How do you decide how to go about a developing an approach to address an issue? There are good and bad strategies. And while in general these are known, it’s worth being explicit. Sometimes you’re thrust into a situation that requires some conscious problem solving. And then it’s worth knowing what’s known about it.
Often we’ll look to the quick answer. As Daniel Kahnemann demonstrated in Thinking Fast and Slow, conscious problem-solving is effortful, and we often work to avoid it. Our instinct is to resort to the fast system, and that’s ok if it’s an area of our expertise. Otherwise, we likely will want to get explicit about how we’re working, even wrestling with our emotional tendencies around this.
First, you want to be smart about the process you use to make your decisions. Then, you need to be smart about how you actually execute the implementation of those decisions. And, it turns out that there are ways we can use technology to facilitate success in these endeavors.
Deciding on actions
One of the elements of brainstorming is to generate ideas. However, generate your own ideas first. That is, lay out what your thoughts are before you solicit other inputs. One trick I’ve used is to ask: What would I do if I had magic? And, of course, bring in relevant models that map to the situation. This can keep you from prematurely limiting your options.
Data is a valuable source of input, in this era of evidence-based decision-making. If you can find relevant data, those numbers can and should shape your decision. In fact, it should precede thinking about a course of action. You can also decide to collect your own data. This is, of course, where an experimentation strategy can provide insights. Generate the data you need to decide, via prototypes of solutions, rather than rely on others’ data.
Representing your thinking explicitly is helpful. You can build a numerical model based upon the data, or a visual model to capture the relationships that influence your decision. Diagrams are powerful reasoning tools, as Jill Larkin & Herb Simon let us know in their journal article, Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand Words. Having representational tools to hand, and facility with them, is a clear benefit.
After you’ve thought about your own possibilities, it’s time to do some research. Here you can see what’s located in your community resources—whether it’s the org’s creation and curation or your community of practice’s inside or outside the org. Ideally, your organization has created a federated search so you don’t have to search every portal separately, and you have developed good skills with your search terms and evaluating search results. Harold Jarche’s PKM is a good guide to developing your resource cache.
Another useful strategy in problem-solving is working backwards. Start with the goal you want to achieve, and figure out the intervening steps. What would be the step that would yield the final outcome? What step would enable that? And so on, until you reach your existing state.
Once you’ve done your own homework, if it’s important or you haven’t yet found an answer, it’s time to go to others. You should have a well-developed community (see PKM, above) that you contribute to and can call on. As the saying goes … it’s the network! You don’t want to bother folks if you haven’t done your homework, but when you have, they’re a good source for feedback. You may have to stay inside your org, for proprietary reasons, but as much as possible pull from as many sources as possible.
Of course, if you’re making decisions for a team, you should involve them. Share the issues, give them a chance to think about it on their own (back to brainstorming), and bring them together. Ultimately, it’s your decision, but you’d like them to have expressed views, and managed properly, the output is likely to be better than on your own.
Once you’ve decided on a course of action, there’s the process of seeing it though to success. At the individual level, of course, it is just a plan. There’s an entire field devoted to organizational change, but here we’re talking yourself or your team. However, there are traps that can arise in implementation, and ways to avoid them. You can benefit from support here, too, whether individual or for a small team.
One of the useful tricks is the ”pre-mortem”. In this process, you assume the project went south, and then hypothesize about why. The outcomes of this process can provide new insights into potential barriers to success. Recognizing that change is a probabilistic game, this is a technique that can increase the likelihood of success. This can be applied individually, as well. You want to look for ways to avoid making mistakes because of your particular interpretation.
You can also share your decision with your colleagues in your network. This is not about the decision, but about the implementation. Their feedback may help you avoid some common mistakes, or provide principle- or experience-based advice to succeed.
Being prepared for problems is helpful tool. Peter de Jaeger, who keynoted at the eLearning Guild’s Performance Support Symposium in 2013, talked at the organizational level about being prepared for the problems you expect, but also having a team to deal with the problems you didn’t expect. That may apply at the small level, as well.
Of course you should share the vision for the change with your team if that’s the situation. A graphic representation can serve as an organizing concept, ala graphic facilitation. The goal is to share the vision, encourage participation, reward efforts aligned, share successes, etc.
These processes can, and should, be supported in multiple ways. While organizational development typically handles the large-scale changes, L&D can play a role in supporting these smaller scales of execution.
Beyond the obvious training around the decision-making processes, facilitating implementation and development is key. Supporting the steps is possible and useful. Representational tools are one tool to ensure is available. Beyond the notion of spreadsheets, graphic tools are important too, perhaps beyond just presentation tools. Collaborative versions, for group work, provide even more opportunities for better outcomes. Performance support tools, whether checklists, interactive process tools, and more, can be provided.
Another area, this one typically belonging to IT, is federated search (as mentioned above). Here we’re looking to facilitate the discovery of appropriate resources. While L&D likely won’t own it, they should be advocates of a user-centered and overarching solution for information resources.
Curation of resources, of course, is a valuable role for L&D. One way is in actually doing the curation, providing oversight in relevant communities of practice. This makes sense in distributed L&D activities. Increasingly, there’s also the role of developing the ability of the organization to curate, working through those communities. Developing the network to create and curate resources is a powerful learning function for the organization. This also facilitates the available resources for decision making.
Thinking about the types of activities that lead to organizational success, such as decision-making as well as problem-solving, design, and research, is the foundation of an evolving L&D strategy. It’s all about working smarter. Recognizing the critical activities, and going beyond training to supporting success through performance support and active facilitation, is a powerful direction for L&D. Becoming the catalyst to organizational innovation (and documenting same, hint hint), moves L&D from a peripheral to a central role. And that is a move for strategic success.