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Industrial and Commercial Training

ISSN : 0019-7858

Article publication date: 1 February 1978

The joint problem solving process is not just a matter of using a good logical system, or just a matter of effective interaction and sound group processes. It is a complex interplay between ‘social’ and ‘rational’ processes. Kepner and Tregoe, examined a number of successful problem solvers — and found that there was a consistent logical pattern in which they moved from problem definition, to a comparison of the problem situation with the non‐problem situation then on to locating the cause and finally on to some form of positive decision and action plan. Another social scientist, Norman Maier has suggested that effective group processes are important, but that an effective group solution depends largely on the nature of the actual problem; he also gave an account of the rational and group processes in joint problem solving. Others, such as Rensis Likert, believe that problem solving effectiveness is due primarily to supportive group relationships. Another writer, William Gore, attributes successful problem solving to a type of ‘unconscious’ non‐rational process which has to be surfaced and accepted in order to get the best solutions. Alex Osborn pioneered the creative element in problem solving and laid emphasis on brainstorming where the group generates a wide range of alternatives in an unrestricted manner prior to deciding on the best solution to a problem. All these writers have made a valuable contribution to understanding the joint problem solving process and any effective approach to problem‐solving should take serious account of this wide range of approaches. But the approaches are nevertheless very different and may be difficult to reconcile in a unified approach.

MISSELHORN, H. (1978), "Joint problem solving: Building better relationships and better solutions", Industrial and Commercial Training , Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 60-70.

Copyright © 1978, MCB UP Limited

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joint problem solving techniques

Make Negotiating Easier by Approaching It as “Joint Problem Solving”

For some people, negotiating comes naturally. For the rest of us, it can feel intimidating, awkward, and slightly confrontational. If this rings true for you, and you have trouble negotiating, try approaching it as “joint problem solving” instead.

Harvard Business Review says that approaching a negotiation as a confrontation actually helps ensure that it will be confrontational. Here’s the alternative they suggest:

Instead, approach it as an act of joint problem-solving: What are the critical issues at hand, what are my interests and their interests, and what are some different possible options for satisfying those various interests?

Instead of focusing on what either of you will have to give up, focus on a creative solution. Of course, you don’t want to be a complete pushover during the negotiating process, either. Just keep in mind—joint problem solving includes your needs, too. This perspective can make it a little easier to negotiate when you’re not a fan of it in the first place. For more detail, check out the full post, below.

How to Negotiate Nicely Without Being a Pushover | HBR

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Aligning around Better Solutions: A Tool for Joint Problem-Solving

joint problem solving techniques

Leaders are called upon to solve problems, in collaboration with others, and to enable their people to do the same, effectively and creatively. In this short video, Vantage’s Chanda Andrews shares a simple method for aligning around solutions to complex and recurring problems.

This video is part of our “ Soft Skills, Adaptive Leaders ” series. 

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Conflict Management: Difficult Conversations with Difficult People

Amy r. overton.

1 Division of Health Policy and Management, Department of Health Administration, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Ann C. Lowry

2 Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery, Department of Surgery, University of Minnesota, St Paul, Minnesota

Conflict occurs frequently in any workplace; health care is not an exception. The negative consequences include dysfunctional team work, decreased patient satisfaction, and increased employee turnover. Research demonstrates that training in conflict resolution skills can result in improved teamwork, productivity, and patient and employee satisfaction. Strategies to address a disruptive physician, a particularly difficult conflict situation in healthcare, are addressed.

Objectives: Upon completion of the article, the reader will: (1) Understand the importance of conflict resolution and management. (2) Recognize skill sets applicable to conflict management. (3) Summarize the steps necessary involved in a successful confrontational conversation.

Conflicts of various magnitudes occur frequently. You share a workspace with a colleague who consistently leaves the space disorganized and messy, which seems unprofessional to you since patients are seen in that office. Or a senior colleague insists being the first author on a research paper when you did all the work. In the preoperative area, the anesthesiologist disagrees with your surgical plan in the presence of the patient. A more extreme example would be a disruptive physician who yells or throws charts or instruments.

The frequency of conflict has been measured in several settings. In an observational study of operating rooms, conflicts were described as “high tension events”; in all surgical cases observed there was at least one and up to four high tension events. 1 Another study found on average four conflicts per operation emerged among operating room team members. 2 In a survey of 5,000 full time employees in nine different countries, 85% of employees dealt with conflict at work to some degree and 29% dealt with conflict frequently or always. 3 Another viewpoint focuses upon “toxic personalities” defined as “anyone who demonstrates a pattern of counterproductive work behaviors that debilitate individuals, teams, and even organizations over the long term.” 4 Conflict occurs frequently when working with such people. In a survey, 64% of respondents experienced a toxic personality in their current work environment and 94% had worked with someone like that during their career. 4 In another study, 91% of nurses reported experiencing verbal abuse. 5 The impact of these interactions on mood is significant. In a real-time study, employees recorded interactions with a coworker or superior at four random intervals daily; the employees rated the interactions as positive or negative and recorded their mood. The negative interactions affected the employee's mood five times more strongly than positive encounters. 6

Some would argue that conflict may be beneficial in certain situations, but in others it has negative consequences. 7 The proposed benefits of conflict include improved understanding of the task, team development, and quality of group decision making. The other line of thought suggests that conflict distracts from the immediate tasks and wastes resources on conflict resolution. Whether or not it is occasionally helpful, it is clear that many instances of conflict are harmful.

Conflict is associated with significant cost to organizations. In the study of employees from nine countries, the average number of hours spent per week on workplace conflict varied from 0.9 to 3.3 hours. In the United States, the average was 2.8 hours. 3 The calculated expense based on average hourly earnings in 2008 was $359 billion in lost time. High rates of employee turnover and absenteeism are associated with environments where conflict is poorly managed.

Health care is a complex system that requires effective teamwork and cooperation to function well. Patient safety research reveals that patient outcomes are negatively impacted when conflict mismanagement and other dysfunctions occur. 8 9 10 Another consequence of poorly managed conflict is disruption of care. In a national survey of physicians, almost two-thirds of respondents reported seeing other physicians disrupt patient care at least once a month. 11 More than 10% of the respondents reported witnessing that behavior daily.

Frequent causes of conflict include lack of clarity with expectations or guidelines, poor communication, lack of clear jurisdiction, personality differences, conflicts of interest, and changes within the organization. 12 Behavior that results in conflict could include bullying, limited communication or not sharing important information, and verbal or physical violence. 13 Employees cite personality clashes, stress, heavy workloads, poor leadership at the senior and managerial levels, lack of honesty and openness, and lack of role clarity as the most frequent causes of conflict. 3

Although conflict cannot be avoided, it can be managed. Since conflict will always be present on an individual and organizational level, it is important to develop the skills to appropriately manage a difficult conversation or interaction. Experts agree that the skills necessary can be acquired; they believe that conflict competence can be defined and learned. One definition of conflict competence is “the ability to develop and use cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills that enhance productive outcomes of conflict while reducing the likelihood of escalation or harm.” 14 The goal is to be competent in having difficult conversations. One model uses the terminology “crucial conversations and “crucial confrontations.” A “crucial conversation” is defined as “a discussion between two or more people where (1) the stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.” 15 Confrontations are those face-to-face conversations in which someone is held accountable. 16

Real life examples prove their statements and the benefits of improved conflict management. One group demonstrated that teaching the necessary communication skills resulted in 10% improvement in their habits of confronting difficult issues. 16 With that change, customer and employee satisfaction, productivity, and quality also improved. An information technology (IT) group found that improved communication practices resulted in 30% improvement in quality, almost 40% increase in productivity, and near 50% decrease in costs. 16 CPP Global report “Workplace Conflict and How Business Can Harness it to Thrive” study found “training does not reduce the occurrence of conflict, but it clearly has an impact on how conflict is perceived and can mitigate the negative outcomes associated with conflict.” 3

Various models of successful conflict management have been proposed. 14 16 The models typically include discussions of common responses to conflict and ways to effectively address conflict. These models will be combined and summarized in this article.

The common underlying principles of all the models are that

  • Conflict is inevitable and that both positive and negative consequences may occur depending on how the conflict is managed.
  • The results are likely to be better with active engagement rather than avoidance.
  • People must be motivated to address conflict.
  • Behavioral, cognitive, and emotional skills can be acquired.
  • Emotional skills require self-awareness.
  • The environment must be neutral and feel safe.

Response to Conflict

To begin this process, it is important to cultivate self-awareness in regards to one's physical and emotional reaction to situations involving conflict. The most common responses on approaching conflict include: avoiding, accommodating, competing, compromising, and collaborating. 17 Avoidance (or silence) refers to an individual recognizing conflict in a situation and actively deciding to not engage or deal with the problem. Avoidance may be prudent when the issue is minor in nature, as a temporary response when emotions are high or when others can resolve an issue more efficiently. This approach would be the opposite of someone whose response is to compete, which is categorized as being forcing, uncooperative, and assertive in the situation. Competition might be appropriate in emergent situations or actions known to be unpopular need to be taken on an important issue. People whose response is to accommodate others generally do not have their own needs met. Accommodation may be necessary when one is wrong, if the issue is more critical to others or if the value of harmony in the situation outweighs the benefit of a conflict. When accommodation is used, the conflict is resolved but if the pattern repeats itself frequently residual resentment may affect the relationship. Accommodation is also referred to as yielding. 18 Compromise and collaboration are both a balance of assertiveness and cooperativeness. The difference between the two is that compromise is often a negotiation between two parties with equivalent power, whereas collaboration is focused on finding a solution where all parties involved have their needs met. Compromise is focused on fixing a problem with a set amount of resources and collaboration allows for a broader view on problem solving. A combination of compromise and collaboration has also been defined as a problem-solving response. 18 Although there is not a correct response, responses characterized by open-mindedness to the ideas and perspectives of others promote positive outcomes. 17

Conflict Management Skills

When a conflict exists, the first step is to decide whether to address it. That decision involves balancing the reward against price of addressing the issue; that balance is unique to each circumstance. Some general rules are that if the issue is troublesome enough that it is affecting your behavior or weighing on your conscience, it should be addressed. It is important not to confuse the perceived difficulty of the conversation with determination of whether it will be beneficial and appropriate to proceed. Perceived differences in power often impact a decision to address a conflict; however, lessons from aviation and other industries illustrate the benefits of open communication and the risks of silence even in situations of different levels of authority or power. 19 20

Once it is been decided to address the conflict, there are several steps involved in preparation for the conversation. One step is to determine the exact nature of the conflict. When considering the exact nature of the conflict, some authors offer the following guidance. 16 If the issue occurs once, it is appropriate to discuss the content of the issue; if it has occurred repeatedly, one should focus on the pattern of events. If the problem impacts your relationship with the other person or team members, then the topic should be your relationship. One pitfall of conflict management is allowing task or pattern type conflict to deteriorate to relationship conflict by overpersonalizing the issue. Another system appropriate for team conflict divides conflict into task, process, and relationship conflicts. Task conflict is similar to content conflict, while process conflict refers disagreement over team processes. 21

One must also thoroughly understand one's own position. It is critical to gather all of the background information and any data necessary to discuss the conflict. Then one needs to achieve clarity about what is desired from the confrontation as well as what one is prepared to give up or compromise. Another key element is awareness of which outcomes one considers undesirable. Part of the preparation is consideration of one's own motivations and goals as well as the motivations and goals of the other party. This step seems obvious but is frequently not done or only superficially evaluated. Considering why a rational and ethical person would have behaved in the manner troubling you often opens an alternative view of the situation. The authors of Crucial Confrontations label this preparation as “mastering your story.” 16 In short, it is understanding from as many vantage points as possible how the problem situation might have developed.

The level of intensity of the conflict is another consideration in determining how best to approach the issue. One model divides the intensity of conflict into five levels. 14 Level 1 is differences. Those are situations in which two or more people have different perspectives on the situation; they understand the other person's viewpoint and are comfortable with the difference. This level of conflict can be an asset for a team or organization because it allows individuals to compare or analyze without an emotional overlay. Level 2 are misunderstandings in which two people understand the situation differently. Misunderstandings are common and can be minor, but can also escalate when stakes are high. If there are negative consequences such as missed events or obligations people tend fault and accuse one another which adds negative emotions to the situation. If the misunderstandings are frequent, it may indicate problems with communication. Level 3 is disagreements; these are times when people have different viewpoints of the situation, and despite understanding the other's position they are uncomfortable with the difference. This level can also easily escalate if ignored. Level 4 is discord. In those instances, conflict results in relationship issues between the people involved even after a specific conflict is resolved. There is often constant tension between those individuals. Level 5 is polarization, which describes situations with intense negative feelings and behavior in which there is little to no hope of resolution. For those conflicts, the mandatory first step is the agreement to communicate.

Another aspect of preparation is to recognize your emotional response and how it might affect your view of the situation. Addressing a difficult situation when one is angry or frustrated is more likely to be ineffective than when one is calm. Several famous quotes illustrate the point.

“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”

–Ambrose Bierce

It is therefore important to postpone the discussion until one is able to think more calmly and clearly. It is helpful to have an awareness of behaviors that “push your buttons.” One list of possibilities comes from an assessment instrument, “Conflict Dynamic Profile (Center for Conflict Dynamics Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, FL)” that includes the following behaviors: abrasive, aloof, hostile, micromanaging, over analytical, self-centered, unappreciative, unreliable, and untrustworthy. 22 A technique to reduce tension is cognitive reappraisal or reframing which refers to looking at alternative perspectives and outcomes of the situation to “reframe” it in a different, generally positive, light. Some other suggested techniques to manage one's emotions are consciously identifying and addressing one's fears about the outcome of the conflict or possible consequences. Centering techniques, which are based on martial arts, offer a way to calm oneself and focus on the positive aspects of the situation. 14

“The great remedy for anger is delay”

–Thomas Paine

All conflict management research confirms that setting a safe environment is a critical element in successful management of conflict. In a safe environment, all participants believe they will be respected and treated fairly. The authors of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace present a model that includes three different types of necessary trust. 23 One is contractual trust or trust of character which is confidence in the intentions of others. The second is communication trust or trust of disclosures. In an environment with communication trust, everyone is comfortable that people will share information, be honest, and keep private information confidential. The final type is capability trust; when present, the participants have confidence in others' abilities to deliver on promises. That model recognizes that trust can be harmed by betrayal, but also rebuilt.

Another description of a safe environment is one with mutual respect and mutual purpose. 16 Mutual respect involves using a tone of voice and words and facial expressions that convey respect for others as human beings. Mutual purpose is having the common goal of problem solving. Although the first model may seem difficult to achieve in all situations, mutual respect and mutual purpose are basic required elements for an effective discussion of a conflict.

How does one establish a safe environment? The conversation must be held in a private, preferably neutral, setting with enough protected time for the discussion. Some experts suggest that a potentially neutral way to establish the goal of joint problem solving is to start the discussion by describing the gap between the expected and observed behavior. Other options include asking for permission to discuss a topic or beginning with the facts from your perspective or your observations. It sets the wrong tone to start the conversation with your conclusion, particularly if it is harsh. One should share all appropriate and relevant information and avoid being vague. 16 Other tips to maintain a safe environment include asking open-ended questions, focusing initially on points of agreement and using “I” statements. Some examples of “I” statements are “I feel frustrated” and “I am concerned.” One must be aware of one's body language as well as tone and volume of voice.

Common mistakes to avoid are trying to soften the message by mixing it with complimentary statements or using an overly familiar tone of voice initially before addressing the problem. Most people feel they are being manipulated or treated dishonestly when the messages are mixed. Inappropriate humor or comments disrupt the rapport needed for a safe environment. Another common error is using nonverbal hints or subtle comments with the belief they can successfully address a conflict. This technique is risky because one is never clear on the other person's interpretations of the hints or comments. It also does not work to blame someone else for a decision or request you are making. It ultimately undermines any respect or authority you may hold. Asking people to guess the reason for the meeting, essentially to read your mind, is irritating and ineffective at problem solving.

Once a decision has been made and a neutral environment decided upon for the conversation, there are key elements to conducting the conversation. One organization (CMP Resolutions) terms this first phase as scoping. 24 It includes the time to understand what is happening, each person's perspective of the conflict, and what is important to them, as well as establishing ways the involved parties can work toward a solution. The first step in the conversation is to allow all parties to state their opinions and their perspectives on the conflict. Before beginning, the ground rules regarding confidentiality and decision making should be outlined. Listening, respectively, to each participant during this step is very important. Asking clarifying questions without imposing one's own view of the situation is a skill that often requires practice. One must be aware of the tone and volume of voice to ensure that the environment remains respectful. Expressions of empathy such as “that sounds really difficult” are helpful in setting the tone and encouragement of information sharing. One should avoid judgmental or blaming statements. Listening skills are one of the primary skills to be developed when working on one's ability to manage conflict. Utilizing “AMPP” helps to remember four main listening skills that are helpful when faced with a problem. 16 “A” stands for ask which starts the conversation and allows the other person to discuss their feelings about the situation. Mirroring (M) is a tool to encourage the speaker to continue or offer more information when they seem reluctant. The technique involves statements about what you are observing (e.g., you seem down today) in the other person and then asking a question. The third technique, paraphrasing (P), is the restating of their responses in your own words which shows active listening and makes clear whether you both have the same understanding. Finally, prime (P) refers to priming the pump. It is useful when someone is clearly emotional about the issue but reluctant to talk despite the use of the first three techniques. With this method, one makes a guess out loud about what the other person might be thinking or feeling. One must choose the words carefully and use a calm tone to avoid worsening the situation. The goal is to make the other person feel comfortable speaking. Other potentially helpful acronyms to use during conflict management are seen in Table 1 .

The next part of the conversation is defining the problem. A consensus on the definition of the problem is necessary for participants to be able to compare and discuss solutions. As noted earlier, the problem might be defined as the issue with one occurrence, a pattern of episodes or the working relationship. After creating a mutually agreed upon definition, the next step is to brainstorm possible solutions to the conflict. If possible, these solutions should address the needs of all parties involved.

After a list has been created of alternative solutions, each participant should discuss their preferred solution. There also needs to be a “reality check” with the decision makers. Perhaps the ideal solution is too expensive or not feasible because of existing regulation or organizational policies. The goal is finding commonality and acceptable compromises that allow for all participants to feel like their needs are met and the conflict is being addressed. Once this solution is chosen, an action plan that outlines the “who, what, and when” of fixing the problem needs to be devised. Making sure that everyone involved understands their role and tasks are an important step to accomplish the solution.

Many models suggest that reflection on ways to prevent or more effectively handle similar conflicts in the future at the end of the conversation is beneficial. A follow-up plan is critical. If a plan with timelines is not designed and implemented, the behavior will typically change for a period of time but then slip back into old patterns. Whether the plan is another meeting, completion of certain tasks, or a system of monitoring, it should be defined clearly.

A particularly complex issue in conflict management is the disruptive physician. Historically, that issue has been addressed reluctantly if at all. The physician is often a high revenue producer and organizational leaders fear the consequences of antagonizing the physician or there is concern about a potential conflict of interest. The term is defined in various ways. One definition of disruptive physician behavior is “a practice pattern of personality traits that interferes with the physicians' effective clinical performance.” 25 The Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons defined it as “inappropriate conduct whether in words or action that interferes with or has the potential to interfere with, quality health care delivery.” 26 An occasional bad day or overreaction does not constitute disruptive behavior. Rather it is the pattern of repeated episodes of significant inappropriate behavior.

The typical behaviors are often divided into aggressive and passive aggressive categories. Aggressive behaviors include yelling, abusive language, intimidation, and physically aggressive actions. Passive-aggressive behaviors include intentional miscommunication, impatience with questions, racial, general or religious jokes, and implied threats. Despite estimates that only 3 to 6% of physicians qualify as disruptive physicians, 27 the negative impact on the health care system is significant. The behavior undermines morale and productivity as well as the quality of care and patient safety. For example, nurses are less likely to call physicians with a history of disruptive behavior even when they need to clarify an order or report a change in a patient's condition. According to the Joint Commission, these behaviors “can foster medical errors, contribute to poor patient satisfaction and to preventable adverse outcomes, increase the cost of care, and cause qualified clinicians, administrators, and managers to seek new positions in more professional environments.” 28 In an academic environment, this behavior is associated with poor role modeling for students and trainees. Because of the impact, both the Joint Commission and the Federation of State Medical Boards addressed the issue in their standards and policies. 28 29

If the pattern of behavior is recognized early, a conversation with a trusted colleague or physician leader using the techniques described above might be sufficient to change the pattern of behavior. One model of corrective feedback starts by preparing the physician for the meeting with advanced notice and provision of a private setting and respectful atmosphere. Often asking the physician to provide a self-assessment of their interactions with others is a good starting point that can be followed with the observations of specific disruptive behaviors. Strategies for change and improvement as well as set expectations and a monitoring program need to be discussed and articulated before concluding the meeting. 30

There is evidence that an organization that sets standards for behavior and uses the principles of “action learning” to address variances will have desirable outcomes with disruptive physicians. Briefly, the principles of action learning, which was developed by Reginald Revans, are that the best learning occurs through active questioning and reflection rather than instruction. 31 The people involved tackle a real-life problem by asking questions, discussing alternative solutions, reflecting on change, and monitoring progress. In an interview study of independent, single-specialty surgical practices representing 350 physicians, the investigator determined whether the use of action learning principles correlated with desirable outcomes with disruptive physicians. 32 Desirable outcomes include retention of the physician with a change in the troublesome behavior. In 20 practices, action learning resulted in successful management of the problem.

However, most disruptive physicians require more intensive intervention. Reynolds argues that “constructive change in disruptive physicians comes through requiring adherence to expected behaviors while providing educational and other supports to teach the physician new coping skills for achieving the desired behaviors.” 25 A comprehensive evaluation including medical, chemical, and psychiatric evaluation is the first step. It is important to identify an underlying treatable condition. A program of remediation including educational and psychological training to foster new coping skills is outlined. A critical part of the program is long-term follow-through and monitoring. For most disruptive physicians, it is the threat of imposed consequences rather than internal motivation to improve that guides their compliance with the program. 25 Several well-established programs offer resources for the training including the Physician Assessment and Clinical Education (PACE) program at the University of California School of Medicine, San Diego 33 and the Distressed Physician Program at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. 34 A composite case study of transformative learning to address disruptive physician behavior illustrates the process used. 35

Conflict occurs frequently and often results in significant disruption and cost for individuals and organizations. Although often avoided or poorly managed, evidence suggests the skills for effective management of conflict can be learned. Multiple studies confirm when conflict is successfully addressed, and multiple benefits accrue to the organization and individuals.

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Opinion article, cross-disciplinary research on learning and instruction – coming to terms.

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  • 1 Department of Psychology, LMU Munich, Munich, Germany
  • 2 Department of Mathematics Education, Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, Kiel, Germany
  • 3 Institute of Medical Education, University Hospital, LMU Munich, Munich, Germany
  • 4 TUM School of Education, Technical University of Munich, Munich, Germany
  • 5 LMU University Hospital, Medizinische Klinik und Poliklinik IV, Munich, Germany
  • 6 Biology Education, Faculty of Biology, LMU Munich, Munich, Germany
  • 7 Mathematics Education, LMU Munich, Munich, Germany

Cross-Disciplinary Research Collaborations

Research in universities and other organizations is often conducted within established disciplines that are historically based and highly arbitrary ( Campbell, 2014 ). However, emergent phenomena fail to fit into disciplinary boundaries, making cross-disciplinary research necessary, often involving corresponding collaboration ( Hall et al., 2008 ).

One area of research involving complex phenomena that cannot be well addressed by one discipline alone is learning and instruction in higher education. Higher education programs aim to teach professional knowledge to students as a prerequisite for their later professional activities ( Blömeke et al., 2015 ). For example, in teacher education programs usually focus on content knowledge (CK), pedagogical content knowledge (PCK), and pedagogical-psychological knowledge (PK) (see Shulman, 1987 ). In order to teach such knowledge, it seems reasonable and is increasingly common that psychologists and educational scientists, in addition to experts in the subject matter domains, are involved in designing study programs. Similarly, it also seems reasonable to involve researchers from these various domains for conducting research on how to facilitate teaching in higher education programs. Thus, cross-disciplinary collaboration is the rule rather than the exception in higher education practice and is becoming increasingly common in research on higher education. An example for a cross-disciplinary research endeavor in learning and instruction is a research unit on facilitating diagnostic competences in simulation-based learning environments in the university context in which researchers from subject matter domains (biology education, mathematics education, and medical education) are working together with researchers from education and from educational psychology 1 .

Even though there is a decent amount of research on cross-disciplinarity, for example from the science of team science ( Hall et al., 2018 , 2019 ), there is only limited research on cross-disciplinarity in the field of learning and instruction, and especially on collaborative processes. In this opinion article, we claim that ideas and concepts from the field of collaborative problem solving have the potential to yield valuable insights when designing or conducting cross-disciplinary research in learning and instruction.

Conceptualization of Cross-Disciplinary Research Endeavors

There is substantial evidence on some specific features that positively influence cross-disciplinary research collaborations, such as team formation, team composition, or institutional factors (e.g., Epstein, 2014 ; O’Donnell and Derry, 2014 ; Hall et al., 2018 , 2019 ). However, it remains unclear how prerequisites such as the intended form of the cross-disciplinary collaboration influence the collaborative problem-solving process, and second, how the collaborative problem-solving process itself influences and is influenced by other factors such as aspects of the cross-disciplinary team or the production of joint artifacts.

We introduce a conceptualization of how ideas and concepts from the field of collaborative problem solving are useful to address challenges that arise from cross-disciplinary research (see Figure 1 ). The conceptualization is based on existing approaches to cross-disciplinary research (e.g., Epstein, 2014 ; O’Donnell and Derry, 2014 ; Hall et al., 2018 , 2019 ) and extends these approaches by introducing processes and skills from collaborative problem solving ( Hao and Mislevy, 2019 ; Hao et al., 2019 ).

Figure 1. Conceptualization of cross-disciplinary research in learning and instruction.

The basis of our conceptualization are the three different forms of cross-disciplinary research that are commonly differentiated: multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary (e.g., Lattuca, 2003 ; Slatin et al., 2004 ; Collin, 2009 ; Hall et al., 2012 ; Klein, 2017 ). Which form of cross-disciplinary research is intended, can have an influence on the collaborative problem-solving process in the way that it sets the stage for which collaborative problem-solving skills are of major importance. Collaborative problem solving builds the core of our conceptualization. We discuss how factors of the cross-disciplinary team reciprocally influence the processes of collaborative problem solving and how the collaborative problem-solving process itself and the development of joint artifacts influence each other. The environment, in which a cross-disciplinary research endeavor takes place, surrounds the other elements of the conceptualization building another important factor to consider in cross-disciplinary research in learning and instruction.

Form of Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

Forms of cross-disciplinary collaboration differ in their collaborative problem-solving process and build thus the basis for the conceptualization. Three forms that are commonly differentiated are multidisciplinary research, interdisciplinary research, and transdisciplinary research (e.g., Lattuca, 2003 ; Slatin et al., 2004 ; Collin, 2009 ; Hall et al., 2012 ; Klein, 2017 ). However, so far there is no agreed upon definition for each form (e.g., Hall et al., 2008 ). For the purpose of our analysis, we use the following differentiations ( Klein, 2017 ): In multidisciplinary research, different disciplines work on different aspects of a problem independently within their disciplinary boundaries. Researchers from different disciplines contribute specific knowledge and skills with the goal to address a certain phenomenon or issue from multiple perspectives. In interdisciplinary research, existing disciplinary approaches are restructured and integrated in order to address a problem relevant for all participating disciplines. Interdisciplinary research can be seen as a spectrum reaching from researchers borrowing concepts and methods from other disciplines to answer a specific research question up to the development of new frameworks that are valid across disciplines ( Pohl et al., 2021 ). Researchers share their knowledge and then identify which concepts or methods from the other disciplines are necessary for answering research questions within their own discipline or that go beyond their own disciplinary boundaries. In interdisciplinary teams, researchers’ still focus on their own disciplines even though disciplinary boundaries are crossed to some degree to make the points of contact between the disciplines compatible ( Choi and Pak, 2006 ). Transdisciplinary research also seeks to integrate different lines of work from contributing disciplines ( Klein, 2010 ; Pohl, 2010 ). A key aspect of transdisciplinary research is the collaborative co-production of knowledge from researchers from different disciplines, and possibly also stakeholders from private or public sectors with the goal to solve societal problems ( Pohl et al., 2021 ). Whereas in interdisciplinary research actions in the collaborative process are described with linking, blending, fusing, and synthesizing, actions in transdisciplinary research are transcending, transgression, and transforming ( Klein, 2010 ). Disciplinary boundaries can be challenged on purpose in the process of transdisciplinary research ( Pohl et al., 2021 ). Whereas the current discourse on cross-disciplinary research distinguishes between three discrete forms (multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary), there are considerations that place them on a continuum ( Mennes, 2020 ).

Collaborative Problem Solving

We want to make the claim that even though cross-disciplinary research in learning and instruction can be considered through the lens of collaborative problem solving, the intended form of cross-disciplinary collaboration can influence the role that collaborative problem solving plays in that process. Main aspects of collaborative problem solving important for cross-disciplinary research are collaborative problem-solving skills and different roles to help stimulate the problem-solving process.

Collaborative problem solving involves cognitive skills, such as defining the problem at hand and social skills, such as establishing a shared understanding ( Graesser et al., 2018 ). Regarding the collaborative problem-solving process, four skills are considered to be of major relevance ( Liu et al., 2016 ; Hao and Mislevy, 2019 ): (1) Sharing ideas refers to how individuals bring divergent ideas into a collaborative process ( Liu et al., 2016 ). (2) Negotiating ideas refers to building collaborative knowledge and constructing processes within a group. Negotiating occurs by comparing alternative ideas and their associated evidence. Subprocesses of negotiating ideas include agreeing, disagreeing, requesting clarification, elaborating on each other’s ideas, and identifying gaps ( Liu et al., 2016 ). Collaborative team knowledge is produced in this process ( Liu et al., 2016 ). (3) Regulating problem-solving activities is a social skill that refers to the coordination of discourse within a team. An example is to highlight the goal of a discussion, such as finding an up-to-date instrument to measure motivation. An important aspect regarding the regulation of problem-solving activities is that members’ individual ideas about what collaboration looks like might differ more in cross-disciplinary projects than in mono-disciplinary projects. External guidance might be needed to ensure successful collaboration ( von Wehrden et al., 2019 ). (4) The social skill of maintaining conversation refers to communication that is not directly topic-related but maintains a positive atmosphere ( Liu et al., 2016 ). This kind of non-topic-related communication seems to be of major importance in cross-disciplinary teams in order to support the collective communication competence of the team ( Thompson, 2009 ). Research on cross-disciplinary research collaborations from other fields suggests examining how the involved disciplines differ in their way of collaborative problem solving and communicating and then providing enough guidance while still offering enough possibilities for participation in all collaborative problem-solving processes ( König et al., 2013 ).

Depending on the form of cross-disciplinary collaboration, different collaborative problem-solving skills seem to be central. In a cross-disciplinary research unit in learning and instruction, regulating the problem-solving process is central for multidisciplinary goals. This importance is based on the fundamentally different perspectives on the same problem by researchers from different disciplines, e.g., subject matter didactics, educational psychology, and educational science. In addition to the need to regulate problem-solving processes within the team externally, coordinating resources that exist in the different disciplines and defining interfaces might be necessary. For example, it might be important to organize and moderate meetings in which different disciplinary perspectives on a joint problem can be juxtaposed. For interdisciplinary goals, sharing knowledge across disciplines seems particularly important in addition to regulating the process (see Liu et al., 2016 ). For interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary goals, negotiating can be considered a specifically important skill for grounding and finding a shared language across disciplines ( Bromme, 2000 ). Based on these examples, we hypothesize that each form of cross-disciplinary collaboration (multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary) requires unique collaborative problem solving and communication skills, because they differ in their main goals as well as in the means of achieving and communicating these goals.

Possibly, it can be beneficial for the definition of specific working routines, such as for the development of learning environments, to assign different collaborative problem-solving activities to different roles. Roles can be conceptualized with reference to internal collaboration scripts. Internal collaboration scripts are mental schemas that typically include a set of roles and associated activities ( Fischer et al., 2013 ). These internal scripts may differ widely across disciplines. For example, the collaboration script in one discipline can involve that junior researchers first formulate a draft for a manuscript and later senior researchers comment on that draft. In other disciplines, junior researchers might be involved at other stages of the publication process. Therefore, making the task of specific roles explicit during interactions within the team seems important.

The regulation of the problem-solving process should be assigned to the role of a facilitator who mediates between actors from different disciplines (see also Bammer, 2016 ; Salazar et al., 2019 ). The facilitator can take over processual leadership tasks to ensure that the interactions between team members are productive ( Gray, 2008 ). In order to support the development of joint artifacts, it seems reasonable to spend resources on a facilitator with their own research experience at least on the post-doc level.

When building a cross-disciplinary research team, the science of team science has already described important aspects for team composition and team formation (e.g., Hall et al., 2018 , 2019 ). We focus on aspects of collaboration that are in close connection to collaborative problem solving. These aspects include overlapping expertise within the team, a strategy for publications, and a clear shared goal.

A deep understanding of more than one discipline is difficult to achieve ( Pohl and Hadorn, 2008 ). Most research teams have to engage in collaborative problem solving between various researchers with deep discipline specific knowledge. Campbell (2014) uses the metaphor of a fish’s scales to describe the composition of successful cross-disciplinary teams. In his model, each fish scale symbolizes one individual with a unique set of expertise. In order to build a successful team, each “fish scale” has to overlap to a certain degree with the neighboring fish scales. There are fish scales that are close to each other and others that are further apart. Those further apart from each other are not directly connected but are indirectly connected via the other fish scales. What can be drawn from Campbell’s (2014) metaphor is that it is not necessary that researchers from all disciplines collaborate directly in a collaborative problem solving process, which would be highly laborious; rather, they may also be connected via researchers from other disciplines.

In research on learning and instruction it seems likely that the “connecting fish scale” is represented by researchers from the educational sciences or educational psychology because these disciplines are concerned with learning in general. For example, in the research unit on facilitating diagnostic competences in simulation-based learning environments researchers from mathematics education and medical education did not have a direct link at first. These two groups of researchers were only indirectly connected via their collaboration with the field of psychology. It seems possible that researchers from the connecting fish scale can have a major influence on the collaborative problem-solving process because they play a major role in regulating the problem-solving process.

A major challenge of cross-disciplinary teams is the lack of an adequate joint reward system during the collaborative problem solving process ( O’Donnell and Derry, 2014 ). Within disciplinary boundaries it is relatively clear how much a publication in a journal, book, or conference proceedings will benefit a researcher’s career. For example, publications in conference proceedings are typically less valued than international journal publications for an educational psychologist. However, the value of a publication becomes less clear when it appears outside of a researcher’s disciplinary boundaries or in an interdisciplinary journal. Furthermore, joint publications face additional problems such as over-inclusive authorship ( Elliott et al., 2017 ; Settles et al., 2018 ) or what disciplines see as reliable epistemic processes or epistemic ideals ( Chinn et al., 2011 ). The entire meaning of collaboration in a team of authors varies across disciplines. An exclusive focus on cross-disciplinary publications may be particularly problematic for young researchers, whose goal is to develop a record and profile of expertise within their disciplinary field. It seems even reasonable to suggest that young researchers should be encouraged to submit their first manuscripts primarily to disciplinary journals.

For cross-disciplinary research in learning and instruction, it is a major challenge to identify phenomena and questions that allow for research that is relevant or even cutting edge in all of the participating disciplines (e.g., Epstein, 2014 ). Examples of participating disciplines in learning and instruction are psychology, education, and various subject matter didactics such as mathematics education or biology education. In order to have interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary goals in a research endeavor in learning and instruction, it seems crucial to identify a phenomenon that makes integration of concepts and methods from different disciplines necessary. A helpful method for defining such goals may be integrating question that bring together different avenues of inquiry ( Cosens et al., 2011 ).

Joint Artifacts

Another major aspect for cross-disciplinary research in relation with collaborative problem solving is the development of joint artifacts. O’Donnell and Derry (2014) stress the importance of artifacts, which they call tools . For research on learning and instruction in higher education it seems characteristic that different concepts, methods, and technologies are used in the subject matter domains (e.g., biology or mathematics), in psychology, and in educational science. Therefore, it seems reasonable to suggest the development of three types of joint artifacts early in the collaborative problem-solving process in order to identify possible barriers but also potentials for innovation: a joint conceptual framework, a joint methodological framework, and a joint technological framework. In order to develop such artifacts it seems advisable to include an overarching coordination mechanism that ensures methodological and conceptual standardization and progress (see König et al., 2013 ). The development of joint artifacts can be of major relevance for collaborative problem-solving processes, such as information sharing and negotiating.

• A joint conceptual framework can identify relevant theoretical ideas and their interconnections. It can ensure that common ground exists and that terms are defined precisely.

• A joint methodological framework refers to methods and more detailed research practices. A precise description of methods is important because methods and best practices vary between disciplines. What is considered a gold standard in one discipline can be seen as less important in another discipline; for example, an empirical-experimental approach is difficult to combine with hermeneutic methods.

• A joint technological framework defines the technology relevant for collaboration and for addressing the research questions. Every discipline in the context of learning and instruction has its own set of preferred research technologies, for example simulations that create extensive logfiles to measure and facilitate learning ( Fink et al., 2020 ). Joint technologies may help to integrate data from different research projects, and later transfer the results into practice. In order to have a suitable technology for learning, it can be necessary for researchers to develop their own software.


The last aspect in our conceptualization of cross-disciplinary research in learning and instruction is the environment that surrounds the other aspects. In connection with cross-disciplinary collaborations there are various environmental factors such as societal and political factors that influence whether a research endeavor will receive attention and funding. In this section we focus on a factor that researchers can influence to a certain degree: the institutional climate.

The institutional climate refers to the perceptions, attitudes, and expectations of an institution toward cross-disciplinary research. Epstein (2014) argues that the institutional climate can support horizontal, cross-disciplinary structures that allow researchers to cluster around phenomena. As the institutional climate in many academic institution may only change slowly and gradually, it can take years of preparation and the completion of smaller projects to develop a sound environment for a research collaboration. In particular, it may only marginally be susceptible to individual members of the institution, making joint efforts and initiatives necessary. Thus, it seems reasonable to plan enough time for preparing both capacity as well as the environment for the actual research endeavor. It seems advisable to start with a smaller-scale project, such as the joint supervision of a single Ph.D. project or a joint publication. A well prepared institutional climate might also be beneficial for collaborative problem solving and particularly for maintaining conversation.

Cross-disciplinary research collaborations in the context of learning and instruction are of critical importance to address the complex problems of 21st century education. However, many promising projects fail beyond the actual research conducted due to avoidable issues ( Fam and O’Rourke, 2021 ). The research reviewed here allows for formulating reasonable hypotheses about favorable processes and conditions with a psychological focus from the perspective of collaborative problem solving. These hypotheses may support scientific achievements such as the use of pilot projects, the early development of joint artifacts, conceptual, methodological, and technical frameworks, or the role of an experienced facilitator supporting the collaborative problem-solving process through intellectual grounding, coordination and negotiation. Whether and under which conditions these hypotheses are valid for cross-disciplinary research collaborations on learning and instruction and beyond remains an open empirical question. In further research the theoretical foundation as well as the relationship between the four aspects of our proposed conceptualization should be further expanded and specified using theories on science and technology studies (e.g., Hackett et al., 2008 ), actor-network theory (e.g., Latour, 1996 ), or theories on complex systems (e.g., Stacey, 1995 ). We believe our proposed conceptualization based on theoretical considerations and on our own experiences in a cross-disciplinary research unit on facilitating diagnostic competence in simulation-based learning environments can provide helpful terminology and some theory-inspired heuristics on how to realize the great potentials and to avoid the stumbling blocks when attempting the challenging task of cross-disciplinary research collaboration in learning and instruction.

Author Contributions

All authors listed have made a substantial, direct and intellectual contribution to the work, and approved it for publication.

This research for this article was funded by the German Research Association (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) (FOR2385, FI 792/12-2).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

  • ^ *All authors are part of various cross-disciplinary large scale projects such as research unit COSIMA ( ) or international doctoral school REASON ( ).
  • ^ COSIMA website:

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Keywords : conceptualization, cross-disciplinary research, collaborative problem solving, transdisciplinary research, interdisciplinary research, joint theoretical framework, joint methodological approach

Citation: Heitzmann N, Opitz A, Stadler M, Sommerhoff D, Fink MC, Obersteiner A, Schmidmaier R, Neuhaus BJ, Ufer S, Seidel T, Fischer MR and Fischer F (2021) Cross-Disciplinary Research on Learning and Instruction – Coming to Terms. Front. Psychol. 11:562658. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.562658

Received: 15 May 2020; Accepted: 08 April 2021; Published: 11 May 2021.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2021 Heitzmann, Opitz, Stadler, Sommerhoff, Fink, Obersteiner, Schmidmaier, Neuhaus, Ufer, Seidel, Fischer and Fischer. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Nicole Heitzmann, [email protected]

This article is part of the Research Topic

Transdisciplinary Research on Learning and Teaching: Chances and Challenges


Collaborative Negotiation Done Right


October 10, 2014

Selena McLachlan

Collaborative negotiation – 6 important reminders about this win-win approach.

Getting to Yes: How To Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, was written in 1981, yet remains a best-seller. Why? Because it’s brilliant. Because it’s straightforward. Because it speaks to us leaders who value relationships. It’s a universally applicable method for negotiating personal and professional disputes without getting taken – and without getting angry. The book offers a concise, step-by-step, proven strategy for coming to mutually acceptable agreements in every sort of conflict. And as leaders, we know how invaluable this practice is.

If you’re like many, you’ve probably already read the book. But if you’re like most, you’d probably also benefit from a periodic refresher. If you don’t have several hours to spend, I’ve taken some liberties to summarize the most salient points below.

Collaborative negotiation in a nutshell

Collaborative negotiation – also called constructive, principled or interest-based negotiation – is an approach that treats the “relationship” as an important and valuable element of what’s at stake, while seeking an equitable and fair agreement. As opposed to always conceding in order to sustain the relationship.

A “competitive” approach to negotiation assumes a fixed pie, zero-sum, win-lose situation. In collaborative negotiation, it’s essentially assumed that the pie can be enlarged by finding things of value to both parties, creating a win-win situation, so that everyone leaves the table feeling like they’ve gained something of value.


Unlike most of the animal kingdom, we humans have a profound and deep need for fairness. And when this doesn’t happen – even if we’re the ones emerging as “winners” from a competitive negotiation – the end result is often not truly satisfying. A better feeling, and result, occurs when our needs are met; including the need for fairness.

Joint problem-solving

A collaborative approach to negotiation strives to convert individual wants into a single problem, bringing both parties together to work on solving the problem. The theory stems from the notion that by converting individual positions, wants and desires into separated problems, the negotiators are able to free themselves of any jealously or personal attachment to their requirements, in order to take a more objective and equitable position to collaborate from.

Transparency and trust

While it may not be possible or necessary to give away all of your information, there’s little tolerance for deceptive practices in collaborative negotiation. Moreover, gaining trust will be next to impossible. A simple way to eliminate suspicion is to be open and transparent, giving out most or all of your information (i.e. your wants, desires, end goal) before the other party requests it. The exact opposite of playing your best poker hand!

Dealing with competitive negotiators

So what happens when not everyone is playing by the same rules? Indeed, a huge challenge can occur if the other party takes a competitive approach, and tries to take advantage of your desire to collaborate. Sometimes we’re even perceived by competitive negotiators, to be weak. A proven way to deal with this type of situation is to be assertive and remain calm. Fend off your fight-or-flight reaction, recap your interests and summarize what you heard as their interests. Offer up a bit of an olive branch, while staying strong. And perhaps most importantly, know in advance what your BATNA is (back-up alternative to negotiated agreement), and demonstrate that you’re prepared to use it.

Remember, being a collaborative leader does not mean being weak or giving in. On the contrary, a collaborative approach seeks to gain the best possible solution for all. A true win-win situation. As educators, this means that our teachers, parents, students and school boards can all walk away feeling like they’ve come out winners. Kind of like a good haggle over a cup of tea at a middle-eastern carpet bazaar!

Think about the next time you need to engage your stakeholders in a collaborative negotiation. What’s your starting position? What are you prepared to give up? What are you not? And what’s your fall-back plan?


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35 problem-solving techniques and methods for solving complex problems

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All teams and organizations encounter challenges as they grow. There are problems that might occur for teams when it comes to miscommunication or resolving business-critical issues . You may face challenges around growth , design , user engagement, and even team culture and happiness. In short, problem-solving techniques should be part of every team’s skillset.

Problem-solving methods are primarily designed to help a group or team through a process of first identifying problems and challenges , ideating possible solutions , and then evaluating the most suitable .

Finding effective solutions to complex problems isn’t easy, but by using the right process and techniques, you can help your team be more efficient in the process.

So how do you develop strategies that are engaging, and empower your team to solve problems effectively?

In this blog post, we share a series of problem-solving tools you can use in your next workshop or team meeting. You’ll also find some tips for facilitating the process and how to enable others to solve complex problems.

Let’s get started! 

How do you identify problems?

How do you identify the right solution.

  • Tips for more effective problem-solving

Complete problem-solving methods

  • Problem-solving techniques to identify and analyze problems
  • Problem-solving techniques for developing solutions

Problem-solving warm-up activities

Closing activities for a problem-solving process.

Before you can move towards finding the right solution for a given problem, you first need to identify and define the problem you wish to solve. 

Here, you want to clearly articulate what the problem is and allow your group to do the same. Remember that everyone in a group is likely to have differing perspectives and alignment is necessary in order to help the group move forward. 

Identifying a problem accurately also requires that all members of a group are able to contribute their views in an open and safe manner. It can be scary for people to stand up and contribute, especially if the problems or challenges are emotive or personal in nature. Be sure to try and create a psychologically safe space for these kinds of discussions.

Remember that problem analysis and further discussion are also important. Not taking the time to fully analyze and discuss a challenge can result in the development of solutions that are not fit for purpose or do not address the underlying issue.

Successfully identifying and then analyzing a problem means facilitating a group through activities designed to help them clearly and honestly articulate their thoughts and produce usable insight.

With this data, you might then produce a problem statement that clearly describes the problem you wish to be addressed and also state the goal of any process you undertake to tackle this issue.  

Finding solutions is the end goal of any process. Complex organizational challenges can only be solved with an appropriate solution but discovering them requires using the right problem-solving tool.

After you’ve explored a problem and discussed ideas, you need to help a team discuss and choose the right solution. Consensus tools and methods such as those below help a group explore possible solutions before then voting for the best. They’re a great way to tap into the collective intelligence of the group for great results!

Remember that the process is often iterative. Great problem solvers often roadtest a viable solution in a measured way to see what works too. While you might not get the right solution on your first try, the methods below help teams land on the most likely to succeed solution while also holding space for improvement.

Every effective problem solving process begins with an agenda . A well-structured workshop is one of the best methods for successfully guiding a group from exploring a problem to implementing a solution.

In SessionLab, it’s easy to go from an idea to a complete agenda . Start by dragging and dropping your core problem solving activities into place . Add timings, breaks and necessary materials before sharing your agenda with your colleagues.

The resulting agenda will be your guide to an effective and productive problem solving session that will also help you stay organized on the day!

joint problem solving techniques

Tips for more effective problem solving

Problem-solving activities are only one part of the puzzle. While a great method can help unlock your team’s ability to solve problems, without a thoughtful approach and strong facilitation the solutions may not be fit for purpose.

Let’s take a look at some problem-solving tips you can apply to any process to help it be a success!

Clearly define the problem

Jumping straight to solutions can be tempting, though without first clearly articulating a problem, the solution might not be the right one. Many of the problem-solving activities below include sections where the problem is explored and clearly defined before moving on.

This is a vital part of the problem-solving process and taking the time to fully define an issue can save time and effort later. A clear definition helps identify irrelevant information and it also ensures that your team sets off on the right track.

Don’t jump to conclusions

It’s easy for groups to exhibit cognitive bias or have preconceived ideas about both problems and potential solutions. Be sure to back up any problem statements or potential solutions with facts, research, and adequate forethought.

The best techniques ask participants to be methodical and challenge preconceived notions. Make sure you give the group enough time and space to collect relevant information and consider the problem in a new way. By approaching the process with a clear, rational mindset, you’ll often find that better solutions are more forthcoming.  

Try different approaches  

Problems come in all shapes and sizes and so too should the methods you use to solve them. If you find that one approach isn’t yielding results and your team isn’t finding different solutions, try mixing it up. You’ll be surprised at how using a new creative activity can unblock your team and generate great solutions.

Don’t take it personally 

Depending on the nature of your team or organizational problems, it’s easy for conversations to get heated. While it’s good for participants to be engaged in the discussions, ensure that emotions don’t run too high and that blame isn’t thrown around while finding solutions.

You’re all in it together, and even if your team or area is seeing problems, that isn’t necessarily a disparagement of you personally. Using facilitation skills to manage group dynamics is one effective method of helping conversations be more constructive.

Get the right people in the room

Your problem-solving method is often only as effective as the group using it. Getting the right people on the job and managing the number of people present is important too!

If the group is too small, you may not get enough different perspectives to effectively solve a problem. If the group is too large, you can go round and round during the ideation stages.

Creating the right group makeup is also important in ensuring you have the necessary expertise and skillset to both identify and follow up on potential solutions. Carefully consider who to include at each stage to help ensure your problem-solving method is followed and positioned for success.

Document everything

The best solutions can take refinement, iteration, and reflection to come out. Get into a habit of documenting your process in order to keep all the learnings from the session and to allow ideas to mature and develop. Many of the methods below involve the creation of documents or shared resources. Be sure to keep and share these so everyone can benefit from the work done!

Bring a facilitator 

Facilitation is all about making group processes easier. With a subject as potentially emotive and important as problem-solving, having an impartial third party in the form of a facilitator can make all the difference in finding great solutions and keeping the process moving. Consider bringing a facilitator to your problem-solving session to get better results and generate meaningful solutions!

Develop your problem-solving skills

It takes time and practice to be an effective problem solver. While some roles or participants might more naturally gravitate towards problem-solving, it can take development and planning to help everyone create better solutions.

You might develop a training program, run a problem-solving workshop or simply ask your team to practice using the techniques below. Check out our post on problem-solving skills to see how you and your group can develop the right mental process and be more resilient to issues too!

Design a great agenda

Workshops are a great format for solving problems. With the right approach, you can focus a group and help them find the solutions to their own problems. But designing a process can be time-consuming and finding the right activities can be difficult.

Check out our workshop planning guide to level-up your agenda design and start running more effective workshops. Need inspiration? Check out templates designed by expert facilitators to help you kickstart your process!

In this section, we’ll look at in-depth problem-solving methods that provide a complete end-to-end process for developing effective solutions. These will help guide your team from the discovery and definition of a problem through to delivering the right solution.

If you’re looking for an all-encompassing method or problem-solving model, these processes are a great place to start. They’ll ask your team to challenge preconceived ideas and adopt a mindset for solving problems more effectively.

  • Six Thinking Hats
  • Lightning Decision Jam
  • Problem Definition Process
  • Discovery & Action Dialogue
Design Sprint 2.0
  • Open Space Technology

1. Six Thinking Hats

Individual approaches to solving a problem can be very different based on what team or role an individual holds. It can be easy for existing biases or perspectives to find their way into the mix, or for internal politics to direct a conversation.

Six Thinking Hats is a classic method for identifying the problems that need to be solved and enables your team to consider them from different angles, whether that is by focusing on facts and data, creative solutions, or by considering why a particular solution might not work.

Like all problem-solving frameworks, Six Thinking Hats is effective at helping teams remove roadblocks from a conversation or discussion and come to terms with all the aspects necessary to solve complex problems.

2. Lightning Decision Jam

Featured courtesy of Jonathan Courtney of AJ&Smart Berlin, Lightning Decision Jam is one of those strategies that should be in every facilitation toolbox. Exploring problems and finding solutions is often creative in nature, though as with any creative process, there is the potential to lose focus and get lost.

Unstructured discussions might get you there in the end, but it’s much more effective to use a method that creates a clear process and team focus.

In Lightning Decision Jam, participants are invited to begin by writing challenges, concerns, or mistakes on post-its without discussing them before then being invited by the moderator to present them to the group.

From there, the team vote on which problems to solve and are guided through steps that will allow them to reframe those problems, create solutions and then decide what to execute on. 

By deciding the problems that need to be solved as a team before moving on, this group process is great for ensuring the whole team is aligned and can take ownership over the next stages. 

Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ)   #action   #decision making   #problem solving   #issue analysis   #innovation   #design   #remote-friendly   The problem with anything that requires creative thinking is that it’s easy to get lost—lose focus and fall into the trap of having useless, open-ended, unstructured discussions. Here’s the most effective solution I’ve found: Replace all open, unstructured discussion with a clear process. What to use this exercise for: Anything which requires a group of people to make decisions, solve problems or discuss challenges. It’s always good to frame an LDJ session with a broad topic, here are some examples: The conversion flow of our checkout Our internal design process How we organise events Keeping up with our competition Improving sales flow

3. Problem Definition Process

While problems can be complex, the problem-solving methods you use to identify and solve those problems can often be simple in design. 

By taking the time to truly identify and define a problem before asking the group to reframe the challenge as an opportunity, this method is a great way to enable change.

Begin by identifying a focus question and exploring the ways in which it manifests before splitting into five teams who will each consider the problem using a different method: escape, reversal, exaggeration, distortion or wishful. Teams develop a problem objective and create ideas in line with their method before then feeding them back to the group.

This method is great for enabling in-depth discussions while also creating space for finding creative solutions too!

Problem Definition   #problem solving   #idea generation   #creativity   #online   #remote-friendly   A problem solving technique to define a problem, challenge or opportunity and to generate ideas.

4. The 5 Whys 

Sometimes, a group needs to go further with their strategies and analyze the root cause at the heart of organizational issues. An RCA or root cause analysis is the process of identifying what is at the heart of business problems or recurring challenges. 

The 5 Whys is a simple and effective method of helping a group go find the root cause of any problem or challenge and conduct analysis that will deliver results. 

By beginning with the creation of a problem statement and going through five stages to refine it, The 5 Whys provides everything you need to truly discover the cause of an issue.

The 5 Whys   #hyperisland   #innovation   This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. As the title suggests, the group defines a problems, then asks the question “why” five times, often using the resulting explanation as a starting point for creative problem solving.

5. World Cafe

World Cafe is a simple but powerful facilitation technique to help bigger groups to focus their energy and attention on solving complex problems.

World Cafe enables this approach by creating a relaxed atmosphere where participants are able to self-organize and explore topics relevant and important to them which are themed around a central problem-solving purpose. Create the right atmosphere by modeling your space after a cafe and after guiding the group through the method, let them take the lead!

Making problem-solving a part of your organization’s culture in the long term can be a difficult undertaking. More approachable formats like World Cafe can be especially effective in bringing people unfamiliar with workshops into the fold. 

World Cafe   #hyperisland   #innovation   #issue analysis   World Café is a simple yet powerful method, originated by Juanita Brown, for enabling meaningful conversations driven completely by participants and the topics that are relevant and important to them. Facilitators create a cafe-style space and provide simple guidelines. Participants then self-organize and explore a set of relevant topics or questions for conversation.

6. Discovery & Action Dialogue (DAD)

One of the best approaches is to create a safe space for a group to share and discover practices and behaviors that can help them find their own solutions.

With DAD, you can help a group choose which problems they wish to solve and which approaches they will take to do so. It’s great at helping remove resistance to change and can help get buy-in at every level too!

This process of enabling frontline ownership is great in ensuring follow-through and is one of the methods you will want in your toolbox as a facilitator.

Discovery & Action Dialogue (DAD)   #idea generation   #liberating structures   #action   #issue analysis   #remote-friendly   DADs make it easy for a group or community to discover practices and behaviors that enable some individuals (without access to special resources and facing the same constraints) to find better solutions than their peers to common problems. These are called positive deviant (PD) behaviors and practices. DADs make it possible for people in the group, unit, or community to discover by themselves these PD practices. DADs also create favorable conditions for stimulating participants’ creativity in spaces where they can feel safe to invent new and more effective practices. Resistance to change evaporates as participants are unleashed to choose freely which practices they will adopt or try and which problems they will tackle. DADs make it possible to achieve frontline ownership of solutions.

7. Design Sprint 2.0

Want to see how a team can solve big problems and move forward with prototyping and testing solutions in a few days? The Design Sprint 2.0 template from Jake Knapp, author of Sprint, is a complete agenda for a with proven results.

Developing the right agenda can involve difficult but necessary planning. Ensuring all the correct steps are followed can also be stressful or time-consuming depending on your level of experience.

Use this complete 4-day workshop template if you are finding there is no obvious solution to your challenge and want to focus your team around a specific problem that might require a shortcut to launching a minimum viable product or waiting for the organization-wide implementation of a solution.

8. Open space technology

Open space technology- developed by Harrison Owen – creates a space where large groups are invited to take ownership of their problem solving and lead individual sessions. Open space technology is a great format when you have a great deal of expertise and insight in the room and want to allow for different takes and approaches on a particular theme or problem you need to be solved.

Start by bringing your participants together to align around a central theme and focus their efforts. Explain the ground rules to help guide the problem-solving process and then invite members to identify any issue connecting to the central theme that they are interested in and are prepared to take responsibility for.

Once participants have decided on their approach to the core theme, they write their issue on a piece of paper, announce it to the group, pick a session time and place, and post the paper on the wall. As the wall fills up with sessions, the group is then invited to join the sessions that interest them the most and which they can contribute to, then you’re ready to begin!

Everyone joins the problem-solving group they’ve signed up to, record the discussion and if appropriate, findings can then be shared with the rest of the group afterward.

Open Space Technology   #action plan   #idea generation   #problem solving   #issue analysis   #large group   #online   #remote-friendly   Open Space is a methodology for large groups to create their agenda discerning important topics for discussion, suitable for conferences, community gatherings and whole system facilitation

Techniques to identify and analyze problems

Using a problem-solving method to help a team identify and analyze a problem can be a quick and effective addition to any workshop or meeting.

While further actions are always necessary, you can generate momentum and alignment easily, and these activities are a great place to get started.

We’ve put together this list of techniques to help you and your team with problem identification, analysis, and discussion that sets the foundation for developing effective solutions.

Let’s take a look!

  • The Creativity Dice
  • Fishbone Analysis
  • Problem Tree
  • SWOT Analysis
  • Agreement-Certainty Matrix
  • The Journalistic Six
  • LEGO Challenge
  • What, So What, Now What?
  • Journalists

Individual and group perspectives are incredibly important, but what happens if people are set in their minds and need a change of perspective in order to approach a problem more effectively?

Flip It is a method we love because it is both simple to understand and run, and allows groups to understand how their perspectives and biases are formed. 

Participants in Flip It are first invited to consider concerns, issues, or problems from a perspective of fear and write them on a flip chart. Then, the group is asked to consider those same issues from a perspective of hope and flip their understanding.  

No problem and solution is free from existing bias and by changing perspectives with Flip It, you can then develop a problem solving model quickly and effectively.

Flip It!   #gamestorming   #problem solving   #action   Often, a change in a problem or situation comes simply from a change in our perspectives. Flip It! is a quick game designed to show players that perspectives are made, not born.

10. The Creativity Dice

One of the most useful problem solving skills you can teach your team is of approaching challenges with creativity, flexibility, and openness. Games like The Creativity Dice allow teams to overcome the potential hurdle of too much linear thinking and approach the process with a sense of fun and speed. 

In The Creativity Dice, participants are organized around a topic and roll a dice to determine what they will work on for a period of 3 minutes at a time. They might roll a 3 and work on investigating factual information on the chosen topic. They might roll a 1 and work on identifying the specific goals, standards, or criteria for the session.

Encouraging rapid work and iteration while asking participants to be flexible are great skills to cultivate. Having a stage for idea incubation in this game is also important. Moments of pause can help ensure the ideas that are put forward are the most suitable. 

The Creativity Dice   #creativity   #problem solving   #thiagi   #issue analysis   Too much linear thinking is hazardous to creative problem solving. To be creative, you should approach the problem (or the opportunity) from different points of view. You should leave a thought hanging in mid-air and move to another. This skipping around prevents premature closure and lets your brain incubate one line of thought while you consciously pursue another.

11. Fishbone Analysis

Organizational or team challenges are rarely simple, and it’s important to remember that one problem can be an indication of something that goes deeper and may require further consideration to be solved.

Fishbone Analysis helps groups to dig deeper and understand the origins of a problem. It’s a great example of a root cause analysis method that is simple for everyone on a team to get their head around. 

Participants in this activity are asked to annotate a diagram of a fish, first adding the problem or issue to be worked on at the head of a fish before then brainstorming the root causes of the problem and adding them as bones on the fish. 

Using abstractions such as a diagram of a fish can really help a team break out of their regular thinking and develop a creative approach.

Fishbone Analysis   #problem solving   ##root cause analysis   #decision making   #online facilitation   A process to help identify and understand the origins of problems, issues or observations.

12. Problem Tree 

Encouraging visual thinking can be an essential part of many strategies. By simply reframing and clarifying problems, a group can move towards developing a problem solving model that works for them. 

In Problem Tree, groups are asked to first brainstorm a list of problems – these can be design problems, team problems or larger business problems – and then organize them into a hierarchy. The hierarchy could be from most important to least important or abstract to practical, though the key thing with problem solving games that involve this aspect is that your group has some way of managing and sorting all the issues that are raised.

Once you have a list of problems that need to be solved and have organized them accordingly, you’re then well-positioned for the next problem solving steps.

Problem tree   #define intentions   #create   #design   #issue analysis   A problem tree is a tool to clarify the hierarchy of problems addressed by the team within a design project; it represents high level problems or related sublevel problems.

13. SWOT Analysis

Chances are you’ve heard of the SWOT Analysis before. This problem-solving method focuses on identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats is a tried and tested method for both individuals and teams.

Start by creating a desired end state or outcome and bare this in mind – any process solving model is made more effective by knowing what you are moving towards. Create a quadrant made up of the four categories of a SWOT analysis and ask participants to generate ideas based on each of those quadrants.

Once you have those ideas assembled in their quadrants, cluster them together based on their affinity with other ideas. These clusters are then used to facilitate group conversations and move things forward. 

SWOT analysis   #gamestorming   #problem solving   #action   #meeting facilitation   The SWOT Analysis is a long-standing technique of looking at what we have, with respect to the desired end state, as well as what we could improve on. It gives us an opportunity to gauge approaching opportunities and dangers, and assess the seriousness of the conditions that affect our future. When we understand those conditions, we can influence what comes next.

14. Agreement-Certainty Matrix

Not every problem-solving approach is right for every challenge, and deciding on the right method for the challenge at hand is a key part of being an effective team.

The Agreement Certainty matrix helps teams align on the nature of the challenges facing them. By sorting problems from simple to chaotic, your team can understand what methods are suitable for each problem and what they can do to ensure effective results. 

If you are already using Liberating Structures techniques as part of your problem-solving strategy, the Agreement-Certainty Matrix can be an invaluable addition to your process. We’ve found it particularly if you are having issues with recurring problems in your organization and want to go deeper in understanding the root cause. 

Agreement-Certainty Matrix   #issue analysis   #liberating structures   #problem solving   You can help individuals or groups avoid the frequent mistake of trying to solve a problem with methods that are not adapted to the nature of their challenge. The combination of two questions makes it possible to easily sort challenges into four categories: simple, complicated, complex , and chaotic .  A problem is simple when it can be solved reliably with practices that are easy to duplicate.  It is complicated when experts are required to devise a sophisticated solution that will yield the desired results predictably.  A problem is complex when there are several valid ways to proceed but outcomes are not predictable in detail.  Chaotic is when the context is too turbulent to identify a path forward.  A loose analogy may be used to describe these differences: simple is like following a recipe, complicated like sending a rocket to the moon, complex like raising a child, and chaotic is like the game “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  The Liberating Structures Matching Matrix in Chapter 5 can be used as the first step to clarify the nature of a challenge and avoid the mismatches between problems and solutions that are frequently at the root of chronic, recurring problems.

Organizing and charting a team’s progress can be important in ensuring its success. SQUID (Sequential Question and Insight Diagram) is a great model that allows a team to effectively switch between giving questions and answers and develop the skills they need to stay on track throughout the process. 

Begin with two different colored sticky notes – one for questions and one for answers – and with your central topic (the head of the squid) on the board. Ask the group to first come up with a series of questions connected to their best guess of how to approach the topic. Ask the group to come up with answers to those questions, fix them to the board and connect them with a line. After some discussion, go back to question mode by responding to the generated answers or other points on the board.

It’s rewarding to see a diagram grow throughout the exercise, and a completed SQUID can provide a visual resource for future effort and as an example for other teams.

SQUID   #gamestorming   #project planning   #issue analysis   #problem solving   When exploring an information space, it’s important for a group to know where they are at any given time. By using SQUID, a group charts out the territory as they go and can navigate accordingly. SQUID stands for Sequential Question and Insight Diagram.

16. Speed Boat

To continue with our nautical theme, Speed Boat is a short and sweet activity that can help a team quickly identify what employees, clients or service users might have a problem with and analyze what might be standing in the way of achieving a solution.

Methods that allow for a group to make observations, have insights and obtain those eureka moments quickly are invaluable when trying to solve complex problems.

In Speed Boat, the approach is to first consider what anchors and challenges might be holding an organization (or boat) back. Bonus points if you are able to identify any sharks in the water and develop ideas that can also deal with competitors!   

Speed Boat   #gamestorming   #problem solving   #action   Speedboat is a short and sweet way to identify what your employees or clients don’t like about your product/service or what’s standing in the way of a desired goal.

17. The Journalistic Six

Some of the most effective ways of solving problems is by encouraging teams to be more inclusive and diverse in their thinking.

Based on the six key questions journalism students are taught to answer in articles and news stories, The Journalistic Six helps create teams to see the whole picture. By using who, what, when, where, why, and how to facilitate the conversation and encourage creative thinking, your team can make sure that the problem identification and problem analysis stages of the are covered exhaustively and thoughtfully. Reporter’s notebook and dictaphone optional.

The Journalistic Six – Who What When Where Why How   #idea generation   #issue analysis   #problem solving   #online   #creative thinking   #remote-friendly   A questioning method for generating, explaining, investigating ideas.

18. LEGO Challenge

Now for an activity that is a little out of the (toy) box. LEGO Serious Play is a facilitation methodology that can be used to improve creative thinking and problem-solving skills. 

The LEGO Challenge includes giving each member of the team an assignment that is hidden from the rest of the group while they create a structure without speaking.

What the LEGO challenge brings to the table is a fun working example of working with stakeholders who might not be on the same page to solve problems. Also, it’s LEGO! Who doesn’t love LEGO! 

LEGO Challenge   #hyperisland   #team   A team-building activity in which groups must work together to build a structure out of LEGO, but each individual has a secret “assignment” which makes the collaborative process more challenging. It emphasizes group communication, leadership dynamics, conflict, cooperation, patience and problem solving strategy.

19. What, So What, Now What?

If not carefully managed, the problem identification and problem analysis stages of the problem-solving process can actually create more problems and misunderstandings.

The What, So What, Now What? problem-solving activity is designed to help collect insights and move forward while also eliminating the possibility of disagreement when it comes to identifying, clarifying, and analyzing organizational or work problems. 

Facilitation is all about bringing groups together so that might work on a shared goal and the best problem-solving strategies ensure that teams are aligned in purpose, if not initially in opinion or insight.

Throughout the three steps of this game, you give everyone on a team to reflect on a problem by asking what happened, why it is important, and what actions should then be taken. 

This can be a great activity for bringing our individual perceptions about a problem or challenge and contextualizing it in a larger group setting. This is one of the most important problem-solving skills you can bring to your organization.

W³ – What, So What, Now What?   #issue analysis   #innovation   #liberating structures   You can help groups reflect on a shared experience in a way that builds understanding and spurs coordinated action while avoiding unproductive conflict. It is possible for every voice to be heard while simultaneously sifting for insights and shaping new direction. Progressing in stages makes this practical—from collecting facts about What Happened to making sense of these facts with So What and finally to what actions logically follow with Now What . The shared progression eliminates most of the misunderstandings that otherwise fuel disagreements about what to do. Voila!

20. Journalists  

Problem analysis can be one of the most important and decisive stages of all problem-solving tools. Sometimes, a team can become bogged down in the details and are unable to move forward.

Journalists is an activity that can avoid a group from getting stuck in the problem identification or problem analysis stages of the process.

In Journalists, the group is invited to draft the front page of a fictional newspaper and figure out what stories deserve to be on the cover and what headlines those stories will have. By reframing how your problems and challenges are approached, you can help a team move productively through the process and be better prepared for the steps to follow.

Journalists   #vision   #big picture   #issue analysis   #remote-friendly   This is an exercise to use when the group gets stuck in details and struggles to see the big picture. Also good for defining a vision.

Problem-solving techniques for developing solutions 

The success of any problem-solving process can be measured by the solutions it produces. After you’ve defined the issue, explored existing ideas, and ideated, it’s time to narrow down to the correct solution.

Use these problem-solving techniques when you want to help your team find consensus, compare possible solutions, and move towards taking action on a particular problem.

  • Improved Solutions
  • Four-Step Sketch
  • 15% Solutions
  • How-Now-Wow matrix
  • Impact Effort Matrix

21. Mindspin  

Brainstorming is part of the bread and butter of the problem-solving process and all problem-solving strategies benefit from getting ideas out and challenging a team to generate solutions quickly. 

With Mindspin, participants are encouraged not only to generate ideas but to do so under time constraints and by slamming down cards and passing them on. By doing multiple rounds, your team can begin with a free generation of possible solutions before moving on to developing those solutions and encouraging further ideation. 

This is one of our favorite problem-solving activities and can be great for keeping the energy up throughout the workshop. Remember the importance of helping people become engaged in the process – energizing problem-solving techniques like Mindspin can help ensure your team stays engaged and happy, even when the problems they’re coming together to solve are complex. 

MindSpin   #teampedia   #idea generation   #problem solving   #action   A fast and loud method to enhance brainstorming within a team. Since this activity has more than round ideas that are repetitive can be ruled out leaving more creative and innovative answers to the challenge.

22. Improved Solutions

After a team has successfully identified a problem and come up with a few solutions, it can be tempting to call the work of the problem-solving process complete. That said, the first solution is not necessarily the best, and by including a further review and reflection activity into your problem-solving model, you can ensure your group reaches the best possible result. 

One of a number of problem-solving games from Thiagi Group, Improved Solutions helps you go the extra mile and develop suggested solutions with close consideration and peer review. By supporting the discussion of several problems at once and by shifting team roles throughout, this problem-solving technique is a dynamic way of finding the best solution. 

Improved Solutions   #creativity   #thiagi   #problem solving   #action   #team   You can improve any solution by objectively reviewing its strengths and weaknesses and making suitable adjustments. In this creativity framegame, you improve the solutions to several problems. To maintain objective detachment, you deal with a different problem during each of six rounds and assume different roles (problem owner, consultant, basher, booster, enhancer, and evaluator) during each round. At the conclusion of the activity, each player ends up with two solutions to her problem.

23. Four Step Sketch

Creative thinking and visual ideation does not need to be confined to the opening stages of your problem-solving strategies. Exercises that include sketching and prototyping on paper can be effective at the solution finding and development stage of the process, and can be great for keeping a team engaged. 

By going from simple notes to a crazy 8s round that involves rapidly sketching 8 variations on their ideas before then producing a final solution sketch, the group is able to iterate quickly and visually. Problem-solving techniques like Four-Step Sketch are great if you have a group of different thinkers and want to change things up from a more textual or discussion-based approach.

Four-Step Sketch   #design sprint   #innovation   #idea generation   #remote-friendly   The four-step sketch is an exercise that helps people to create well-formed concepts through a structured process that includes: Review key information Start design work on paper,  Consider multiple variations , Create a detailed solution . This exercise is preceded by a set of other activities allowing the group to clarify the challenge they want to solve. See how the Four Step Sketch exercise fits into a Design Sprint

24. 15% Solutions

Some problems are simpler than others and with the right problem-solving activities, you can empower people to take immediate actions that can help create organizational change. 

Part of the liberating structures toolkit, 15% solutions is a problem-solving technique that focuses on finding and implementing solutions quickly. A process of iterating and making small changes quickly can help generate momentum and an appetite for solving complex problems.

Problem-solving strategies can live and die on whether people are onboard. Getting some quick wins is a great way of getting people behind the process.   

It can be extremely empowering for a team to realize that problem-solving techniques can be deployed quickly and easily and delineate between things they can positively impact and those things they cannot change. 

15% Solutions   #action   #liberating structures   #remote-friendly   You can reveal the actions, however small, that everyone can do immediately. At a minimum, these will create momentum, and that may make a BIG difference.  15% Solutions show that there is no reason to wait around, feel powerless, or fearful. They help people pick it up a level. They get individuals and the group to focus on what is within their discretion instead of what they cannot change.  With a very simple question, you can flip the conversation to what can be done and find solutions to big problems that are often distributed widely in places not known in advance. Shifting a few grains of sand may trigger a landslide and change the whole landscape.

25. How-Now-Wow Matrix

The problem-solving process is often creative, as complex problems usually require a change of thinking and creative response in order to find the best solutions. While it’s common for the first stages to encourage creative thinking, groups can often gravitate to familiar solutions when it comes to the end of the process. 

When selecting solutions, you don’t want to lose your creative energy! The How-Now-Wow Matrix from Gamestorming is a great problem-solving activity that enables a group to stay creative and think out of the box when it comes to selecting the right solution for a given problem.

Problem-solving techniques that encourage creative thinking and the ideation and selection of new solutions can be the most effective in organisational change. Give the How-Now-Wow Matrix a go, and not just for how pleasant it is to say out loud. 

How-Now-Wow Matrix   #gamestorming   #idea generation   #remote-friendly   When people want to develop new ideas, they most often think out of the box in the brainstorming or divergent phase. However, when it comes to convergence, people often end up picking ideas that are most familiar to them. This is called a ‘creative paradox’ or a ‘creadox’. The How-Now-Wow matrix is an idea selection tool that breaks the creadox by forcing people to weigh each idea on 2 parameters.

26. Impact and Effort Matrix

All problem-solving techniques hope to not only find solutions to a given problem or challenge but to find the best solution. When it comes to finding a solution, groups are invited to put on their decision-making hats and really think about how a proposed idea would work in practice. 

The Impact and Effort Matrix is one of the problem-solving techniques that fall into this camp, empowering participants to first generate ideas and then categorize them into a 2×2 matrix based on impact and effort.

Activities that invite critical thinking while remaining simple are invaluable. Use the Impact and Effort Matrix to move from ideation and towards evaluating potential solutions before then committing to them. 

Impact and Effort Matrix   #gamestorming   #decision making   #action   #remote-friendly   In this decision-making exercise, possible actions are mapped based on two factors: effort required to implement and potential impact. Categorizing ideas along these lines is a useful technique in decision making, as it obliges contributors to balance and evaluate suggested actions before committing to them.

27. Dotmocracy

If you’ve followed each of the problem-solving steps with your group successfully, you should move towards the end of your process with heaps of possible solutions developed with a specific problem in mind. But how do you help a group go from ideation to putting a solution into action? 

Dotmocracy – or Dot Voting -is a tried and tested method of helping a team in the problem-solving process make decisions and put actions in place with a degree of oversight and consensus. 

One of the problem-solving techniques that should be in every facilitator’s toolbox, Dot Voting is fast and effective and can help identify the most popular and best solutions and help bring a group to a decision effectively. 

Dotmocracy   #action   #decision making   #group prioritization   #hyperisland   #remote-friendly   Dotmocracy is a simple method for group prioritization or decision-making. It is not an activity on its own, but a method to use in processes where prioritization or decision-making is the aim. The method supports a group to quickly see which options are most popular or relevant. The options or ideas are written on post-its and stuck up on a wall for the whole group to see. Each person votes for the options they think are the strongest, and that information is used to inform a decision.

All facilitators know that warm-ups and icebreakers are useful for any workshop or group process. Problem-solving workshops are no different.

Use these problem-solving techniques to warm up a group and prepare them for the rest of the process. Activating your group by tapping into some of the top problem-solving skills can be one of the best ways to see great outcomes from your session.

  • Check-in/Check-out
  • Doodling Together
  • Show and Tell
  • Constellations
  • Draw a Tree

28. Check-in / Check-out

Solid processes are planned from beginning to end, and the best facilitators know that setting the tone and establishing a safe, open environment can be integral to a successful problem-solving process.

Check-in / Check-out is a great way to begin and/or bookend a problem-solving workshop. Checking in to a session emphasizes that everyone will be seen, heard, and expected to contribute. 

If you are running a series of meetings, setting a consistent pattern of checking in and checking out can really help your team get into a groove. We recommend this opening-closing activity for small to medium-sized groups though it can work with large groups if they’re disciplined!

Check-in / Check-out   #team   #opening   #closing   #hyperisland   #remote-friendly   Either checking-in or checking-out is a simple way for a team to open or close a process, symbolically and in a collaborative way. Checking-in/out invites each member in a group to be present, seen and heard, and to express a reflection or a feeling. Checking-in emphasizes presence, focus and group commitment; checking-out emphasizes reflection and symbolic closure.

29. Doodling Together  

Thinking creatively and not being afraid to make suggestions are important problem-solving skills for any group or team, and warming up by encouraging these behaviors is a great way to start. 

Doodling Together is one of our favorite creative ice breaker games – it’s quick, effective, and fun and can make all following problem-solving steps easier by encouraging a group to collaborate visually. By passing cards and adding additional items as they go, the workshop group gets into a groove of co-creation and idea development that is crucial to finding solutions to problems. 

Doodling Together   #collaboration   #creativity   #teamwork   #fun   #team   #visual methods   #energiser   #icebreaker   #remote-friendly   Create wild, weird and often funny postcards together & establish a group’s creative confidence.

30. Show and Tell

You might remember some version of Show and Tell from being a kid in school and it’s a great problem-solving activity to kick off a session.

Asking participants to prepare a little something before a workshop by bringing an object for show and tell can help them warm up before the session has even begun! Games that include a physical object can also help encourage early engagement before moving onto more big-picture thinking.

By asking your participants to tell stories about why they chose to bring a particular item to the group, you can help teams see things from new perspectives and see both differences and similarities in the way they approach a topic. Great groundwork for approaching a problem-solving process as a team! 

Show and Tell   #gamestorming   #action   #opening   #meeting facilitation   Show and Tell taps into the power of metaphors to reveal players’ underlying assumptions and associations around a topic The aim of the game is to get a deeper understanding of stakeholders’ perspectives on anything—a new project, an organizational restructuring, a shift in the company’s vision or team dynamic.

31. Constellations

Who doesn’t love stars? Constellations is a great warm-up activity for any workshop as it gets people up off their feet, energized, and ready to engage in new ways with established topics. It’s also great for showing existing beliefs, biases, and patterns that can come into play as part of your session.

Using warm-up games that help build trust and connection while also allowing for non-verbal responses can be great for easing people into the problem-solving process and encouraging engagement from everyone in the group. Constellations is great in large spaces that allow for movement and is definitely a practical exercise to allow the group to see patterns that are otherwise invisible. 

Constellations   #trust   #connection   #opening   #coaching   #patterns   #system   Individuals express their response to a statement or idea by standing closer or further from a central object. Used with teams to reveal system, hidden patterns, perspectives.

32. Draw a Tree

Problem-solving games that help raise group awareness through a central, unifying metaphor can be effective ways to warm-up a group in any problem-solving model.

Draw a Tree is a simple warm-up activity you can use in any group and which can provide a quick jolt of energy. Start by asking your participants to draw a tree in just 45 seconds – they can choose whether it will be abstract or realistic. 

Once the timer is up, ask the group how many people included the roots of the tree and use this as a means to discuss how we can ignore important parts of any system simply because they are not visible.

All problem-solving strategies are made more effective by thinking of problems critically and by exposing things that may not normally come to light. Warm-up games like Draw a Tree are great in that they quickly demonstrate some key problem-solving skills in an accessible and effective way.

Draw a Tree   #thiagi   #opening   #perspectives   #remote-friendly   With this game you can raise awarness about being more mindful, and aware of the environment we live in.

Each step of the problem-solving workshop benefits from an intelligent deployment of activities, games, and techniques. Bringing your session to an effective close helps ensure that solutions are followed through on and that you also celebrate what has been achieved.

Here are some problem-solving activities you can use to effectively close a workshop or meeting and ensure the great work you’ve done can continue afterward.

  • One Breath Feedback
  • Who What When Matrix
  • Response Cards

How do I conclude a problem-solving process?

All good things must come to an end. With the bulk of the work done, it can be tempting to conclude your workshop swiftly and without a moment to debrief and align. This can be problematic in that it doesn’t allow your team to fully process the results or reflect on the process.

At the end of an effective session, your team will have gone through a process that, while productive, can be exhausting. It’s important to give your group a moment to take a breath, ensure that they are clear on future actions, and provide short feedback before leaving the space. 

The primary purpose of any problem-solving method is to generate solutions and then implement them. Be sure to take the opportunity to ensure everyone is aligned and ready to effectively implement the solutions you produced in the workshop.

Remember that every process can be improved and by giving a short moment to collect feedback in the session, you can further refine your problem-solving methods and see further success in the future too.

33. One Breath Feedback

Maintaining attention and focus during the closing stages of a problem-solving workshop can be tricky and so being concise when giving feedback can be important. It’s easy to incur “death by feedback” should some team members go on for too long sharing their perspectives in a quick feedback round. 

One Breath Feedback is a great closing activity for workshops. You give everyone an opportunity to provide feedback on what they’ve done but only in the space of a single breath. This keeps feedback short and to the point and means that everyone is encouraged to provide the most important piece of feedback to them. 

One breath feedback   #closing   #feedback   #action   This is a feedback round in just one breath that excels in maintaining attention: each participants is able to speak during just one breath … for most people that’s around 20 to 25 seconds … unless of course you’ve been a deep sea diver in which case you’ll be able to do it for longer.

34. Who What When Matrix 

Matrices feature as part of many effective problem-solving strategies and with good reason. They are easily recognizable, simple to use, and generate results.

The Who What When Matrix is a great tool to use when closing your problem-solving session by attributing a who, what and when to the actions and solutions you have decided upon. The resulting matrix is a simple, easy-to-follow way of ensuring your team can move forward. 

Great solutions can’t be enacted without action and ownership. Your problem-solving process should include a stage for allocating tasks to individuals or teams and creating a realistic timeframe for those solutions to be implemented or checked out. Use this method to keep the solution implementation process clear and simple for all involved. 

Who/What/When Matrix   #gamestorming   #action   #project planning   With Who/What/When matrix, you can connect people with clear actions they have defined and have committed to.

35. Response cards

Group discussion can comprise the bulk of most problem-solving activities and by the end of the process, you might find that your team is talked out! 

Providing a means for your team to give feedback with short written notes can ensure everyone is head and can contribute without the need to stand up and talk. Depending on the needs of the group, giving an alternative can help ensure everyone can contribute to your problem-solving model in the way that makes the most sense for them.

Response Cards is a great way to close a workshop if you are looking for a gentle warm-down and want to get some swift discussion around some of the feedback that is raised. 

Response Cards   #debriefing   #closing   #structured sharing   #questions and answers   #thiagi   #action   It can be hard to involve everyone during a closing of a session. Some might stay in the background or get unheard because of louder participants. However, with the use of Response Cards, everyone will be involved in providing feedback or clarify questions at the end of a session.

Save time and effort discovering the right solutions

A structured problem solving process is a surefire way of solving tough problems, discovering creative solutions and driving organizational change. But how can you design for successful outcomes?

With SessionLab, it’s easy to design engaging workshops that deliver results. Drag, drop and reorder blocks  to build your agenda. When you make changes or update your agenda, your session  timing   adjusts automatically , saving you time on manual adjustments.

Collaborating with stakeholders or clients? Share your agenda with a single click and collaborate in real-time. No more sending documents back and forth over email.

Explore  how to use SessionLab  to design effective problem solving workshops or  watch this five minute video  to see the planner in action!

joint problem solving techniques

Over to you

The problem-solving process can often be as complicated and multifaceted as the problems they are set-up to solve. With the right problem-solving techniques and a mix of creative exercises designed to guide discussion and generate purposeful ideas, we hope we’ve given you the tools to find the best solutions as simply and easily as possible.

Is there a problem-solving technique that you are missing here? Do you have a favorite activity or method you use when facilitating? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you! 

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joint problem solving techniques

Facilitation skills can be applied in a variety of contexts, such as meetings, events, or in the classroom. Arguably, the setting in which facilitation skills shine the most is the design and running of workshops.  Workshops are dedicated spaces for interaction and learning. They are generally very hands-on, including activities such as simulations or games designed to practice specific skills. Leading workshops is an exciting, rewarding experience! In this piece we will go through some of the essential elements of workshop facilitation: What are workshops? Workshops are a time set aside for a group of people to learn new skills, come up with the best ideas, and solve problems together.…

A notebook and a computer

So, you’ve decided to convene a workshop, a special time set aside to work with a team on a certain topic or project. You are looking for brilliant ideas, new solutions and, of course, great participation. To begin the process that will get you to workshop success, you’ll need three ingredients: participants willing to join, someone to facilitate and guide them through the process (aka, you) and a detailed agenda or schedule of the activities you’ve planned. In this article we will focus on that last point: what makes a good agenda design? Having a good agenda is essential to ensure your workshops are well prepared and you can lead…

joint problem solving techniques

What are facilitation skills and how to improve them?

Facilitation skills are the abilities you need in order to master working with a group. In essence, facilitation is about being aware of what happens when people get together to achieve a common goal, and directing their focus and attention in ways that serve the group itself.  When we work together at our best, we can achieve a lot more than anything we might attempt alone. Working with others is not always easy: teamwork is fraught with risks and pitfalls, but skilled facilitation can help navigate them with confidence. With the right approach, facilitation can be a workplace superpower.  Whatever your position, career path, or life story, you probably have…

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problem solving approach

What is a problem solving approach, the problem-solving approach to negotiation includes three tenets to help parties build relationships and negotiate constructively..

The problem-solving approach to negotiation is an approach first articulated in the book  Getting to YES , written by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The problem-solving approach argues that (1) negotiators should work together as colleagues to determine whether an agreement is possible that is better for both of them than no agreement would be, (2) in doing so they should postpone commitments while exploring how best to maximize and fairly distribute the value of any agreement, and (3) it makes sense for one party to take this approach even if the other does not. 

What does this accomplish? The problem-solving approach emphasizes parties’ underlying interests rather than their positions, and encourages parties to maintain and build their relationship even if they disagree rather than creating an adversarial process. 

This approach isn’t just for business, though. In his book  How to Negotiate with Kids…Even When You Think You Shouldn’t  (Viking, 2003), Scott Brown, a founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School, outlines a framework for dealing with your children using the principles of negotiation.

While some parents may fear that by negotiating with their children they are giving up some of their power, the opposite is true. Using negotiation techniques helps children feel empowered while also building trust and strengthening family ties.

Discover how to boost your power at the bargaining table in this free special report,  Dealmaking: Secrets of Successful Dealmaking in Business Negotiations , from Harvard Law School.

We will send you a download link to your copy of the report and notify you by email when we post new business negotiation advice and information on how to improve your dealmaking skills to our website.

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Preparing for negotiation.

Understanding how to arrange the meeting space is a key aspect of preparing for negotiation. In this video, Professor Guhan Subramanian discusses a real world example of how seating arrangements can influence a negotiator’s success. This discussion was held at the 3 day executive education workshop for senior executives at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Guhan Subramanian is the Professor of Law and Business at the Harvard Law School and Professor of Business Law at the Harvard Business School.

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What Is Problem-Solving Therapy?

Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.

joint problem solving techniques

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

joint problem solving techniques

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight


Things to consider, how to get started.

Problem-solving therapy is a form of therapy that provides patients with tools to identify and solve problems that arise from life stressors, both big and small. Its aim is to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression , among other conditions. It can be administered by a doctor or mental health professional and may be combined with other treatment approaches.

Problem-solving therapy is based on a model that takes into account the importance of real-life problem-solving. In other words, the key to managing the impact of stressful life events is to know how to address issues as they arise. Problem-solving therapy is very practical in its approach and is only concerned with the present, rather than delving into your past.

This form of therapy can take place one-on-one or in a group format and may be offered in person or online via telehealth . Sessions can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours long. 

There are two major components that make up the problem-solving therapy framework:

  • Applying a positive problem-solving orientation to your life
  • Using problem-solving skills

A positive problem-solving orientation means viewing things in an optimistic light, embracing self-efficacy , and accepting the idea that problems are a normal part of life. Problem-solving skills are behaviors that you can rely on to help you navigate conflict, even during times of stress. This includes skills like:

  • Knowing how to identify a problem
  • Defining the problem in a helpful way
  • Trying to understand the problem more deeply
  • Setting goals related to the problem
  • Generating alternative, creative solutions to the problem
  • Choosing the best course of action
  • Implementing the choice you have made
  • Evaluating the outcome to determine next steps

Problem-solving therapy is all about training you to become adaptive in your life so that you will start to see problems as challenges to be solved instead of insurmountable obstacles. It also means that you will recognize the action that is required to engage in effective problem-solving techniques.

One problem-solving technique, called planful problem-solving, involves following a series of steps to fix issues in a healthy, constructive way:

  • Problem definition and formulation : This step involves identifying the real-life problem that needs to be solved and formulating it in a way that allows you to generate potential solutions.
  • Generation of alternative solutions : This stage involves coming up with various potential solutions to the problem at hand. The goal in this step is to brainstorm options to creatively address the life stressor in ways that you may not have previously considered.
  • Decision-making strategies : This stage involves discussing different strategies for making decisions as well as identifying obstacles that may get in the way of solving the problem at hand.
  • Solution implementation and verification : This stage involves implementing a chosen solution and then verifying whether it was effective in addressing the problem.

Other techniques your therapist may go over include:

  • Problem-solving multitasking , which helps you learn to think clearly and solve problems effectively even during times of stress
  • Stop, slow down, think, and act (SSTA) , which is meant to encourage you to become more emotionally mindful when faced with conflict
  • Healthy thinking and imagery , which teaches you how to embrace more positive self-talk while problem-solving

What Problem-Solving Therapy Can Help With

Problem-solving therapy addresses issues related to life stress and is focused on helping you find solutions to concrete issues. This approach can be applied to problems associated with a variety of psychological and physiological symptoms.

Problem-solving therapy may help address mental health issues, like:

  • Chronic stress due to accumulating minor issues
  • Complications associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Emotional distress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Problems associated with a chronic disease like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
  • Self-harm and feelings of hopelessness
  • Substance use
  • Suicidal ideation

This form of therapy is also helpful for dealing with specific life problems, such as:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Dissatisfaction at work
  • Everyday life stressors
  • Family problems
  • Financial difficulties
  • Relationship conflicts

Your doctor or mental healthcare professional will be able to advise whether problem-solving therapy could be helpful for your particular issue. In general, if you are struggling with specific, concrete problems that you are having trouble finding solutions for, problem-solving therapy could be helpful for you.

Benefits of Problem-Solving Therapy

The skills learned in problem-solving therapy can be helpful for managing all areas of your life. These can include:

  • Being able to identify which stressors trigger your negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger)
  • Confidence that you can handle problems that you face
  • Having a systematic approach on how to deal with life's problems
  • Having a toolbox of strategies to solve the problems you face
  • Increased confidence to find creative solutions
  • Knowing how to identify which barriers will impede your progress
  • Knowing how to manage emotions when they arise
  • Reduced avoidance and increased action-taking
  • The ability to accept life problems that can't be solved
  • The ability to make effective decisions
  • The development of patience (realizing that not all problems have a "quick fix")

This form of therapy was initially developed to help people combat stress through effective problem-solving, and it was later adapted to specifically address clinical depression. Today, much of the research on problem-solving therapy deals with its effectiveness in treating depression.

Problem-solving therapy has been shown to help depression in: 

  • Older adults
  • People coping with serious illnesses like breast cancer

Problem-solving therapy also appears to be effective as a brief treatment for depression, offering benefits in as little as six to eight sessions with a therapist or another healthcare professional. This may make it a good option for someone who is unable to commit to a lengthier treatment for depression.

Problem-solving therapy is not a good fit for everyone. It may not be effective at addressing issues that don't have clear solutions, like seeking meaning or purpose in life. Problem-solving therapy is also intended to treat specific problems, not general habits or thought patterns .

In general, it's also important to remember that problem-solving therapy is not a primary treatment for mental disorders. If you are living with the symptoms of a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia , you may need additional treatment with evidence-based approaches for your particular concern.

Problem-solving therapy is best aimed at someone who has a mental or physical issue that is being treated separately, but who also has life issues that go along with that problem that has yet to be addressed.

For example, it could help if you can't clean your house or pay your bills because of your depression, or if a cancer diagnosis is interfering with your quality of life.

Your doctor may be able to recommend therapists in your area who utilize this approach, or they may offer it themselves as part of their practice. You can also search for a problem-solving therapist with help from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Society of Clinical Psychology .

If receiving problem-solving therapy from a doctor or mental healthcare professional is not an option for you, you could also consider implementing it as a self-help strategy using a workbook designed to help you learn problem-solving skills on your own.

During your first session, your therapist may spend some time explaining their process and approach. They may ask you to identify the problem you’re currently facing, and they’ll likely discuss your goals for therapy.

Problem-solving therapy may be a short-term intervention that's focused on solving a specific issue in your life. If you need further help with something more pervasive, it can also become a longer-term treatment option.

Pierce D. Problem solving therapy - Use and effectiveness in general practice . Aust Fam Physician . 2012;41(9):676-679.

Cuijpers P, Wit L de, Kleiboer A, Karyotaki E, Ebert DD. Problem-solving therapy for adult depression: An updated meta-analysis . Eur Psychiatry . 2018;48(1):27-37. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.11.006

Nezu AM, Nezu CM, D'Zurilla TJ. Problem-Solving Therapy: A Treatment Manual . New York; 2013. doi:10.1891/9780826109415.0001

Hatcher S, Sharon C, Parag V, Collins N. Problem-solving therapy for people who present to hospital with self-harm: Zelen randomised controlled trial . Br J Psychiatry . 2011;199(4):310-316. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.090126

Sorsdahl K, Stein DJ, Corrigall J, et al. The efficacy of a blended motivational interviewing and problem solving therapy intervention to reduce substance use among patients presenting for emergency services in South Africa: A randomized controlled trial . Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy . 2015;10(1):46.

Kirkham JG, Choi N, Seitz DP. Meta-analysis of problem solving therapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder in older adults . Int J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2016;31(5):526-535. doi:10.1002/gps.4358

Garand L, Rinaldo DE, Alberth MM, et al. Effects of problem solving therapy on mental health outcomes in family caregivers of persons with a new diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia: A randomized controlled trial . Am J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2014;22(8):771-781. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.07.007

Hopko DR, Armento MEA, Robertson SMC, et al. Brief behavioral activation and problem-solving therapy for depressed breast cancer patients: Randomized trial . J Consult Clin Psychol . 2011;79(6):834-849. doi:10.1037/a0025450

Nieuwsma JA, Trivedi RB, McDuffie J, Kronish I, Benjamin D, Williams JW. Brief psychotherapy for depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis . Int J Psychiatry Med . 2012;43(2):129-151. doi:10.2190/PM.43.2.c

By Arlin Cuncic, MA Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.

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The Health Benefits of Joint Manipulation

How hands-on manual therapy provides all-over pain relief

Why Do Joints Pop?

Where to go, frequently asked questions.

Joint manipulation is a manual therapy that involves applying force to your spinal or peripheral joints to help them move better. The goal of joint manipulation therapy is to lessen pain and improve range of motion.

Physical therapists (PTs) and chiropractors may use this technique to help you move and feel better after an injury or illness that causes loss of functional mobility .

This article will explain joint manipulation and how it's applied, as well as provide insight into whether the technique is safe for you.

Verywell / Joules Garcia

The joints in your body are places where two bones come together and articulate. On the ends of each bone in a joint is a smooth lining of hyaline cartilage. This cartilage allows the joint surfaces to glide and slide smoothly past one another. If the cartilage is impaired, pain and limited motion may occur.

Often when a joint isn't moving properly, the muscles surrounding that joint become inhibited. This means that those muscles don't contract properly. Suppose a joint in your body is dysfunctional for quite some time. In that case, significant muscle wasting and atrophy may occur around the joint, leading to difficulty with functional mobility like walking or reaching overhead.

Where Does the Pop Come From?

Your body is made up of cells. These cells "respirate" by converting energy and releasing waste materials. One such waste material from cellular respiration is carbon dioxide gas. Normally, this gas is transported to your blood and delivered out of the body while breathing.

Sometimes, small pockets of gas become trapped in your joints. These pockets of gas expand and contract as pressure around the joint changes with movement. This expansion and contraction is known as cavitation. When that gas is suddenly released from a joint through manual joint manipulation, the joint will pop.

When joints pop, you'll likely hear a loud snapping sound as you move the joint. Once the gas is released, you may feel decreased pressure in your joint and increased mobility around it.

Is Joint Popping Normal?

Popping joints is a normal physiological process and should be painless.

There are other times when a joint may pop , such as when joint dysfunction or derangement is present. This means joint surfaces are simply in a bad or non-anatomical position, leading to pain and loss of motion. The joint may pop when it's moved into its normal anatomical position.

Joint derangement may occur for a variety of reasons.

Non-Medical Causes

There are several non-medical causes of joint derangement and dysfunction that may lead to popping. These include:

  • Repetitive strain and overuse
  • Poor sitting or standing posture
  • Lack of physical activity

In all of these situations, your joints may be temporarily placed in a dysfunctional position. When moving to the correct anatomical position, a popping sound may occur as built-up pressure in the joint is released. Popping may also occur as the joint surfaces slide past one another on their way to the optimal position.

Medical Causes

In some cases, joint popping may occur due to a medical condition. These include but aren't limited to:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Herniated cervical or lumbar discs
  • Spinal arthritis
  • Joint contracture after a period of immobilization

In all of these cases, a medical problem is occurring that may be causing a limitation in your joint's position and movement. Often as an injured or contracted joint moves, it makes a popping sound when the bony joint surfaces move past one another.

Popping may also occur when gaseous pressure is released from the joint during joint manipulation therapy.

Benefits of Joint Manipulation

If your healthcare practitioner determines that a joint is dysfunctional and not moving properly, they may choose to perform joint manipulation on your body. There are several benefits to joint manipulation:

  • Decreased pain : When a dysfunctional joint starts moving properly after a manipulation, pain receptors in the area are "reset" and pain may be decreased.
  • Improved muscle activation near the joint : After a deranged joint is manipulated into its anatomical position, muscles surrounding the joint can contract properly.
  • Improved range of motion : After joint manipulation, the surfaces of that joint are in a better position for movement. This may lead to improved freedom of movement and range of motion with less stiffness.
  • Improved functional mobility : Once a joint is manipulated, the improved range of motion and muscle activation around the joint can lead to improved overall functional mobility.

If you're having pain, loss of movement, or decreased mobility after an injury or surgery, then a chiropractic adjustment with joint manipulation may be beneficial.

However, joint manipulations and manual therapy aren't for everyone.

Who It Helps

Joint manipulation can be a helpful and safe manual therapy technique for certain people. This includes:

  • People with acute neck pain, back pain, or peripheral joint pain
  • Adults from age 25 to 65 with no significant medical conditions
  • Athletes who have been injured during their sport
  • People who have been immobilized after injury or surgery

If you are generally healthy and are experiencing loss of movement after an injury or surgery, then you may benefit from some form of manual therapy, including joint manipulations, to help you regain movement.

Who It Doesn't Help

Joint manipulation isn't for everyone. For some people, it may be dangerous or lead to injury. People with certain conditions should avoid joint manipulations. For instance:

  • Osteoporosis : Weakened bones may fracture if a high-velocity force is applied to a joint via manipulation
  • Joint fractures : If you have a fracture through your joint, that specific joint shouldn't be manipulated.
  • After spinal fusion surgery : If you've had a spinal fusion in your neck or lower back, you should avoid spinal joint manipulations or adjustments for at least one year after surgery. During this time, your bones are healing from the surgery. Manipulation may cause a failure of the fusion.
  • People with impaired judgment : During joint manipulations, you may need to give feedback to your chiropractor or PT. If your judgment is impaired due to emotional or mental health issues, this feedback may be limited, and an injury or increased pain may occur.
  • Those with arterial insufficiency in their neck : One rare but dangerous side effect of neck adjustments is the risk of tearing an artery in your neck called the vertebrobasilar artery . If there is a deficiency here, neck manipulation may cause a disruption here and lead to a stroke or death.

Talk to Your Healthcare Professional

The decision to have a joint manipulation is one that occurs between you and your trusted healthcare professional. They should provide you with information about the risks and expected benefits of such a procedure.

Joint Manipulation Techniques

When your chiropractor or PT applies joint manipulation to your body, specific techniques should be used. Manipulations, also known as chiropractic adjustments, are performed in a clinical office of a PT or chiropractor.

During the procedure, you should be relaxed. Most spinal manipulations occur with you lying on a table on your back or stomach. Some may be done in a seated position.

During the Procedure

After the therapist explains the procedure to be done, they'll gently take hold of your body. Then, with one hand stabilizing one side of a joint, a high-velocity thrusting force will be applied in a specific direction to the other side of a joint.

Often during a manipulation, a pop or snap will be heard and felt. This should be painless. After the manipulation, range of motion or strength and mobility should be checked to assess the effectiveness of the treatment. Several manipulations may be performed in one session.

Some chiropractors and PTs don't perform thrust manipulations but rather use joint mobilizations to gain range of motion for their patients. A mobilization is a manual therapy technique that's a bit gentler than a manipulation. Hand placement is about the same for these techniques, but the motions are slower, and the stretch through the affected joint is gentler when compared to manipulation.

If you have a severely contracted joint after surgery or a period of immobilization, then you may benefit from a manipulation under anesthesia (MUA). During this procedure, anesthesia will be used to sedate you, and an orthopedic surgeon will forcefully manipulate your contracted joint. This can be used to stretch out scar tissue around the joint after surgery. It may help you rapidly gain range of motion in the joint.

The best place to go for a spinal manipulation is your local chiropractor's office. You can find one by checking the website for the American Chiropractic Association . Be sure to call the chiropractor's office and ask if they perform joint manipulations for your specific condition.

A PT may also be able to provide manual therapy and joint manipulations. Some PTs aren't able to perform manipulations depending on the state in which they practice. Each state has a physical therapy practice act defining treatments that the PT is allowed to perform.

You can find a PT via the American Physical Therapy Association website. Be sure to ask your PT if they perform manipulations and if they would be helpful for your specific condition.

Cost of Joint Manipulation

Most joint manipulation techniques are covered by insurance. Check that your healthcare provider is in-network for your specific insurance before going in for treatment.

Most single joint manipulation techniques are billed at a rate of $30 to $50 per procedure. Paying out-of-pocket is often an option if your insurance doesn't cover the treatment.

A Word From Verywell

If you have back pain, neck pain, or pain in your shoulders, knees, ankles, or hips, you may benefit from a chiropractic adjustment or manipulation. Manual techniques like manipulation can help improve joint mobility, decrease pain, and increase strength and stability around your joints.

Joint manipulation isn't for everyone, so contact your local healthcare professional to see if it's safe for your specific condition. Joint manipulation may be what's needed to help you return to your previous level of activity.

Joint manipulation isn't dangerous as long it's performed correctly on the right patient. Cracking your knuckles, back cracking, or neck cracking isn't usually dangerous. There is some risk of worsening your condition with manual therapy. Also, if you have a bone-weakening disease, you may be at risk of fracture with manipulation. A serious risk of neck manipulation is stroke.

Any person with a sudden onset of acute joint or spinal pain may benefit from a manipulation. Those who are generally healthy with few co-morbidities seem to benefit from joint manipulation.

One of the most important things you can do is learn self-care techniques. Manipulations and manual techniques are specialized, but a few things may be done at home for self-stretching and manipulation.

If you have back pain, one stretch is the flexion and rotation procedure which may crack your back and provide relief. Be sure to check in with your PT or chiropractor before starting any stretches on your own.

Hurley MV. The effects of joint damage on muscle function, proprioception and rehabilitation .  Manual Therapy . 1997;2(1):11-17. doi: 10.1054/math.1997.0281

Kawchuk GN, Fryer J, Jaremko JL, Zeng H, Rowe L, Thompson R. Real-time visualization of joint cavitation . PLoS ONE . 2015;10(4):e0119470. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119470

Rizvi A, Loukas M, Oskouian RJ, Tubbs RS. Let’s get a hand on this: review of the clinical anatomy of “knuckle cracking”: knuckle Cracking .  Clin Anat . 2018;31(6):942-945. doi:10.1002/ca.23243

Gessl I, Popescu M, Schimpl V, et al. Role of joint damage, malalignment and inflammation in articular tenderness in rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and osteoarthritis .  Ann Rheum Dis . 2021;80(7):884-890. doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2020-218744

Puentedura EJ, Cleland JA, Landers MR, Mintken P, Louw A, Fernández-de-las-Peñas C. Development of a clinical prediction rule to identify patients with neck pain likely to benefit from thrust joint manipulation to the cervical spine.   J Orthop Sports Phys Ther . 2012;42(7):577-592. doi:10.2519/jospt.2012.4243

Reilly S, Slaughter R, Ventura E. Thrust joint manipulation utilization by us physical therapists . UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers and Capstones . Published online May 1, 2016. doi:10.34917/14871591

Moser N, Mior S, Noseworthy M, et al. Effect of cervical manipulation on vertebral artery and cerebral haemodynamics in patients with chronic neck pain: a crossover randomised controlled trial .  BMJ Open . 2019;9(5):e025219. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-025219

By Brett Sears, PT Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.

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