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?

Emergency Landing – Leading through Crisis

“Ladies and Gentlemen, with the loss of our right engine we are still able to fly safely, please do not worry, but we will be making an emergency landing…immediately.”  These words were calmly uttered by the Captain of my flight a few weeks ago coming home from a business trip in Panama City, Florida. No matter how seasoned a traveler I thought I had become, hearing a tremendous BANG and feeling the plane roll slightly right and then left, are not things I want to experience anytime soon.  The nervous energy from me and my fellow passengers could be cut with a knife, yet the plane was eerily quiet until we touched down safely and the plane erupted in applause!

Although the experience was stressful, it offered me the opportunity to reflect on a number of areas in my life, including, how I respond to crises. My reactions in this case were deep breaths, and abiding faith that the Captain and First Officer were completely in control of the situation.  I also recalled a lecture in graduate school by Captain Al Haynes on crisis management.  In 1989, Captain Haynes was piloting United Flight 232, a full flight with over 300 passengers, when the engine exploded and shrapnel cut all hydraulic fuel lines used to control the aircraft. Although this was a catastrophic failure, Captain Haynes managed to remain calm at the helm, speak plainly and directly to the passengers about the magnitude of the problem, and crash-land the plane in Sioux City, Iowa. His efforts that day are credited with saving the lives of 185 passengers.  I will never forget Captain Haynes telling his story and teaching us how to lead through any crisis.

The interesting point is that the same principles can be applied in any situation where the unexpected occurs. As a facilitator, the response is not typically a matter of life or death, but it can feel that way. We have all been in the situation where something occurs that no one expected and you are called to lead through it. Captain Haynes is a remarkable man and I want to share some of the lessons I learned from him on responding to any crises.

1. Fly the plane – In the face of emergency, the first thing to do is to take control of the yoke.  Statistics over the years have accounted a number of tragedies that are the result of pilots focusing only on solving the emergency and losing perspective that even though an emergency has occurred, the plane needs to be flown. The problem is that if the focus is only on the emergency and someone has not taken over the yoke, the plane will spiral out of control and crash. When emergency strikes, remember to fly the plane.

As a facilitator, if something completely unexpected occurs while you are leading a session, remember that if you only focus on the problem you may lose sight of the larger perspective. For example, a participant launches into a tirade.  Focusing only on the words of the tirade and becoming personally offended will get you no where.  As the facilitator, participants are always expecting you to land them safely regardless of what happens.  Address the situation that presents itself but do not get so caught up in the problem that you lose perspective on your ultimate goals

2. Stay calm – When you listen to the flight recording of Captain Haynes and the control power that day, it is eerie how calm he sounds even though he is confronted with a scenario that was considered virtually impossible. At that time, airlines had no mitigation plan for dealing with the type of situation where all hydraulic fuel lines are unusable. Captain Haynes told us that he knew the situation was dire, but he refused to panic because this would only make the situation worse.  How often have we heard the advice to stay calm and do not panic when faced with an emergency?  It’s good advice – when one allows their nerves to control them in crises they may become disoriented, unclear in their thinking, and may even act out of fear instead of reason.

Apply the same principle as a facilitator to remain calm regardless of the situation. When we are calm, we are able to think more clearly and provide direction based on our knowledge, understanding, and skills. As a leader, displaying calm can also help to soothe and settle those who are anxious around you.

3. Be direct with people – Captain Haynes is heard on the cabin intercom telling the passengers, “I’m not going to kid you…We have a serious situation.”  Captain Haynes was direct and honest with the people on the airplane.  When the Captain is straightforward, people are able to respond accordingly. Knowing the impact of the plane hitting the ground was going to be rough, he told them to brace for a landing that would be harder than anything they’d ever experienced.  This allowed the people to prepare. Survivors also said that hearing the Captain’s calm voice allowed them to be reassured that he would do everything in his power to land the plane safely.

As a facilitator, be direct with people. In the example of the tirade by an angry participant, ignoring the problem will not make it go away.  There are a whole bunch of reasons why a participant may be acting out, but addressing the person or their concerns directly is a best practice; otherwise, the problem may only become worse.

4. Prepare, prepare, prepare –  Captain Haynes was prepared for addressing any emergency in flight. He practiced, trained, and studied the variety of scenarios that could occur in flight.  Although this situation was unique, Captain Haynes continually adjusted and responded to the changing conditions of the situation using all of the resources at his disposal. At one point, an airline flight instructor sitting in first class (Dennis Fitch) offered his assistance which Captain Haynes gladly accepted.

Preparation is a key ingredient for success.  If you think through, anticipate, and plan for the unexpected, you are better able to respond to any crises. Good preparation involves practicing your actions and responses, so when situations arise, you have already gone through the experience, even if only in your mind.

What are some methods you employ to deal with stressful situations?

Meetings & People: How to work with them

In the last two posts we discussed why meetings are here to stay and how they make us want to throw bricks at people.  After all, people are the primary cause of frustrating meetings.  But I guess getting rid of them (that is, the people) won’t get us very far.

In fact, the same people that make meetings frustrating and painful also provide us with the opportunity to improve our meetings.  You can’t control people, but you can observe them.  And you can influence them.

Remember, meetings are the most common forum for making decisions.  And until a decision is made, nothing happens.  When a decision affects more than one person, it often requires a meeting of some sort.  That means we can’t just make meetings (or the people in them) go away.

So what should we do about them?

The key is to begin to recognize.  When we do, we can have a positive influence on others even when we’re not leading the meeting.  You may not see immediate results (apart from what you get out of the meeting), but over time you’ll become a change agent.  Here are a few starting suggestions:

1)    Watch and listen, as we did with the example in the last post.  You may be surprised at what you notice.

2)    Prepare beforehand.  Determine how you will benefit from the meeting, and how you will contribute to the meeting.  Use it as a means to accomplish your (and the organization’s) goals.

3)    Understand the Purpose. Before the meeting begins, go ask what the purpose is.  Consider your role given that purpose.  You may not even need to be there!

4)    Consider, “What decision(s) must we make?  How can I help the leader/facilitator in his/her efforts to reach that decision?”

Well, there’s a start.  Tell us how doing these things have helped you during meetings.   What else have you done to positively influence others in a meeting?

In future blog posts, we’ll explore many different ways to effectively lead, facilitate, or participate in meetings.  On Monday, we’ll start a series called “It’s Monday Morning…,” with some practical tips you can begin using immediately.  You can also look at our facilitation tips videos for ideas.