Talking To Your Soul
The problem solving competency, or “complex” problem solving as it is often called, is really all about dealing with interpersonal problems. Problems brought about by people. These are everywhere you find people working together. My daughter brought one home this week from her gymnastics club, my students, forever involved in mandated “group” projects, are constantly pushing one another’s buttons, ensuring that my job description always includes mediator.
A familiar “problem” arose last week where, out of the blue, one student emailed me, copying his group members, with a subject line “Group Breakdown”. Nothing like the direct, if not awkward, approach to getting attention. The course in question was Advertising, however, so maybe this was just effective copywriting. Nevertheless, it set into motion a problem solving process I had been down before – many times – but the outcome, and resolution were unique as they always are, because each problem is unique. As I say in my book, “that’s what makes them problems”.
At SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) we pride ourselves on experiential learning. It’s part of our brand. Many educators, like myself, straddle the dual roles of teaching and working in their chosen field. It’s one of our institution’s differentiators. Groupwork, collaboration is a huge part of the working environment and thus it is a valued component of our educational style. Truth be told it also makes marking more feasible for a single instructor managing classes of 40 students. Anyway, the default solution to problem solving group dynamics issues is “figure it out” within the group. I adopt this so ardently, I nickname the problem solving competency, the “figureoutable” competency. As in, everything is figureoutable. Translation, I prefer to have students, who are adults, work through issues, as adults. I will facilitate discussion when needed, try to go through the expected steps of problem solving – defining, ideating solutions, etc – but usually students are somewhat nudged, if not forced, to get their shit together to reach the finish line.
This particular issue was unique in that the disclosure of an issue was made very indiscreetly and the timing of it was 2/3 through the semester. On one hand I felt compelled to let them all figure it out and stay on brand. On the other hand, I found myself struggling with the default, feeling something tugging from deeper inside as if to say this situation required a different approach. I was, as Plato said, entering into a consultation with my own soul. Contemplating. Was the default – figure it out – the right solution in this situation? I had to also be honest with myself to admit that I was at least partially complicit in this problem. I was the one, at the beginning of the semester to insisted on a somewhat randomized method of group formation, which I knew would inevitably result in disparate personality types jumbled together, then expected to perform. We post-secondary business instructor types like to say, "that's how it is in the real world", but we all know a group of young adult students is going to be MUCH different than the workplace.
I spoke privately and briefly with each, but one, student involved and heard myriad insights, some of which surprised, disappointed, confirmed, rebuked what I might have concluded without investigation. In the end, for a variety of reasons, I proposed a rather unorthodox solution which involved separating the group. Ultimately, as I said to my chair, in this case I did not see the value in sticking to our default out of principle, when there were better solutions. It was the conversations with my students, but also with my soul, that led to the ultimate resolution. Let's just say my solution involved a dissolution of sorts.
However, I wasn't satisfied with simply breaking up a group, and redirecting those involved into their respective separate pathways. I urged them to reflect, themselves on what had happened. Here's what I wrote in an email to each of them:
"I want to remind you that it is a small world, and SAIT's alumni, though global reaching, is smaller, tighter and bound to stay connected - especially marketing graduates. What I'm trying to say is that I would encourage each of you to reflect on what may have transpired leading to this, and at some point attempt to extend an olive branch."
I did not receive a reply from any of them. I thought it was a rather unconventional tone to take, but I wanted them to know that I had reflected on the way that I had handled the problem myself. That I was not assuming that it was a "set it and forget it" solution. Don't know if it sunk in. Time will tell if it was the best solution, but if nothing else it forced me to do what I insist is the most important takeaway of The Daily Undoing. Get the reps in. The 8 Pillars require practice. I’ll never perfect problem solving. But I’ll never get better by falling back to the default.
There’s an action page in The Daily Undoing, from which I probably accessed somewhat subconsciously, attached below. Feel free to channel your inner Plato, and have a chat with your soul, next time you encounter a people problem, and feel tempted to solve it quickly.
Keep undoing for better.