Collaborative approaches to problem solving are becoming more common. Technology and a new approach to management are making it easier to work together to meet challenges.
By Margery Weinstein


"Two heads are better than one,” goes the famous expression. Does that, by extension, mean a crowd of heads is better than one? Some organizations think so. Companies are trying to channel the power of crowdsourcing to find new solutions to old business challenges. When management uses modern technology and a new way of gathering its employees’ ideas, problems that seemed intractable can finally give way to solutions and greater profitability.

Two Training Top 125 companies and two experts in collaborative problem solving offer their stories and tips for trying it in your company.

Create an “Idea Hub”

At Training Top 125er DaVita, leveraging the power of all of its employees’ brains is built into its operations, says Chief Wisdom Officer Dave Hoerman. Every eight weeks, employees, or “teammates,” as DaVita calls them, are invited to participate in a company-wide phone call with the company’s “mayor,” CEO Kent Thiry. Teammates dial in to hear about the state of the company, and ask questions about any subject they choose. Teammates may submit questions in advance to garner more comprehensive answers, but they are not required to. DaVita uses an electronic town hall question submission process. These company-wide calls are taken seriously, with post-call surveys sent to teammates to make sure they are effective.

In addition, the company holds town hall meetings. “Held when one of our vice presidents visits a local center or business office, these meetings are an opportunity for teammates to communicate face-to-face with executives,” says Hoerman. “Town halls are also great opportunities to showcase new programs, recognize individual contributions, share department updates, and ask questions about DaVita’s business practices.”

DaVita also created an Idea Hub, an application housed on the company’s intranet that allows teammates to electronically share ideas and vote on other teammates’ suggestions. “The Idea Hub is not only a place for innovation, but a place to build a stronger culture around idea sharing at DaVita that directly impacts the pipeline of projects being worked on,” says Hoerman.

Along with using the wisdom of all of its teammates to meet overall business goals, DaVita Learning professionals make teammates part of the planning process in meeting training goals. Post-course evaluations are sent to all participants for feedback, but to take it a step further, focus groups of learners are used as new training programs are developed and rolled out, along with “Start, Stop, Continue” brainstorming sessions in which challenges to meeting learning goals are discussed, with possible solutions presented.

“Leadership seeks input on everything from the coffee selection at business offices to 401(k) structure to an entire redesign of the company’s brand and logo,” Hoerman says.

Optimize Collaboration-Friendly Technology

Training Top 125er DPR Construction uses technology to equip teams for collaborative problem solving, says Lean Manager Cory Hackler and Schedule Manager Erika Byse. “DPR’s IT infrastructure is built around collaboration,” Hackler and Byse share. “From access to management tools such as CMiC and Autodesk’s BIM 360 Plan, to collaborative tools such as Paramount Decisions, Box, and Yammer, DPR teams regularly leverage technology to solve challenges together, big and small.”

CMiC is an integrated enterprise resource planning solution that keeps critical enterprise data in one place. “CMiC is both a project management solution and an enterprise solution,” Hackler and Byse explain. “At DPR, teams use CMiC from operations to collaboration and financial management, and we can develop custom software integrations for information exchange between CMiC and other workflows.”

“Building Information Modeling (BIM) software also helps our project teams collaborate to determine the best sequence for constructing a project,” note Hackler and Byse. DPR uses Autodesk BIM 360 Plan to allow individuals to “see, know, and act as a team.” This tool can be used in real time, so the entire team can see when someone makes a change to part of a plan as it happens. “360 Plan helps the overall communication of the project goals and allows teams to provide predictable outcomes. This saves us time and an extra layer of internal communication—when you log in, you know you have the most current plan possible,” Hackler and Byse explain.

Autodesk’s Revit software is a widely used design creation tool that allows multiple team members to collaborate in the same design file at the same time. Revit helps provide DPR teams with reliable measurements, multiple dimensional views, data for cost analysis tools, and a starting point for prefabricated assemblies. “Revit allows many team members to update the same model as they work in parallel, which is a huge advantage for our highly mobile workforce,” DPR’s Tech and Innovation team says.

Other tools the company has used to facilitate collaborative problem solving include its internal intranet, The DPR Toolbox; its learning management system (LMS) powered by Cornerstone, the Learning Center; collaborative document review software, Bluebeam; and project decision library, Paramount Decisions.

Giving employees a way to casually bat ideas back and forth through social media technology also has been helpful. Yammer provides a social media platform for these workrelated discussions. “Employees use Yammer as a means to share new ideas, to gauge interest in emerging ideas, and to share project successes. From simple solutions, such as meditation apps, to more complex ones, such as announcing new workflows, Yammer has been a valuable communication and internal social networking tool,” say Hackler and Byse.

Meet Me in the “War Room”

Advancements in technology have made collaboration easier, but there’s nothing like getting problem solvers together in a “war room,” says Patric Palm, CEO and co-founder of Favro (https://favro.com/). “To kick off the solving of a business challenge, the best way is to put the right group of people in a room for a few days or weeks. Like a war room. The group should be between five and nine people. That is the ultimate group size for problem solving,” says Palm.

He says the basic “technology” of white boards works well in these group sessions, with white boards placed at opposite ends of the room, so “idea development can be done in ping-pong white board discussions.” The white boards then can be combined with digital technology to help brainstorm solutions to problems. “Then, the group needs a good digital backlog tool to document goals and solutions, and prioritize.”

Pictures should be taken of the white boards with smartphones, and a tool used to directly attach them to items in the backlog. “The backlog should be structured in a tree hierarchy, and when the problem-solving session is done, the backlog will basically be the plan for solving the problem,” Palm explains. “The organization then can use the backlog and visual workflows to implement the solution.”

Crowdsource Elimination of Ineffective Processes

One of the best uses of collaborative problem solving is to determine which rules or processes have outlived their usefulness—if they were ever useful, says Lisa Bodell, founder of futurethink, a firm specializing in creating a more innovative and effective workplace. Group brainstorming sessions for famous clients sometimes have resulted in the elimination of old rules, Bodell notes.

“My futurethink team introduced an exercise called ‘Kill a Stupid Rule’ to HBO,” says Bodell. “During the session, HBO employees killed dozens of outdated or annoying rules, and afterward, the division found itself with more time for meaningful work.” The brainstorming sessions that eliminated the outdated rules then were captured for future sharing and improvement on a Google document. “The document has been shared with countless others internally, and it has become a living example of collaboration and simplification,” she notes.

Just as employees can discuss together what no longer works, they also can use their joint insights to find ways to beat competitors. Your executives may not be able to recognize the rules that no longer make sense, and they also sometimes can overlook ways to beat the competition that may be obvious to your employees.

“We run a popular session that uses a guided exercise from my first book, ‘Kill the Company,’” says Bodell. “Participants are asked to imagine themselves as their No. 1 competitor, and to objectively look at their own company and identify all of its vulnerabilities. From there, they come up with tactics to put themselves out of business. This out-of-company experience enables leadership and employees to be candid about areas of weakness, and have honest discussions about how to convert these into strengths.”

These group brainstorming sessions can lead to the realization of needed capital investments. “During these sessions,” Bodell says, “I’ve seen a big consulting company realize it needed a block-chain capability to stay competitive, and one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies recognize its technology gap and commit to finding a chief technology officer.”


  • Every two to three months, hold Interactive company-wide phone calls in which any employee can ask a question or propose a solution. Send post-call surveys to employees to make sure the calls are useful, and that employees feel they are welcome to offer their ideas.
  • Provide an application housed on your company's intranet that allows employees to electronically share ideas and vote on other employees' suggestions.
  • During the planning and rollout of training programs, organize focus groups of learners to gauge how you're doing, and convene brainstorming sessions in which challenges to meeting learning goals are discussed with possible solutions presented.
  • Encourage use of tools such as Skype and GoTo Meeting, and social collaborative spaces such as Box and Yammer.
  • Create a decision-making library in which employees can post, share, and comment on the options available for important business decisions.
  • Use “war rooms,” with participants offering solutions on white boards on either side of the room. The white boards then can be photographed, digitized, and shared with a larger group online.
  • Crowdsource ideas for streamlining operations, including eliminating rules or processes that no longer make sense.
  • Ask all employees for input on how you can beat competitors, including investments in new technology, personnel, and acquisitions.

source: https://trainingmag.com/trgmag-article/leveraging-crowd-power

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