If Your Team Is Struggling to Find Good Solutions to Hard Problems, Try These 3 Steps
Many executive teams struggle with addressing issues quickly and effectively. Here’s how the best ones avoid drama and get better results.
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As a leadership team coach, developing a good decision-making process is one of my main areas of focus. And while many teams are good at simple decisions that come up frequently, these same teams can be challenged by new and complicated decisions that come up when the company starts to grow quickly.
The key to getting good at decision-making is to have a process that everyone knows and has had experience using. While it's true that every decision is different, the process you use should be the same. Here is the one I coach my teams to use.
First, I have teams start every decision-making process by clarifying the problem in front of them.
In this step, it's fairly common to discover that the decision on the table is simply the presenting problem and there is, in fact, a deeper, more important problem hiding underneath the surface layer. By getting to the core problem, we will not only address the surface issue we're having but we will also be able to address other issues on a more systematic basis.
For example, one team I was working with recently had a problem with low sales numbers during the previous two months. Their first reaction was to spend more on marketing. However, it became apparent that one of the sales people was on maternity leave for three months and hadn't been replaced. The real issue was not having a good process for covering people while they were on planned leaves, a problem that would not have been solved with more marketing dollars.
Once the team has defined the problem well, I have them develop criteria for the options they want to consider. The goal here is to get clear on the definition of solved and all the possible ways they could address the problem.
For the criteria, I'm looking for objective tests we can apply to all of the options to evaluate and sort them. For simple problems, this might be things like cost, speed of implementation, and/or measure of impact on the problem. For more complex problems, you might have criteria that address risks, organizational change, or undesirable collateral impact.
Creating as many options as possible is critical to a good problem-solving process. If there's only two or three options to choose from, a team can easily become stuck with a less than ideal outcome. Create time and space to brainstorm ideas. Suspend judgement and generate as many ideas as possible. Often times the winning idea comes late in the game and starts out as an off-handed comment.
Once you have your criteria and your options, the team can start the final decision-making process. Use the criteria you've developed to evaluate and rank the options you've generated. For some criteria, the budget for example, might be easy to calculate and apply.
On the other hand, it might be harder to quantify things like risk and undesirable collateral impact, but taking some time to discuss is important. In the end, I like to see absolute numbers, scales of one to five, or high/medium/low for each criteria and for each option.
However, all of this only works if people are free to speak their mind and share what they know and see without fear of judgment or shame. If people hold back, you'll miss key insights.
Most of the time, one of your options will float to the top as the most desirable choice. On occasion however, you might find that two or more options seem good for different reasons and it's not obvious which one to choose. In these cases, try to develop a trade off value between the criteria.
For example, if one solution costs more but is faster to implement, decide how much a week or day of schedule is worth in dollars and then discount/add it to one option to compare them head-to-head. You can do this for many types of criteria and effectively normalize options to reduce the complexity.
While you won't always need to create complicated matrices to compare and score you options, when the stakes are high and the issues complicated, it's a good approach to have in your toolbox.
Good decision making is a core skill for every leadership team. It takes training, practice, and experience to build that muscle. But once you have achieve that capability and honed it, your work will become much faster and easier, and you'll have better outcomes to celebrate.