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Overcoming the Solution Fixation Trap: Why Teams Need to Understand Problems Before Solving Them



As organizations face increasingly complex challenges, they are relying more and more on teams to tackle knotty issues and drive key decisions. To get the most value from team dynamics, leaders must be aware of biases that can undermine group decision-making, and take steps to actively guide teams through a sound process. One such bias is the "solution fixation trap," where teams jump into proposing solutions before fully grasping the problem. This trap can limit a team's perspective and lead to poor decisions. Teams are prone to spend too little time understanding problems before plunging into solutions. This leads them to focus on limited options and make choices that don't fully address the situation. To short-circuit this, leaders should take concrete steps to slow teams down, force deeper inquiry into problems, expand thinking, and only then let teams loose on solutions.


Today we will explore what the solution fixation trap looks like and how leaders can help teams avoid it.


The Solution Fixation Trap: Definition and Causes


In a recent study, researchers asked teams to solve a complex problem: improve the experience for families visiting an art museum. Some groups were given background on the problem, while others were given background plus suggested solutions. What they found was striking: teams that had received solutions spent less than half as much time (4 minutes versus 9 minutes) trying to understand the problem before jumping to solutions. They also proposed fewer unique solutions.


This demonstrated the solution fixation trap: when presented with potential answers, teams are biased toward those options. They spend less time inquiring into the problem, and their thinking narrows around the solutions presented rather than exploring the issue holistically.


The researchers attribute this to two cognitive shortcuts teams rely on to make complex decisions manageable: (1) Confirmation bias, where teams focus on information supporting the solutions at hand rather than challenging their assumptions, and (2) Availability bias, where readily available solutions strongly influence thinking. Together, these make it very hard for teams to deeply analyze the problem when potential solutions are already on the table.


The Risks of the Solution Fixation Trap


Succumbing to this trap carries significant risks. First, teams can pursue solutions not tailored to the problem, resulting in wasted time and money. Second, they may never understand the problem deeply enough to solve it effectively. Third, teams miss the chance to harness diverse perspectives, as their thinking converges narrowly on predetermined options. Finally, the group is more likely to default to the status quo rather than consider truly innovative directions.


For consequential organizational decisions, it's critical teams take the time to fully analyze the problem before settling on solutions. This expands thinking, surfaces key issues, and prevents teams from becoming anchored on limited options or assumptions. Only with a clear-eyed view of the problem can teams bring their full cognitive power to develop creative solutions tailored to the situation.


How Leaders Can Guide Teams Beyond the Trap


Leaders play a crucial role in helping teams avoid solution fixation. First, they must slow the team's rush to solutions. The authors suggest asking "Why do we need to solve this problem?" to spark deeper discussion. Leaders should also press teams to consider if they have framed the problem too narrowly or made unexamined assumptions. This expands perspectives and ensures the team fully leverages its diverse knowledge.


Second, leaders need to actively broaden thinking around solutions. If some options are already on the table, they should force teams to propose alternatives, even bad or counterintuitive ones. This breaks overreliance on the initial solutions. Leaders should also highlight how initial ideas fail to address key issues, pushing teams to reexamine them.


Finally, leaders must create space for teams to synthesize insights before solution-finding. After an expansive problem analysis, teams should be given time to identify key patterns and insights. This helps integrate diverse views into a shared understanding of the problem's core issues before turning to solutions. Jumping into solutions too quickly undermines this synthesis.


An example brings the risks of solution fixation to life. Consider a team that is tasked with increasing foot traffic to a retail clothing store. They are provided with two pre-defined options: run more television ads or offer deep discounts. The team jumps right into debating these solutions without digging into root causes of declining foot traffic, like increased local competition, a dated product lineup, or changing consumer habits. They end up pursuing ineffective TV ads and deep discounts that drive little traffic while failing to address the larger issues.


By contrast, with guidance from their leader, the team might instead have spent time analyzing the drop in foot traffic and its multiple complex drivers. This would have surfaced the need for product revamping, better local marketing, and an enhanced digital presence. Only then could they have developed an integrated solution tailored to the true problem.


Conclusion


In an increasingly complex business environment, leaders must maximize the value of teams by steering them away from cognitive traps like solution fixation. Left unguided, teams will gravitate toward obvious solutions rather than fully analyzing the problem. This leads to narrow, inferior decisions. Leaders can improve outcomes by slowing teams down, forcing deeper inquiry, expanding mindsets, and synthesizing insights before solution-finding. With problems thoroughly understood, teams can then bring their full creative power to develop tailored, innovative solutions and drive optimal organizational decisions. The solution fixation trap is a natural human tendency leaders must counteract, as a team that grasps the problem is better positioned to fix it.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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