Problem Solving Team Building

It's hard to solve difficult problems as a team.

Everyone has an opinion. They all think they’re right. And they’re often unwilling to consider other options.

Problem Solving Team Building (PSTB for short) is a 30-45 minute activity where the problem ‘owner’ goes through a structured process of brainstorming, issue analysis, and action planning to achieve a plausible solution to their issue.

Problem Solving Team Building

The result is a prioritized list of options and solutions that the group accepts. It’s as close to magic in a corporate setting as you are likely to get.

The PSTB manages resistance to change as the steps encourage involvement, inclusion and rapid progress.

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  • To make breakthrough progress on a seemingly intractable problem by using the power of the Team.
  • To be an antidote to unstructured, time-consuming meetings that discuss a problem but seldom arrive at any concrete way forward.
  • For the Problem Owner to go away with actions that inform future plans.
  • For the Team to feel they have worked together to enrich the thinking behind the solution.

When Would You Use It?

  • Whenever you have an issue that needs problem solving techniques to get to a solution fast.
  • Whenever you require a rigorous process to achieve issue analysis.
  • Best results with small to medium sized groups (no more than 10).
  • If you’d like to sharpen your brainstorming techniques library.

Are There Any Rules?

  • Good team behavior needs to be emphasized (especially as this is issue analysis).
  • Headlines only (i.e. keep the discussion at the right level).
  • No idea is a bad idea.
  • Be open-minded.
  • Listen as well as contribute.
  • One person to speak at a time.
  • Be ready to participate actively (it’s more fun that way!).
  • Don’t kill the process.
  • Agree the time contract upfront (e.g. 20, 30 or 45 mins).
  • Always remember who owns the problem.
  • Roles and responsibilities should be maintained throughout – owner, facilitator, team.

Before you start

  • Make sure you're tackling a root cause problem otherwise you'll be working on a symptom.
  • If you want to avoid working on a symptom run a root cause analysis process like Five Whys or Fishbone Analysis first.

Resources Required

  • A willing group of people (max 10 for best results).
  • A flip-chart, marker pens (a few to avoid lost time when the first inevitably dries up), plenty of tack to stick the paper on the wall as it’s produced, wall space near the flip-chart.
  • A private quiet open space (no tables, just a semi-circle of chairs pointing at the flip-chart).

Roles and Responsibilities

Problem Owner



  • Chief decision maker.
  • Owns the problem and goes away with an action plan.
  • Focused on content – defines the problem, provides relevant background information and makes decisions when asked to do so by the facilitator.
  • Focused on getting through the process.
  • Keeps the meeting on track.
  • Promotes creativity.
  • Records the output.
  • Contributes their ideas and expertise.
  • Follows the process.
  • Helps the team attain the goal.


The main steps of this problem solving technique are illustrated in the diagram below, based on a 30 minute time contract.

Problem Solving Team Building

For longer PSTB sessions (45 mins or 60 mins) keep the initial step to five minutes but adjust the timing of each remaining step in proportion to those shown here.

  • 1
    The Problem Statement is a simple “How do I …?” question.
  • 2
    Idea Generation is a rapid brainstorming activity for the Team only (i.e. the Problem Ownerlistens and the Facilitator writes).
  • 3
    Idea Selection is for the Problem Owner only to pick the 1-3 most promising ideas.
  • 4
    Benefits & Concerns is for the Team to assess each of the selected ideas.
  • 5
    Critical Concerns can be raised by anyone and may eliminate an idea if they cannot be overcome.
  • 6
    Action Planning is for everyone to contribute to and take ownership of the individual points.

Be disciplined with the timing to inhibit elaboration and argument that could derail the process.

Secret Sauce

  • As mentioned in the introduction the PSTB manages resistance to change as the steps encourage involvement, inclusion and rapid progress. This is how it does that:
  • The Idea Generation phase allows contributions from everyone. Then the selection narrows down to 1,2,3 directions – by the owner!
  • The Benefits & Concerns phase allows the group to comment on their reactions to the potential success of the choices. The owner is first to share their Pros and Cons of each choice and then the team gets to reflect on their pros and cons of that choice. They mustn't talk about why something else should be chosen as this would open out the discussion again.
  • At this point you have the group focused on (1,2,3 ) choices and the problem owner has to listen and choose. If the owner has chosen her/his own idea – they run the risk of being chastened by the group responses. If there are blockers / difficult people in the group then they must respond to their objections by ensuring they and/or others come up with strategies to overcome the problems (as you will see in the Action Plan).
  • The group gets the opportunity to shape the 3 options and therefore creates ownership of the solution they did not choose. The owner is also primed to see how difficult it is going to be to implement the chosen idea.
  • The Critical Concerns phase allows the owner to discard an unwise choice, work on a difficult choice some more or just move on the action planning
  • The action planning step MUST first, take each concern of the choice(1,2,3) and address how to overcome that concern. When this has been done for each concern against a choice – then and only then can you open it out to "so what else do we need to do to get this choice implemented?"
  • As with many brainstorming techniques once the team gets going in the idea generation phase it can be hard to cut them off. If the content is great and you don’t want them to stop then the Facilitator can give a polite “we now need to move on to the next phase but as this is going so well let’s give it another 2 mins”. You can always make up the time in the Idea Selection phase which rarely takes more than a couple of minutes to complete.
  • There are very rarely any critical concerns that are so critical that it rules out the solution. That won’t stop doomsayers from suggesting them though so make sure you ask the question “is that so critical and out of our control that we can’t overcome it with some carefully planned actions later on?”
  • Leave plenty of time for Action Planning and make sure you complete this phase well (it’s the whole point after all). After all that expended creative energy the group will be tired and the temptation can be to do a half-job. Be diligent!
  • While there is no obligation on the Problem Owner to pursue each shortlisted idea and every action proposed, the Problem Owner should be aware that an implicit or ‘psychological’ contract exists as a consequence of the PSTB process. The value of any future PSTB exercises is likely to be undermined if the Team feels their collective input has not been pursued.
  • Many problem solving techniques take practice to perfect and this one is no different. It requires lots of discipline from all the parties involved. Keep trying and don’t get discouraged because the results can be truly amazing!

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About the Author

Nick Martin helps leaders & consultants improve team results with resources, advice & coaching through

  • thanks for your stuff

    • That’s a pleasure Mary … glad you stopped by … thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Wayne Swanson, Jr says:

    Good Morning (EST),

    I just downloaded this workshop for a Team Meeting I am having on Friday. I like the concepts and the flow of the excerise. I’ll let you know how it goes!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • avinash says:

    great exercise. if I can follow the flow in my workshop it will come out awesome. Thanx for sharing.

    • That’s a pleasure Avinash … thanks for saying thanks … it’s a brilliant workshop this one … never fails to bring a team together as one behind a tricky problem

  • Thanks for the article. As a former Cap gemini consultant, I appreciate the tool. Be aware that this approach has been digitalised with (In French for the time being).

  • Christina says:

    Thanks for the slides. How can this be addapted to a problem of a whole team?

    • How big a team Christina? You don’t really want more than 10 people as you lose momentum. If you have more than 10 then I like to run multiple PSTBs in parallel with different groups solving different issues with plenary feedback as a whole group at the end.

  • Denis Nixon says:

    Nick you missed an important step – what is the root cause of the problem – that should always come before solution seeking. Even root causes are a brainstorm – you need also to test to ensure that you have the right root cause. Keep up the good work

    • Great point Denis. I was assuming the root cause of the problem had been identified first which is clearly not a given. I’ve added a section ‘Before you start’ suggesting a couple of root cause analysis tools you could run first. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Dr. Mohib Nirob says:

    I appreciate the effort, it is useful, looking forwards for more.

  • Dan Eisenman says:

    This is exactly the kind of tool I’ve been looking for! Thanks Nick!

  • Peter dawson says:

    I’ve used it with hundreds of schools without a failure yet. Two tips
    1 train up a team of three to understand the rulesbeforehand
    2 stick to the rules whatever

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