. Two issues are important to convey in this session. The first is the importance of collaboration and participation. Few problems and opportunities are best addressed alone. Most involve others. Involving others in the problem solving process early saves time and resources in the long run. The second issue has to do with clarifying assumptions, values, roles and responsibilities as quickly as possible in the problem solving process.


1. Deliver a short lecture based upon the written materials and your own experience in working with others. An alternative is to pose the question, “What are the critical issues you need to think about in building a problem solving relationship with others?” Follow the query by asking, “Why are these issues important?” Once the training participants have contributed to the discussion, you can fill in the missing pieces from your own knowledge and the notes provided in the workbook.

2. Many alternatives are possible as a follow up to the previous task. I would probably ask each individual to construct a list of important collaborators who might assist in overcoming the performance discrepancy identified in the previous training session, stating why they are important to the problem solving process. You might also use a three way discussion as a way of soliciting information on the who, why, and how of building problem solving relationships. In this training approach, one person discusses his or her problem, another acts as the consultant/coach, and the third monitors the discussion and gives both feedback on the substance and the process of their dialogue.

3. Once the training participants have discussed, in one way or another, who is important to the problem solving process you might want to stage a role play between the person with the problem and a party who can contribute to its resolution. For example, ask for a volunteer who would like to seek assistance in solving the performance problem identified in the previous session. The person should identify in broad terms for the training group the essence of the problem and someone they believe can help solve it. The potential collaborator needs to be described in some detail (e.g., Who is it? What is his or her role? What is the relationship between the two?). The reason for soliciting information, which is as specific as possible regarding the collaboration role, is to prepare another participant to play this person’s role in the discussion that follows.

Once you have enough information about the problem and the potential collaborator, ask someone from the group to play the role of the problem solving collaborator. You will want the role play to clarify: the problem and its ramifications; assumptions about working together; values that each party might hold that are important to the problem solving venture; and the roles and responsibilities each can be expected to fulfill.

The role-playing should continue until you believe optimum learning has been achieved from the discussion or it raises questions, either in content or process, that could benefit from an open discussion involving all course participants. There is no magic formula for determining this point in a role play. Let your judgement and intuition guide your actions.

One final comment about the above notes: They are written to give you general ideas about how to handle the session, not detailed step-by-step procedures to follow. I believe training sessions are more effective when the trainer has flexibility in both design and content, given the needs of the trainees. Too often training designs are written in a rigid lock-step fashion which give the trainer little room for adaptation. Such designs deny creativity and input from the trainees, as well as the trainer.



Whatever the situation whether (meeting as a management team to address performance problems and plan major changes or working with community groups), the relationship among members of a group has a great deal to do with the group’s ability to solve problems, to learn, and to plan new programs. Like the foundation of a house, the problem solving relationship needs to be built, and sometimes rebuilt, since almost every other action depends upon the strength of this relationship.

Factors to consider in building an effective problem-solving relationship are:

· Expectations

What expectations do various parties to the problem-solving process have about their working together? Within a training session, for example, it is important for the trainees to know the expectation of the trainers and the sponsoring organizations. Likewise, the trainers need to know what the trainees expect from the program. If these expectations are very different, it could lead to serious problems in communicating and working together. To the extent possible, it is important to work toward a common set of expectations. The expectations of large groups of employees in many organizations never get surfaced. They continue to be hidden and the organization’s ability to make decisions and solve problems is thwarted.

If a pickpocket meets a holy man, he will only see his pockets
· Values

People who join organizations and groups often have strong values, e.g., things they prize or place a high value on. For example, many trainers value shared responsibility for, and involvement in, learning - the belief that people are not taught - they learn. This suggests active involvement in setting learning goals and contributing to the learning of others. The participants also come with their own values and they may be in conflict with those of the teaching staff. Values are a part of every interaction we undertake they need to be mutually understood if people are to work well together.

· Ground Rules

A good problem solving relationship involves establishing ground rules that are understood and agreed upon by all parties. How many times have you gone into a situation when you did not know what the ground rules were? Not a comforting feeling, is it?

A group that strives to make quality decisions and to solve complex problems needs to establish ground rules on how it is going to operate. These include:

· How it will go about analyzing and solving problems

· How it will make decisions

· How it will set agendas, keep notes, share information

· Whether it will have a regular group leader or rotate that responsibility among the participants.

· Roles and Responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities of each party involved, and how these are viewed by others, are important issues to be considered in establishing an effective problem solving relationship.

People play various roles in groups - some helpful, some not so helpful. We will be looking at those roles in this course and how they affect each group’s work.

· Resources

Any task to be undertaken requires resources. It is important to initially assess whether or not you have the necessary resources available, or whether you can acquire them if and when they are needed. Nothing stops problem solving more quickly than a lack of resources or the belief that they are not available.

Building a problem solving relationship is getting to know the territory in which decision making and problem solving should take place. It would include raising and answering questions that help develop a level of trust and understanding among those who should be involved. To assure a high level of congruence between the ideas being taught in the course and the behavior of the instructors, certain things should be done to aid building such a relationship. For example, the objectives of the course should be explained, along with the proposed schedule. There should be an opportunity for you (the participants) to discuss the objectives and make changes if they feel this is necessary. The trainers, should talk about some of our own values about learning why we believe they are important, and what they mean in this program.

The training program also provides an opportunity for you to express their expectations about the training and your particular needs as operating managers and trainers.

Finally, the training program is an opportunity to increase knowledge and skills in group work - all of which should contribute to a solid relationship. These are discussed in more detail in the following section.


· Group Values and Behaviors

What people do in the problem solving relationship is important and may have a greater impact on what happens than anything else. Here are some things that are helpful in building a strong working relationship.

(a) Empathy. It is important to try to see the situation from another person’s point of view - to “tune in” on the other person. Managers often forget what it was like to be a “worker.” Reflecting upon those experiences can be important in becoming a more effective manager.

(b) Honesty. Being honest will contribute to effective problem solving. While direct communication has different connotations in different cultures, it is a value worth considering.

(c) Respect. Having a positive regard for others and respecting their feelings, experience and potential for contribution is important to effective relationships and problem solving.

(d) Commitment. There are a number of ways that commitment can be measured, including presence and involvement in the task.

(e) Flexibility. Above all, the effective problem-solver is flexible, willing to hear others and to change his or her mind when a better idea is presented or a better way is found.

· Group functions

Another important part of effective problem solving is an understanding of how groups function. How we interact with others is a complex, interesting part of everyday life. Here are some things to know about working together that can be useful in making our interaction with others more productive.


In all human interactions, there are two major ingredients - content and process. The first deals with the subject matter of the task upon which the group is working. In many interactions, the focus of attention is on the content.

The second ingredient, process, is concerned with what is happening between and to group members while the group is working. In many interactions, little attention is paid to process, even when it is the major cause of ineffective group action.

Sensitivity to group process will better enable one to diagnose group problems early and deal with them more effectively. Since these processes are present in all groups, awareness of them will enhance a person’s worth to a group and enable him or her to be a more effective group participant.


One indication of involvement is verbal participation. Look for differences in the amount of participation among members:

· Who says a tot; who doesn’t?

· Do you see any shift in participation, e.g., “talkers” become quiet; quiet people suddenly become talkative?

· How are the silent people treated? How is their silence interpreted? Is it seen as consent, disagreement, disinterest, fear?

· Who talks to whom?

· Who keeps the discussion going? Why?


Influence and participation are not the same. Some people may speak very little, yet they capture the attention of the whole group. Others may talk a lot but are generally not listened to by other members.

· Does anyone make a decision and carry it out without checking with other group members? (self-authorized). For example, he/she decides on the topic to be discussed and immediately begins to talk about it.

· Does the group drift from topic to topic?

· Who supports other members’ suggestions or decisions? Does this support result in the two members deciding the topic or activity for the group?

· Is there any evidence of the majority pushing a decision through over other members objections? Do they call for a vote (majority support)?

· Is there any attempt to get all members participating in a decision (consensus)?


For a group to work effectively, a number of functions or roles must be performed by both the designated leader and/or the members of the group. The performance of these functions permits the group to satisfy the needs of its members and to move toward achievement of its objectives. There are two main categories of leadership/membership functions: (1) those required to meet needs on the level of task achievement; (2) those required to meet needs on the level of group maintenance. A third category of composite roles helps the group both to do the job and also maintain and strengthen itself as a group.


The following task functions are necessary if a group is to operate effectively. If any of these roles are omitted, the effectiveness of the group declines.

(a) Initiating Activity: Proposing solutions; suggesting new ideas; providing new definitions.

(b) Seeking Information: Asking for clarification of suggestions; requesting additional information or facts.

(c) Seeking Opinions: Looking for an expression of feeling about something from members; seeking clarification of values, suggestions, or ideas.

(d) Giving Information: Offering facts and relating one’s own experience to the group problems to illustrate points.

(e) Giving Opinions: Stating an opinion or belief concerning suggestions others might make.

(f) Elaborating: Clarifying; giving examples or developing meanings; trying to envision how a proposal might work out if adopted.

(g) Coordinating: Showing relationships among various ideas or suggestions; trying to pull ideas or suggestions together; drawing together activities of various subgroups or members.

(h) Summarizing: Pulling together related ideas or suggestions; restating suggestions after the group has discussed them.

(i) Testing Feasibility: Making application of suggestions to real situations; examining the practicality and workability of ideas.


In this category are described those functions which are required to strengthen and maintain the life of the group and its activities. They are necessary in order to alter or sustain the way in which members of the group work together.

(j) Encouraging: Being friendly and responsive to others; praising others and their ideas; agreeing with and accepting the contributions of others.

(k) Gatekeeping: Making it possible for another member to make a contribution to the group; or suggesting limited talking time for everyone so that all will have a chance to be heard.

(l) Standard Setting: Expressing standards for the group to use in choosing its content or procedures or in evaluating its decisions.

(m) Following: Going along with the decisions of the group; thoughtfully accepting the ideas of others.

(n) Expression of Group Feeling: Summarizing what group feeling is sensed to be; describing reactions of the group to ideas or solutions.


This category of leader/member roles represents functions which accomplish a dual purpose. They help to integrate the group, while at the same time, releasing its energies toward the achievement of its task or solution to its problem.

(o) Evaluating: Submitting group decisions or accomplishments for comparison with group standards; measuring accomplishments against goals.

(p) Diagnosing: Determining sources of difficulties and appropriate steps to take next; analyzing the main blocks to progress.

(q) Testing for Consensus: Tentatively asking for group opinions in order to find out whether the group is nearing consensus or a decision; sending up trial balloons to test group opinions.

(r) Mediating: Harmonizing; conciliating differences in points of view; making compromise solutions.

(s) Reflecting Expressed Feelings: Recognizing and accepting feelings expressed by members of the group; restating what has been said, thus freeing a member of the group for further self-understanding, insight and participation.


Often in groups, one can observe behavior that does not fit any of the above mentioned categories. This is likely to be self-centered behavior, sometimes referred to as “nonfunctional” roles. This is behavior that does not contribute to the group but only satisfies personal needs. The following non-functional roles are to be avoided in one’s own behavior.

(a) Being Aggressive: Working for status by criticizing or blaming others; showing hostility against the group or some individual; deflating the ego or status of others.

(b) Blocking: Interfering with the progress of the group by going off on a tangent; citing personal experiences unrelated to the problem; arguing too much on a point; rejecting ideas without consideration.

(c) Competing: Vying with others to produce the best idea; talk the most; play the most roles; gain favor with the leader.

(d) Special Pleading: Introducing or supporting one’s own pet concerns or philosophies; lobbying.

(e) Seeking Recognition: Attempting to call attention to one’s self by loud or excessive talking; extreme ideas; unusual behavior.

(f) Withdrawal: Acting indifferent or passive; resorting to excessive formality; daydreaming; whispering to others; wandering from the subject.


It is important for managers to understand group process and its impact on managerial decision making and problem solving. Managers rarely work alone. Their average day is filled with meetings - from one-on-one counseling of valued employees - to small work sessions - to large group settings. In every case, those involved must consider how best to develop the relationship, whether temporary or long standing, so it will be productive. Those who know how to build problem solving relationships in a variety of interactive circumstances have mastered one of the keystone skills for effective management.