Some of the challenges in organizational decision-making can be traced to the fact that an individual or individuals are not willing to give up control of the process. By relaxing this control and encouraging others to do so also, managers can facilitate more fruitful discussions and eﬃcient problem solving within their organizations.
The quality of outcomes, whether at the workplace or anywhere else, depends upon the quality of decision making. It is, therefore, not surpris-ing that over the decades, the management theme that has drawn the consistent attention of writers and researchers alike has been the process of decision making.
In this article, I want to touch upon two common decision making and problem solving traps that many smart organizations, and smart people, consistently walk into without even realizing it.
Solving the wrong problem
This starts with the way someone deﬁnes a problem in an organization. What exactly is a problem? A problem emerges when expected outcomes are not met. Expected outcomes may not be met due to a variety of reasons. In real life, the number of variables that impact an outcome are many. However, organizations and management experts have ﬁgured out that most variables can be classiﬁed under six to eight broad themes – strategy, structure, people, and so on.
Here are three examples in each of which a given problem is stated in two diﬀerent ways:
Statement 1: “Sales have dipped by ten percent this year”.
Statement 2: “Commission plans are not working and we need to redesign the plans”.
Statement 1: “Things have been slipping behind schedule”.
Statement 2: “We need to set goals for the team so that they clearly understand what they need to deliver and when”.
Statement 1: “The collaboration between the Marketing and Operations teams is sub-optimal”.
Statement 2: “Marketing needs to be decentralized, and the marketing managers in the regions must have solid line reporting to the operations heads in the regions”.
You may notice that the ﬁrst way of stating the problem does not involve any judgment. It does not pretend to know the answer. It is stated with humility and openness. It is stated in a way that lends itself to group discussion and to solutions, based on that discussion. There is also an implicit acceptance of personal responsibility and the assurance that “I am prepared to do what it takes to solve the problem”.
The second way of stating the problem has shades of: “I know what we need to do, and by the way, the problem has nothing to do with me”. There is a degree of arrogance and evidence of a closed mindset associ-ated with the statement. Managers and leaders who have been trained to believe that they need to know all the answers, and for whom asking questions is a sign of weakness, are likely to state problems in this manner. Once someone – especially a person in a senior role – has stated the problem in this way, it is very diﬃcult to get everyone to look at it in any other way. The entire organizational eﬀort is then directed towards ﬁne-tuning the ‘answer’.
It is common to devise a structural solution to a problem that has its roots in strategy, a compensation/commission solution to a problem that is essentially created by inadequate reviews, or a strategy solution to a problem that is caused by poor hiring choices. Therefore, however sophisticated the solution, however deep the attention to detail, however expensive the ﬁx – in terms of time and money – the solution will be ineﬀective because it has not addressed the right problem, which will resurface or persist.
Therefore, every time a problem comes up, ask your team to deﬁne it in a way that lends itself to ﬁnding the right solution. Let people be willing to examine it with an open mind and explore causes that force them to think hard and identify what they should be doing better.
Assuming you need to solve every problem
Most driven people assume they need to solve every problem. Young and smart people (including young and smart CEOs) often fall into this trap. Smart people can solve most problems if they try hard enough, but, by doing so, they may be wasting their time. They are not building decision-making and problem solving capability within the organization. Therefore, this model is neither scalable nor sustainable. Those who feel compelled to solve every problem are also the ones most likely to build weak teams. On the contrary, there are those who have the capability to tackle most problems but choose to focus only on the most important ones. They are content, either ignoring the others or delegating those to levels where they are best solved.
Therefore, the next time you have a smart and competent person on your team – or in your organization – take some time to observe whether he or she has a scalable or a lost-in-the-weeds style of operating. If the latter, help the person realize that their true strength in an organizational context – especially in those organizations experiencing hyper growth – lies in ﬁnding smarter people who can solve most of their problems. This will allow the person to keep a razor sharp focus on the two or three problems where his or her attention could make all the diﬀerence.
Simple as they may sound, these two approaches that leverage produc-tive team discussions and eﬃcient use of personal capabilities, require individuals in key positions to relinquish some control. In the long run, however, they can pave the way for better decision-making and quality outcomes in the workplace.