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?

Brainstorming: A Complete Waste of Time?

So you walk into a meeting and he or she (meaning your boss, a consultant, facilitator, whomever…) asks you to participate in a quick brainstorm session.  They introduce the topic and tell you to think up as many ideas as you can as quickly as possible.  No idea is a bad idea, they announce, and there will be no criticizing others’ ideas. Ready, begin!  After all, this is the best way to get the creative juices flowing and introduce more and better ideas.  Right?brainstorm word cloud

Well, maybe not.

Just today, several of my long-held assumptions about the power of the classic brainstorm were put on trial by an article sent over to me from a client and friend, Andrew McKee.  In that article, Jonah Lehrer writes that even though brainstorming has become “the most widely used creativity technique in the world… there is a problem with [it].  It doesn’t work.”  He says that the underlying assumptions about brainstorming – that to defer criticism will breed creativity and open people up, for example – just don’t hold water.  Experience doesn’t back it up.

Can this possibly be true?  Professionally I facilitate brainstorm sessions all the time.  And even on a personal level (like when I don’t want my wife to tell me that my brilliant idea won’t actually work in the real world), I’ll preface my comments with “I’m just brainstorming here…”

So, according to Lehrer, is the problem with how the brainstorm session is set up, or with group collaboration altogether?

Lehrer goes on to describe the best template for creativity.   He endorses group collaboration, but suggests (through studies and examples) that open criticism and debate actually infuse creativity, leading to more and better solutions.  He adds that the composition of the group matters – “enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways” – and cites numerous examples to back it up.

Frankly, I’m not sure I buy all of this. I have seen many valuable brainstorm sessions – ones that truly unleash the creative power of bright minds. And I believe there are many who are empowered to speak up when they know their ideas won’t be criticized.  Still, I completely agree with the diversity of perspective, the need to foster debate, and the value of encouraging informal connections.

Where do you stand? Does a no-criticism brainstorm session lead to a false feeling of productivity, with no real value?  Maybe there’s a different approach altogether. I’m interested to know how we can reap the benefits of a dynamic brainstorm while improving the quality of the ideas.

The labor in Col-“labor”-ation

I laughed when I saw this.  How many of us have been on one or both sides of this table before?

“We want to include you in this decision without letting you affect it.”

We’re asked to give advice or recommend a solution.  So we work hard and sometimes spend long hours to provide the best answer.  Later we learn that our recommendations were not followed, and possibly never looked at.  We’re deflated.

That has happened to me more than once.  One time early in my career as a young consultant, our team was asked to recommend a set of new Standard Operating Procedures for a large financial office.  We worked long hours, carefully considered every detail, and ultimately delivered a 350-page masterpiece (so we thought) for our client to implement.  They took our deliverable with appreciation, even admiration, and we were paid for our work.  But in the months that followed as I did subsequent work for the client, I noticed that our document simply collected dust on a shelf in the office.  Our “deliverable” was just that: deliver-able but not implement-able.  So that was it – all that time amounted to “shelfware.”   Why?  I learned that it wasn’t because our solutions for them were inaccurate or our ideas were bad.  It just wasn’t their solution.

I often point my clients to a concept from Michael Wilkinson’s book, The Secrets of Facilitation.  He says that an 85% solution with the right stakeholder involvement is better than a 100% solution without stakeholder involvement.

So that’s why we make decisions collaboratively. If it’s our decision, we determine who should weigh in.  If it’s our opportunity to recommend a solution, we involve the key players in the process. Does it require more work? Yes.  Is it a slower process? Usually in the short-term.  Is it more painful and risky at the beginning?  Often.

But in the end, it pays off.  We provide lasting value to those involved and get much closer to accomplishing our decision goals.  So I’m interested in your thoughts: What are the risks and benefits of collaboration?