Collaborative Problem-Solving on Start-ups

One of the biggest frustrations of working on a start-up is encountering a recurring problem and failing to successfully develop and implement a sustainable solution to address it. Imagine, for example, that the deadlines your team has set for front-end design work continually go unmet.

A common but ineffective approach to addressing such a problem is to decide first who is at fault and how they should be held accountable. You ignore possible causes of the missed deadlines or try to identify the one cause and avoid discussing different views about what has contributed to the problem. You immediately agree on a solution like conducting more frequent check-in meetings or establishing less aggressive timelines or recruiting another person to help the designer. And in your haste to get things done, you assume the next steps of your plan are clear and don't bother to discuss who will do what and by when.

The typical result of this approach is a continuation of the problem and mounting co-founder frustration. The solution either doesn't address the root causes of the problem and/or isn't implemented effectively.

A different and more effective approach that we've applied at Company Connector engages team members in a collaborative problem-solving conversation to define the problem, explore a range of possible causes, brainstorm multiple possible approaches for addressing those causes, and develop an action plan for what to do next. The following four-step approach is useful any time your team is trying to gain alignment around a decision or plan for addressing a problem:

  1. Define the problem: Identify the undesirable symptoms (e.g., missed deadlines, frequent revisiting of decisions) your team is experiencing today, contrasted with what you'd like to happen in the future. Ensure your team has a shared understanding of the problem and is focusing on tackling all aspects of it.
  2. Generate possible diagnoses: Recognizing that problems generally result from many things multiple people do or not do, think broadly about all possible causes of the problem (e.g., no clear documentation of feature requirements, inefficient email communication).
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  4. Brainstorm general approaches: For each diagnosis you identified, brainstorm general approaches or solutions that might address that cause (e.g., document and make accessible more detailed requirements, update team more regularly on progress). Avoid committing to ideas until you have explored a range of possible remedies for the diagnoses.
  5. Agree on specific action items: Decide which of the brainstormed approaches are worth pursuing and agree on specific next steps (e.g., Joe to send updates twice a month on performance against metrics, Molly to create "Design Enhancements" document by Wednesday to detail requirements). Ensure everyone has a shared understanding of who is responsible for which activities and when those tasks will be completed.

This four-step collaborative approach enables your start-up team to generate more possible solutions that address the original problem and its root causes. And because your plan reflects the contributions of those responsible for follow-through, it is more likely to be implemented effectively. Ultimately, this process makes it easier to move from a disliked current state to an improved future state.

For more on these ideas, contact the consulting firm Vantage Partners (