• Eric Benson, Director

A Systematic Way of Solving The Hardest Problems


Longer tenure, high performing teams often solve issues well and run quickly forward. Simply put, they have the trust in one another as well as the knowledge of past solutions to help propel them onward. I read books and listen to talks about how every team should be high performing, and although the steps are clear-cut, they often don’t fit all circumstances.

For example, steps for high performing teams don’t fit the newly formed committees solving the biggest problems in the business. Those are often left up to cross-disciplinary teams created to solve a very specific issue. In instances like this, there are often two problems: 1) identifying the right problem to solve, and 2) creating a systematic way of solving the hard, fuzzy problems.

This article looks at the second issue, and uses a little psychology mixed with innovation practices to help address that fuzzy point when you know you have issues, but you’re not sure where to go next.

Hard problems come with decision fatigue

I’d like to highlight two terms that you may or may not be aware of. I’ll them apply each team to a couple of real-world scenarios. The first term is a great one to bring up when everyone in a room looks like they are boring holes into the windows or walls – or doing the chin tuck to look at their phones unobtrusively.

Decision fatigue is clasically defined as the inability to make quality decisions after a long session of decision making. In many cases, this leads to someone either making a bad or irrational choice, or worse, just choosing because they can’t make any more choices.

In a knowledge economy, we are all driven to perform almost exclusively by making decisions. Each item that comes to your inbox or door requires a choice, and if you are in a new team that is solving big problems, you have lots of fuzzy thinking ahead.

Since this article is looking at simple methods to create a systematic way of solving issues to the hard, fuzzy problems, let’s take a look at one simple test.

Decisions are easier to make when there are no choices

The easiest answer to correct for decision fatigue in high stakes, cross-disciplinary meetings is to create ground rules ahead of each meeting. This preplanning removes the need to figure out how to move a problem forward towards resolution in the middle of a meeting.

Ground rules are an easy way to alleviate pressure, but in my experience, there are often 10-20 ground rules. It’s just hard to keep track of all the different rules, and often no one remembers them in a time of decision fatigue.

Let’s keep it simple. Take the list below and pick a default option for the meeting before you get started.

If we run into decision fatigue, choose one of the following:

  • List your options and stop the discussion

  • List your options and hand the list off to a neutral party to vet

  • Pick one option and explore the ramifications

  • List the reasons why you cannot make a choice and stop the discussion

Then, follow through with that option for the entire meeting. This may seem like the wrong choice at times, but you are just listing or commenting. You build alignment by listening to the people in the room and shift from having to make a decision to learning from one another.

Correcting for confirmation bias

The second issue that can crop up in a newly formed team is best defined as confirmation bias. In this instance, confirmation bias is the tendency to collect and interpret new information in a way that confirms your own conclusions.

In a team of people that don’t know one another well, this can be subversive and worse yet, mentioned. Often, people don’t know they have confirmation bias regarding certain topics. Also, the strong bias tends to win if the person holding it is in a position of power.

Is confirmation bias bad? Not necessarily. In many instances, the bias you have comes from experience in your position. However, it can become an impediment when you are in a group that is trying to build new solutions.

Here are some ways to find and acknowledge confirmation bias:

  • Bias party - Have each person write down a bias they’ve heard in the meeting. Don’t mention names and don’t be too specific. Acknowledge and present the bias on a wall with sticky notes. When the bias may affect an issue, move those sticky notes somewhere visible.

  • History lesson – Use a bias that has value to have a history lesson. Recount the past in a way that doesn’t say “this is the way we’ve always done it” or “that will never work because we know it won’t from experience.” Learn where the experience came from, who created it and why. Often, you’ll find that whatever is holding you back just happened. Look at that too.

  • Omit the bias – What happens if the bias didn’t exist? Just suspend it for a bit and see where you go.

It comes down to speed

Solving issues is not as simple as a senior team member saying “I have the answer.” This is a shortcut, and can be used if there is intense time pressure. Rather, look at why it’s hard to solve issues sometimes. There are simple adjustments to team dynamics that can help keep the solutions flowing without shortchanged real thinking. Start off a meeting setting a ground rule for decision fatigue and then have a bias party to see where everyone’s at.

Understanding a little about how people make decisions (or confound them) and using simple techniques can help everyone converge on a real solution.

Eric is the Director of 10X Operations at Boomer Consulting, Inc. He is part firm administrator, part technology and process guru, and part 10X coordinator for an awesome team.

The first two parts may sound familiar. The last part, thinking 10X, has been a core principle of our firm since the beginning. What would you need to change to make your firm 10X the revenue, client service, productivity, profitability, employee satisfaction or engagement that it is now? Eric’s job is to Think about how our firm could be, Plan for this future and Grow our firm into that 10X model.

#strategicthinking #Focusedthinking #teamwork #Techniques

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