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  • Before you start

  • Generating solutions

  • Evaluating solutions

  • Making a decision

It would be nice, when faced with a problem, to be able to immediately have the perfect solution pop into your head, recognize it as such, and be ready to go. Unfortunately, it's not always quite that easy. Even with a group of intelligent and dedicated people, it's not always easy to think of any solution to the problems facing the coalition, much less one that is effective and feasible. Just like anything else, it takes work -- some hard thinking, evaluating, and decision-making on the part of all members.

And that's what we'll focus on in this section. In the next few pages, we'll discuss setting the stage for an idea-generating session, as well as different methods you can use to come up with the most ideas possible. Then, when you have more ideas than you know what to do with, we'll talk about how to evaluate your solutions. Finally, we'll talk about the process of decision-making, and, in particular, how to gather a consensus.

Before you start

Previously, we talked about the importance of having a comfortable, well-lighted room to meet in. When holding a session to generate solutions to a problem, it is even more important that people are relaxed and at ease both mentally and physically. Why? Two reasons are particularly important:

  • To promote creativity. Helping people think in different ways is always a challenging task. You are asking people to be creative and to use a part of their brain that they may not be accustomed to activating. Being creative can be difficult for many of us. Soft lighting, comfortable chairs, and even relaxing music can help innovative ideas flow.
  • To promote open discussion. Most people are comfortable talking about facts or about other people's opinions. Sharing your own ideas, however, especially ideas that you haven't had time to think through, or that you think might be unacceptable to the group, can be much more daunting. No one wants to be laughed at or thought of as stupid because of the ideas that they have suggested. So, it's important that people have a fair amount of confidence, both in themselves and in the group, before you begin the process.

There are two key ingredients in making people comfortable: putting people at ease mentally and looking after their physical comfort.

To put people at ease mentally, they need to be comfortable talking with the group. If you began the process by defining and analyzing the problem, as we discussed in Section 5, group members should already have reached a certain level of comfort with each other, and the facilitator might decide that more team-building is unnecessary. This is especially true if group members have known each other and worked together for a while.

On the other hand, if some or all group members don't know each other well and seem to be a bit uncomfortable, you might want to take a few minutes to try a team-building exercise. It doesn't need to be complex, or even serious. In fact, something a bit nonsensical, such as asking everyone in the group to describe the most disgusting thing they ever ate, or to reveal what they would prefer to be reincarnated as, might be just the thing to loosen tension and help people feel more at ease with one another.

Paying attention to physical comfort of members is just as important. If your chair is too hard, or you're shivering in your sweater, or sunlight is glaring in your eyes, it's hard to focus on anything else. And when they are uncomfortable, most people become less open to new ideas.

Envision the place where you are most at ease and where you think most clearly. Where is it? Your living room? The beach? The library? What is it about that place that makes it so welcoming? What parts of that place can be transferred to your meeting area?

You probably won't be able to have your meeting in the place you find most comfortable. (Sometimes, though, you might! Why not hold a meeting at the beach?) And, of course, the same places won't be equally comfortable for all people. A meeting in the boss's office might be fine for her, but less comfortable for members of her staff.

What you can do, however, is try to introduce aspects of the place you're most comfortable into your meeting site. You could by providing music, or chocolate chip cookies, or posters on the wall. You're limited only by the imagination and preferences of members of the group.

And even if you can't do much, you'll probably find that there are some basic comforts everyone will find important, and you will want to take care of them before the meeting. Some possibilities include:

  • Soft lighting
  • Comfortable chairs
  • Access to restrooms
  • Making sure the temperature is comfortable for everyone
  • Taking breaks when the meeting gets too long
  • Refreshments (at an absolute minimum, you'll want to be sure there is water available)
  • Making sure the building is handicapped accessible

Generating solutions

When the group is comfortable, you will be ready to work together to think up some possible solutions. Listed below are just a few of the many different ways to do so. Your group can try the one that members prefer; all should yield some good solutions.

  • Simply go around the room and ask everyone to suggest ideas. No tricks, no gimmicks, but it works.
  • Send a piece of paper around the room. People can write down their ideas, which can later be discussed without anyone knowing who suggested which idea.
  • Idea writing. Idea writing is especially helpful to people who like to write. It also helps many people generate and comment on ideas in a short amount of time. Large groups should be divided into small groups of five or six. Each person writes a possible solution to the problem on his/her own pad of paper. Then each person puts their pad on a table in the middle of the group. Next, everyone takes someone else's pad and comments on the idea. People keep doing this until everyone in the group has commented on everyone else's idea. During or after the meeting, all the ideas are discussed or summarized in a report.
  • Brainstorming. Brainstorming is a tried-and-true way to come up with ideas in a group. The method is simple: The problem is stated, and the recorder stands in front of a room with some newsprint or a blackboard. People in the group say whatever ideas pop into their minds. The recorder writes down all of the comments made.

Helpful hints to keep in mind when brainstorming include:

  • Watch out for assumptions; every unnecessary assumption reduces the number of potential solutions. If your group is looking for entertainment for an upcoming celebration, for example, don't assume that there isn't talent within the group. You might have an outstanding singer who is just too shy to bring his talents up unasked.
  • Simply giving instructions that people can or should be creative in the brainstorming session may help raise the number and quality of solutions created.
  • No idea is too outlandish. The meeting recorder writes all the ideas down. Why? An idea that seems ridiculous on first hearing might turn out to be possible and even desirable. It may also be modified by other members of the group, and end up being the perfect solution to the problem.

A member of the coalition might suggest asking NBA players to mentor area youth. That might be impossible, but the idea sparks another member's imagination, and she suggests asking local college athletes to serve as mentors. Still another member suggests asking the coaches to sponsor youth who are having problems at home as scholarship students for their summer sports camps. Other suggestions come up as a result of these ideas, and after half an hour of brainstorming, the group has a long list of possibilities to choose from.

  • Nobody should comment on how good or bad the ideas are; there should be no discussion about them at this time. Keep producing all kinds of ideas until everyone runs out of steam.
  • Ideas can be "piggy-backed" or combined as people see connections during the process.
  • The facilitator should keep the energy high and constantly ask for more and different ideas. This may even be done in the manner of an auctioneer, with constant chatter and a fast-paced discussion.
  • If the group gets off the subject, the facilitator or recorder should gently remind them of why they are there.
  • Discussion, analysis, and idea selection come later.

Variations on brainstorming:

  • A period of individual brainstorming can precede the group activity. Each person generates his/her own ideas privately and later shares them with the group.
  • If idea generating is done on a day after you defined and analyzed the problem, group members can be asked to generate solutions as "homework" between the two sessions.

Evaluating solutions

Hopefully, your work up to this point has produced many potential solutions. Now, it's time to decide which idea is best. There are many possible ways to do this. One approach includes doing the following three things for each idea:

  •  Judge each idea independently. List on separate pieces of paper:
    • What you like about the idea
    • What you don't like about the idea
    • What the side effects might be
  • Ask the following questions:
    • Is it practical?
    • Is it effective?
    • Is it cost effective?
    • Will it be easy to put into practice? There's a lot involved in this question. Related questions might include: Can it be done by group members, or will you need outside help? How much time will it take? Will anyone need to learn new skills?
    • Will it be accepted by everyone involved? That is, by group members, those who will be affected, and those doing (and paying for) the work? How about the community as a whole?
    • Is it consistent with other things done by the group?

Looking at the above questions, it's easy to see that the answers will often be fairly subjective. Spending $1000 on a project may not be much if you are working on a $300,000 grant, but may be quite a bit more for less well-funded groups. But going through the above questions should give you a pretty good idea of what will work for you.

  • Modify the solution you are looking at if suggestions have come up that can improve it.

After looking carefully at each idea, and weighing the pros and cons of each, you're now ready to make your decision.

Making a decision

When it comes to how to make a decision, you can:

  • Have someone decide, and then announce the decision to the group
  • Gather input from individuals, and then have one person decide
  • Gather input from the group, and then have one person decide
  • Vote
  • Try to build consensus among everyone at the meeting

All of these are feasible alternatives that may be chosen at different times. For the group problem-solving process, however, we strongly recommend the last option. Choosing by consensus - discussing and debating the possibilities until everyone comes to an agreement - is often the strongest of these ideas, because everyone is part of the solution. Members are much more likely to fully support a decision that they had a hand in creating.

That's not to say that it's always easy to build consensus. Sometimes, it might be; when the group has looked carefully at all of the options available to them, one might jump out as clearly being superior to the others. But, when the solution is not so evident, it can be quite a challenge to form an agreement, especially if people in your group have strong opinions one way or another.

The following tips are often helpful to keep in mind during the discussion:

  • Avoid arguing blindly for your own opinions. It's easy to get so caught up in what you believe that you don't really hear what others are saying. Be sure to listen as carefully as you speak.
  • Don't change your mind just to reach an agreement. If you aren't happy with a solution now, it's not likely it will please you much more when you are doing the work several months down the line.
  • It's easy to think of this as an "all or none" situation: someone must win, and someone has to lose. That's not necessarily the case. If the group is locked between two different possibilities, see if a third will be more palatable for everyone involved.
  • If people are becoming frustrated, or you are making no progress, then take a break. Have some coffee, work on something else for a few minutes, or adjourn for the day. Sometimes, just a short breather can give people a new perspective.

What if you can't reach an agreement?

If a thorough discussion doesn't seem to result in a decision on which everyone agrees, you have a couple of options. (Hint: The group can decide before you debate solutions what you will do if you can't agree on any of the proposals.)

  • You can try one of the other decision-making possibilities mentioned above (nominate one person to make the final decision, vote, etc.).
  • You can try what authors David Quinlivan-Hall and Peter Renner call the "nominal group technique." To do this, ask each participant to assign a number to every solution, with one being their favorite solution, two being their second favorite, and so on. The numbers are all added up, and the solution with the lowest value is the one chosen.
  • In some cases, you might choose not to decide, or to defer the decision until the next meeting. Some ideas and opinions may change if people are allowed some time to mull them over.

Whatever you as a group decide to do, the facilitator should ask for feedback after the decision has been made. Questions might include, "Do you have any problems you would like to air?"; "Do you have any suggestions that might make this better?"; and, "Are you completely satisfied with the solution we have chosen?"

In Summary

Generating and choosing solutions within a group are two pretty tough tasks. You are asking people to think creatively, put aside their inhibitions, and come up with new ideas; then, you go a step further and ask them to use all of their political skills and negotiate a decision.

The good news is that when you've made it this far, you're almost home. In the next section of this chapter, Putting Your Solution into Practice, we'll talk about implementing all of your hard work. But, if you have been following the process, now is definitely the time to celebrate what you've already accomplished. You've come a long way!

Contributor 
Jenette Nagy
Marya Axner

Print Resources

Avery, M., Auvine, B., Streibel, B., Weiss, L. (1981). Building united judgement: A handbook for consensus decision making. Madison, WI: Center for Conflict Resolution.

Dale, D., and Mitiguy, N. Planning, for a change: A citizen's guide to creative planning and program development

Dashiell, K.A. (1990). Managing meetings for collaboration and consensus. Honolulu, HI: Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu, Inc.

Interaction Associates, Inc. (1987). Facilitator institute handbook. San Francisco, CA: Author.

Lawson, L.G., Donant, F.D., and Lawson, J.D. (1982). Lead on! The complete handbook for group leaders. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.

Meacham, W. (1980). Human development training manual. Austin,TX: Human Development Training.

Moore, C.M. (1987). Group techniques for idea building. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Morrison, E.K. (1994). Leadership skills: Developing volunteers for organizational success. Tucson, AZ: Fisher Books.