By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — There are plenty of problems to solve in the world today, both collectively as communities, and in individual lives and careers.
Michael Hibbard, PhD, of Westport, after years of research, has designed a method to help people learn how to problem solve effectively. After a presentation about his book, “Thinking It Through,” to the Westport Sunrise Rotary Club, he is coaching Rotary members how to bring the problem-solving process to their jobs.
On a recent Wednesday, Hibbard met with Westporter and Sunrise Rotary member Kola Masha, the founder of a company that helps farmers in Africa transition from subsistence to commercial farming, to train him as a coach in Hibbard’s problem-solving methods.
“I’ve been very interested in the idea of developing creative and problem-solving skills,” Masha said. “It’s exceptionally exciting to see someone with his depth of experience willing to share it with the world.”
Hibbard’s experience in education spans 47 years, as a teacher, principal and administrator. He was a teacher and dean of students in the Greenwich public schools where he developed a science program for elementary students; a high school principal and assistant superintendent in Connecticut’s Middlebury-Southbury school system; spent 10 years with the Ridgefield schools, and was recruited by North Salem, N.Y., schools as an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, where he worked for 10 years. He earned a master’s degree in biology at Purdue University and a doctorate in science education at Cornell University.
Now retired, Hibbard consults nationally and internationally on bringing problem-solving skills to students and to business leaders.
In North Salem, teaming with colleague Patricia Cyganovich, his research on the thought processes involved in solving problems coalesced into the book, “Thinking It Through: Coaching Students to Be Problem-Solvers,” published last fall.
“COVID actually gave me a lot of time for researching, writing and going to business people. I kept asking, ‘What is valid and useful, valid and useful?’ over and over,” he said.
Navigating the steps of problem solving
“Thinking It Through” offers a six-phase process to organize thinking around problem solving. Among the phases are identifying the problem, analyzing who the stakeholders and beneficiaries would be for the solutions to the problem, and generating several ideas for a solution.
He discovered that one of the biggest obstacles to successful problem solving is that people often disagree with each other over solutions to a problem. “People are fighting over solutions and they don’t understand even what the problem is,” Hibbard said.
“The reflex reaction is to jump into a solution in one second, and fight about it with people who have their own solutions,” he said. Or when faced with a problem, “They use the same old, ‘This solution worked before, OK, let’s just do it again,’ ” method of problem solving, he said.
Among other techniques, learning to be a person who disagrees without anger and hostility, helps make problem solving better, Hibbard added. “Problem solving is naturally connected to disagreements — if you were more agreeable you would get more work done,” he said.
His goal now is to train others to be coaches using his problem-solving method, so that they can coach others in their own organizations. He especially hopes to reach out to other Rotary Clubs with his presentation and has already been asked to speak at some area clubs.
“Problem solving has become a more and more essential characteristic that more and more people realize is a crucial skill,” he said.