Making Decisions

Intuitive problem solving is not always the best decision making process.

When Individuals Solve Problems Intuitively the Result Is Magic

To understand what intuitive problem solving is, we need to recognize first that when working out any problem, from picking out a necktie to solving a quadratic equation, we make our way through five stages:

Rather than progressing through these stages one after another, we move back and forth between stages before landing on a solution and making a plan.

For example, pretend you’re ordering food online. You begin by quickly generating a solution — Mexican (stage 2) — but as soon as the thought enters your mind, you evaluate (stage 3) and remember that you had Mexican the day before, so you generate another solution (stage 2) — Indian. Upon evaluation (stage 3), however, you fear your hefty Chicken Tikka Masala go-to might outsize your appetite. At this point, you take a step back and define the problem (stage 1), asking yourself “What kind of meal would leave me feeling satisfied but not overly stuffed?” A better question leads to a better answer: sushi (stage 2). You do a quick gut check to make sure sushi is truly what you desire (stage 3), and you move forward with your order (stages 4 and 5).

This is called intuitive problem solving, and it comes so naturally to us that, when we solve problems in this way, we’re wholly unaware that we are doing it. All we have to do is place our attention on the problem and, much like a car’s automatic transmission, our brain shifts gears for us. As a result, intuitive problem solving is remarkably efficient. Magical, even.

When Groups Solve Problems Intuitively the Result Is Often Chaos

Intuitive problem solving is so magical for us as individuals that we assume it should fare just as well for groups. When we hold a meeting, we gather around a table, place our collective attention on the problem, and let our automatic transmissions take over. But, all too often, this turns out to be a mistake.

In order for groups to collaborate effectively and avoid talking past one another, members must simultaneously occupy the same problem-solving stage. But because intuitions are private to their owners, attendees in group meetings are unable to easily discern what problem-solving stage they each are on. Consequently, members unknowingly begin the meeting on different stages.

Imagine a software team who gathers to discuss a disgruntled VIP customer, threatening, quite publicly, to jump ship to a competitor. While one attendee thinks the path forward is obvious and focuses on crafting an implementation plan (stage 5), another is intent on generating alternative solutions (stage 2), while yet another attendee is still trying to figure out whether the exit of this pompous hellion is, in fact, even a problem (stage 1). Perhaps it’s a blessing!

As the meeting progresses, things get even more chaotic. Without realizing it, each attendee continues to switch stages without notifying others. The result is a disorganized meeting that traverses many stages, yet conquers none.

To solve problems as a group, we need to jettison the assumption that intuitive problem solving is sufficient, and instead embrace a more methodical approach — one that homes in on just one problem-solving stage. In other words, we need to stop with the automatic, and start learning to drive stick.

The Power of Methodical Meetings

In a methodical meeting, for each issue that needs to be discussed, members deliberately and explicitly choose just one problem-solving stage to complete.

To convert an intuitive meeting into a methodical one take your meeting agenda, and to the right of each agenda item, write down a problem-solving stage that will help move you closer to a solution, as well as the corresponding measurable outcome for that stage. Then, during that part of the meeting, focus only on achieving that outcome. Once you do, move on.

A Template for Conducting a Methodical Meeting

Pair each agenda item with a problem solving stage and a measurable outcome.

Agenda ItemProblem Solving StageMeasurable Outcome
Select a venue for the offsiteGenerate solutionsList of potential venues
Discuss VIP customer issueDefine the problemProblem statement
Implement new sales strategyMake a planList of actions / owners / due dates
Review new budget proposalsEvaluate solutionsList of strengths and weaknesses
Choose a new ad agencyPick a solutionWritten decision

If you don’t know which problem-solving stage to choose, consider the following:

Do you genuinely understand the problem you’re trying to solve? If you can’t clearly articulate the problem to someone else, chances are you don’t understand it as well as you might think. If that’s the case, before you start generating solutions, consider dedicating this part of the meeting to defining the problem (stage 1) and ending it with a succinctly written problem statement.

Do you have an ample list of potential solutions? If the group understands the problem, but hasn’t yet produced a set of potential solutions, that’s the next order of business. Concentrate on generating as many quality options as possible (stage 2). Even if you end your discussion with only a slightly longer list than with which you began, you’ve made important progress.

Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of the various solutions? Suppose you have already generated potential solutions. If so, this time will be best spent letting the group evaluate them (stage 3). Free attendees from the obligation of reaching a final decision—for which they may not yet be ready—and let them focus exclusively on developing a list of pros and cons for the various alternatives.

Has the group already spent time debating various solutions? If the answer is yes, use this part of the meeting to do the often difficult work of choosing (stage 4). Make sure, of course, that the final choice is in writing.

Has a solution already been selected? Then focus on developing an implementation plan (stage 5). If you’re able to leave the conversation with a comprehensive list of actions, assigned owners, and due dates, you can celebrate a remarkably profitable outcome.

Most bad meetings are not caused by lazy, power-tripped leaders, or entitled, self-centered attendees. Instead, they are caused by a simple mistake made by everyone involved. We assume our go-to way for solving problems alone, intuitively, can be effectively deployed to solve problems together. But more often than not, it can’t. Instead, we should hold methodical meetings, discussions that deliberately and explicitly aim to conquer just one stage at a time.

Granted, conquering just one problem-solving stage, I’ve come to learn, sounds a bit underwhelming to some — like taking a small bite out of large woolly mammoth. But those who try methodical meetings are met with an often profound revelation: thoroughly conquering any individual problem-solving stage, even an earlier one, frequently allows you to leap frog ahead, sometimes to the very end of the problem-solving life cycle. As the famously methodical Steve Jobs once noted: “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”

IT in Local Government

In the past decade, the environment in local government has experienced a significant shift, transforming IT from a back-office tech support function with limited visibility to a strategic, fully integrated function focused on exceptional service delivery and innovating both core and customer facing business processes and services. In government, this has happened in the context of an explosion of “innovation” related roles, such as Chief Innovation Officer, etc. that have helped raise the profile of technology teams, staff, and departments.

From a collaboration standpoint, Microsoft continues to impress me. Office 365 and the tools being added are frequently becoming part of core business processes. It’s common now for staff to create, share, and edit documents entirely online – bypassing local file servers altogether. That sounds simplistic, but that’s in fact a big change in how people create and manage data and opens the door to technologies like AI/ML as they become more integrated in Cloud services. It also integrates data across workloads while tying it into a secure fabric. It gives us a lot of flexibility in how we deliver IT services across the enterprise.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, was quoted saying “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” For government, in some cases, it’s been more like ten years’ worth. It is not hyperbole to say this is perhaps the biggest opportunity for digital transformation that government has ever seen.

Examples: organizational-wide adoption of digital signatures and routing; full deployment of teleworking services; digital community engagement (e.g., Zoom Town Halls, etc.); complete transition online of permitting and payments; a heightened focus on digital services for the community and efforts (and funding) to address the digital divide.

Remote Onboarding

 It’s quite possible to onboard new leaders effectively into a remote-working environment. The biggest barrier is probably mindset. We are all being tested to adapt to new ways of working, and it’s no different with virtual onboarding. Here are some principles to guide you.

1. Be crystal clear about short-term objectives.

Like every leader in transition, your new hire needs to quickly figure out how to create value, and that’s even more important during a crisis.

2. Provide a structured learning process.

To accelerate learning in a virtual context, you need to provide information in a more structured manner. Doing so requires paying much more attention to what you include in the upfront “document dump”: organizational charts, financial reports, strategy and project documentation, and the current crisis response plan. Beyond that, you need to help your new hires get a broader and deeper view of the organization and their role in it.

3. Build a (more) robust stakeholder engagement plan.

Your next priority is to help your new hires identify, understand, and build relationships with key stakeholders. When onboarding is virtual, it’s essential to be even more detailed and structured here, too. Start by building a consensus internally about who the new leader’s key stakeholders are and, critically, the order in which the new leader should meet them; these things are often not apparent to new hires themselves.

4. Assign a virtual-onboarding buddy.

Quite a few companies built buddy systems into their pre-crisis onboarding processes. And for new managers coming into remote-working organizations, a buddy is essential. Good buddies play four key roles: (1) They help orient new hires to the business and its context (2) They facilitate connections to people whose support is necessary or helpful (3) They assist with navigation of processes and systems, and (4) They accelerate acculturation by providing insight into “how things get done here.” Of course, you must take care to choose buddies who have the time, ability, and inclination to help, and you need to brief them on how they can be of most assistance. Typically, they should not be in the new leader’s chain of command; they should be peers or others with the “big picture” understanding necessary to be of real help.

5. Facilitate virtual team-building.

Helpful in face-to-face situations, a new-leader assimilation process is essential when onboarding happens remotely. This is a structured process for creating alignment and connection between a leader and their inherited team. A facilitator asks the leader and team members questions to uncover what they would most like to share with and learn about one another. The facilitator summarizes the resulting insights and uses them to guide a conversation between the leader and the team. The good news is that this process can be done effectively through video conferencing.

After COVID: Remote Motivation

Government cannot shut down; citizens need services even more during a crisis. When the pandemic took hold, city staff scrambled to move their teams remote: ensuring staff had tech tools, defined processes, and turned Zoom into a verb (“lets Zoom and talk that over.”)

As the nation begins to open and offices adjust to the “next normal,” will the lessons we learned be for naught? How can cities adapt and use the newfound tools and processes to become more efficient in providing critical services? These are important questions as staff moves from tactical to strategic and long-term work.

Evidence shows people can be more productive working from home. Public agencies lag behind the private sector in reaping the benefits, largely due to a lack of current technology and training. But that takes money, and the motivation to invest in digital, cloud, and remote work capabilities is stifled by a lack of trust that the benefits will be realized.