Lessons from San Antonio: A Pattern for Complex Decisions

A couple of weeks ago, I spent several days in sunny San Antonio.  The weather was uncharacteristically cool, the food was fantastic, and the team of professionals I worked with was extremely capable.  We had just one challenge: Solve a very complex prioritization decision.  Here was the task: Determine how to effectively allocate nearly $5 billion to provide 270 different services across 70 organizational units.

Let’s see.  It’s Monday morning.  Thursday afternoon we present our solution.  We have 3 ½ days.  Hmmm… Where do we start?

Where would you start?  How do you typically set yourself up for success when dealing with a complex decision or challenge? Feel free to compare/contrast our approach with how you would take on a decision like this:

1)   Survey the tools and resources available.  We had historical data, knowledgeable experts—one team member was superb at bringing in the right people at the right time— and helpful tools (e.g., Microsoft Excel and Decision Lens).

2)   Build a simple model/framework that allows you to test your solution(s). One team member had phenomenal modeling skills.  He extracted a small sampling of the information to test our criteria, assumptions, and resource constraints.  That helped us to run scenarios and see what approach would scale to full size.

3)   Maintain perspective and purpose. So as not to get too far down in the model-building weeds, a third team member proved to be masterful at challenging us to think outside of the box, look down the road, and consider what leadership would be really looking for.

We were off and running.  But even with a good start and a play at leveraging our various strengths, the complexity of the task was enormous.  On occasion, we found ourselves heading down the wrong path, or engaging in lively debates about issues that would later become irrelevant.

So on Wednesday morning, we added a fourth element to our strategy:

4)   Organize your various skill sets and time to break down the complexity and ensure forward movement.  We realized that for the team to work together all of the time meant greater inefficiency and a higher likelihood of distraction.  And we knew that each of us had different strengths to leverage.  So we gathered briefly to assess what had to be done by the following afternoon.  First, we wrote out a list of specific, actionable items. Next, we agreed on who would take ownership of each item based on our respective strengths. Finally, we set meeting times regarding issues that needed to be resolved with more than one set of eyes.  In short, we added enough structure around our process to match the complexity of the task.

By layering in the structure, we naturally increased transparency (we all saw what needed to be done) and accountability (each committed to certain tasks).  We focused our various skills and strengths around a common goal. And in the end, we found a solution that was well received by everyone involved – a big success.

I have learned that layering in structure to match the complexity of a decision, task, or concept allows us to work collaboratively with greater focus.  In our next post, we’ll discuss three structure categories to address the complexity challenge: sufficient structure, the right structure, and avoiding excessive structure.  But for now, what experiences have you had with complex decisions, tasks, or other organizational challenges?  And how did you handle them?

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