Problem-solving Teams and how to Build Them

Photo by Pascal Swier on Unsplash

See it, characterise it, DISAGREE, communicate it, solve it

What do the best teams have in common? They have something uncommon. They have a co-operative culture with disagreement at their core. 

This type of thoughtful disagreement is the heart of effective problem-solving teams.

But how do you build something like that, how do you get a team of people to be comfortable disagreeing with each other but still cooperate at the highest level in solving the problem? Or do you disagree?

It would be cool if you did. 

I am reminded of a colleague I worked with a few years ago now. He and I were working on a policy document, refining language and intent. It required earnest debate about the direction of the document, and consultation widely in the community. 

Despite us having serious disagreements along the way, our working relationship only improved over time. I’m reminded of one disagreement that seemed irreconcilable, it even got to the point where we began being nit-picky with each other. He was angry because I occasionally tapped my pen when I was thinking. I thought he was rude. You know the type of tension and mountains out of molehills arguments. 

But, even with this tension, we were both proud of the way the document looked at the end. It was a far more refined and accurate representation of the strategic intent than either of us could have developed alone. 

This is an example of the cooperative culture founded on our thoughtful disagreement that made the working partnership successful. 

A famous example

I’ll start with an example you’ll be somewhat aware of, the Wright Brothers. You’ve heard of them, right?

Back in 1903, Wilbur and Orvil created the first heavier than air powered flying machine. Starting as bicycle mechanics, but fascinated by the possibility of flight seen in the birds, they began construction of their flying machine. It led to rigorous debate on the design and structure. 

What was interesting about their debate style was that it was deliberate, and it confused and frustrated their neighbours no end. This was in part due to the noisy nature of it, and that it seemed incessant.

In actual fact, what was occurring was this;

Before lunch, Orvil would argue for a shape to the wings to have a certain angle. Wilbur would be vehemently against it. They would go back and forward with the positives and negatives of that shape. Orvil for, Wilbur against.

Then they would break for lunch. The neighbours would believe that the argument was settled, one of the Brothers had won — the other conceded. 

However, after lunch, the debate would resume. One of their attentive neighbours was observant to notice something had changed though.

They had switched sides.

Wilbur was now debating on the side that Orvil had been arguing for and Orvil was now arguing against his original position. This definitely frustrated the neighbours, but it helped the brothers find the best solution. 

One of the most important aspects was the understanding developed between them. By arguing both for and against a position, their understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their idea was clarified. It made them a better team.

Your teams can do this too. Pick a meeting, a topic, an idea and set up a deliberate for and against debate. Encourage the switch and see the problem-solving nature of your team grow.

What is does, is create that thoughtful disagreement with a spirit of collaboration. They are both trying to solve the problem or exploit the opportunity they are presented with, and they know they will get a better answer together by exploring all facets. 

By establishing a safe environment for disagreement the two brothers were able to design and build something right at the edge of creativity and knowledge. 

What can you do?

Can you create a similar environment in your team? Of course, there are times when you do not need disagreement, you just need to get stuff done. But if you are solving a new problem or have identified an untested opportunity, then you need people to be creative.

That creativity is founded in the team feeling safe with voicing their thoughts, safe being vulnerable with things that are not polished or refined. This can be fostered through a collaborative disagreement culture. So how do you create it?

  1. You admit your own doubts and failures (Show fallibility and vulnerability so they can show theirs)
  2. You are purposeful about creative discussions and problem-solving (work for collaborative disagreement, normalise this)
  3. Your team focuses on learning over blame (collaborate don’t accuse)
  4. You remember everyone is human (one size does not fit all, but everyone has the same basic needs)
  5. You give your team problems, not tasks (learn to empower through effective delegation — give intent or problems)
  6. You establish shared value with your team (you all understand how you contribute to the outcome)

These could all be articles by themselves, but provide a few pointers for creating collaborative disagreement in your team. What you need to do is start practising it.

Stay safe and keep smiling,


I am a writer with a passion for leadership, growth and personal development. I try and create a spark, a little idea that nests inside and kindles your aspirations.