COLLABORATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING
Observations and reflections by a domain expert
In this paper we attempt to outline a method that teams can use to reconcile both the complexity of the decision problems that they are facing, and the level of decision analysis support needed. As with most methods or processes associated with decision analysis, the real value of the method is with the insightful, high quality conversation held with the team on the decision problem being faced. The developed method addresses the relationship between “Organizational Complexity” and “Analytical Complexity”, together with a short list of questions with pre-defined response options that was developed for use in a facilitated team session. A look-back analysis was conducted based on 42 projects that had used the method outlined. The results suggest that project teams were insightful in their review of the complexity of the problems being worked and they were able to raise issues that needed to be addressed. Teams were also aware when decision experts were needed on a sustained basis to help work both organizational and analytical issues.
A significant percentage of Ron’s working life has been associated with Decision Analysis – from a wide-eyed neophyte being mentored in the discipline, to managing both local and regional groups, to enacting decision analysis policy on a company wide basis.
Along the way Ron has been collecting "random thoughts and hazy perceptions" based on his observations. He has now started working with Decision Nodes and uses this opportunity to put “fingers to the keyboard” and share some of these impressions. These reflections are Ron’s “Gray” papers, notions that he considers worth exploring – circumspect (def: thinking carefully about something) thoughts of a rambling mind.
MAKING DIFFICULT DECISIONS
REALIZING THE NEED FOR HELP
Why is decision making difficult? If it is that hard to choose what wine to have for dinner, how much more do we struggle over deciding on issues that impact our relationships, financial wellbeing, health, our children’s future, or our job?
Why at times do we struggle and agonize over what to do? I think that it is the uncertainty of the path that our choices may lead us down.
When it comes to making decisions that could impact our lives in some way, we have “aspirations of preservation” to protect ourselves from making bad decisions or more correctly, to protect ourselves from the consequences of making bad decisions.
Before deciding on an action what we would really want is to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future. To see all the alternatives before us and the end results of choosing a specific alternative. If we could only see the end outcome, then we would know which path to take. Sadly, outside of the Marvel Universe, a magical device to see into the future is beyond our grasp.
So, what to do?
Ron is working as a Principal Advisor in DecisionNodes. He has held several managerial positions in ConocoPhillips. His last appointment held was Europe Capital Projects Portfolio Manager. He has also been the European Director for Decision and Risk Analysis managing both local and regional groups. Ron was a recognized global resource in ConocoPhillips responsible for developing and enacting decision analysis policy on a company wide basis. Ron's experience allows him to provide a high level of support to company decision-makers and to teams working on decision problems both within and outside of the oil and gas industry.
INTUITION VERSUS RATIONAL REASONING
Decisions can be made using intuition and they can be made using rational reasoning to select a course of action. Both are perfectly valid. Intuition is based on an individual’s learnings in life and reflects the perceptions that have been developed over time. Rational reasoning applies information that is collected (facts, uncertainties, values, etc.) in a logical manner to decide on an action to take.
Simpler decisions, ones that require little new information or must be made quickly, might rely on an intuitive approach. While with more complex decisions, one might start with using rational reasoning (process driven approach) to evaluate the alternatives. Once an action is determined, apply intuition to test the result – “does this feel like the right action to take?”.
For more the complex decisions, whether on a personal or organizational level, a more defined process is often required following a logical progression of steps including understanding the need, engaging key stakeholders, data collection, assessing alternatives, developing consensus, planning, communicating, executing, and following up.
This is all good and well, but what about making difficult decisions within a business environment – decisions that require individuals working together, in a collaborative manner, to reach consensus on the path to take. Why are these types of decisions difficult to make?
Simpler decisions, ones that require little new information or must be made quickly, might rely on an intuitive approach. But what about making difficult decisions within a business environment?
IN MY EXPERIENCE,
THE MAIN REASONS
DECISIONS IN A
- Problem appears too complex - difficult to start and make progress towards a decision.
- There are competing alternative actions with little to distinguish between.
- There are several stakeholders, their differing objectives must be incorporated and resolved.
- There is uncertainty about achieving a good outcome, some outcomes could negatively impact the company - need to take risk into account.
- The situation is unfamiliar – no previous experience with this type of problem.
- The situation is dynamic, key parameters may change over time.
- The team is not aligned – different opinions and biases.
CAN WE AGREE TO DISAGREE?
UNDERSTANDING THE LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY
- AND THE SUPPORT REQUIREMENTS NEEDED
One of the first steps to take in working a complex decision problem is to understand the level of difficulty and the support requirements needed. To paraphrase an adage, first you need to realize that you have a decision making problem before you can seek help – before realizing the need for help.
Back in 2004 I made a presentation in San Francisco at the DAAG Conference (Society of Decision Professionals) titled “Can We Agree to Disagree - Organizational Complexity in Decision-Making”. The purpose of the presentation was to describe the work we were doing regarding the complexities in collaborative problem solving and how decision problems could be addressed in terms of difficulty and support needs.
From the initial work done, I’ve spent more time rationalizing a method that teams can use when approaching a complex decision problem – how they can simply and qualitatively determine the level of difficulty they are facing, and the level of support needed. The approach that I advocate is the classification of decision problems in terms of “Organizational Complexity” versus “Analytical Complexity”.
- Several alternatives to consider – no clear distinguishing rationale
- Multiple decision criteria, some in conflict (need for prioritization)
- Unsure of what data to assemble to address the problem and how to collect
- Many uncertainties, several with complex relationships
- Minimum historical data available – subjective judgement required
- Sophisticated modeling needed for analyzing the problem
- Multiple stakeholders, conflicting views, conflicting goals
- Individual and organizational differences with regards to;
- Values, desires, motivation
- Point of reference/problem understanding
- Personalities, competencies, biases
- Collaborative group dynamics
- Organizational capacity and expectations
ADDRESSING THE COMPLEXITY
To address the relationship between “Organizational Complexity” and “Analytical Complexity”, a short list of questions with pre-defined response options was developed for use in a facilitated team session. The questions were distributed to team members before the meeting, the responses were collected and compiled, and the results reviewed and agreed with the team.
A SAMPLING OF THE,
TYPE OF QUESTIONS
THAT THE TEAM WAS
ASKED TO RESPOND TO;
- Is this like other decision problems that the team members have worked before?
- What is the allocation between historical and subjective (expert opinion) data to collect?
- At what level are the primary decision makers positioned?
- Who are the primary stakeholders, are they aligned?
- Are there multiple decision criteria, will trade-offs need to be made?
- Is there alignment on the understanding of the problem?
- Does the value of acquiring additional data need to be considered?
- To what level will economic/value analysis be required?
From the team responses received the results were then aggregated into a score for both organizational and analytical complexity and then cross-plotted on the complexity matrix chart shown below. The chart is divided into four quadrants or tiers, with each tier representing a different level of complexity. Each of the tiers in the chart has an equal likelihood of occurrence, no weighting of one tier over another was done. The four tiers are shown below.
Figure 1: Teams understanding of the complexity of the decision problem that they are working.
To investigate support needs, an overlay to the complexity matrix chart was added representing three different levels of support requirements. The areas highlighted below are based on past experiences working with and supporting teams.
Figure 2: Three different levels of support requirements.
After a period, a look-back analysis was conducted based on 42 projects that had used the method outlined to examine the complexity of the problem being analyzed and the support requirements. The data scores for organizational and analytical complexity for each of the projects are plotted below (note, there are two over prints).
Figure 3: Look-back analysis was conducted based on 42 projects.
ANALYSIS OF THE DATA
Tier 1 – 31%, Tier 2 – 17%, Tier 3 – 12%, Tier 4 – 40%
Level 1 – 31%, Level 2 – 40% , Level 3 – 29%
High level insights gleamed from this analysis of the data collected suggests that project teams were insightful in their review of the complexity of the problems being worked and they were able to raise issues that needed to be addressed. Additionally, project teams were pragmatic in looking at their decision analysis support requirements. Seventy percent of the time, the teams were either self-supporting or needed outside decision analysis on a specific, ad-hoc basis. Teams were aware when decision experts were needed on a sustained basis to help work both organizational and analytical issues.
Teams were aware when decision experts were needed on a sustained basis.
To conclude my reflections on the theme of “Making Difficult Decisions – Realizing the Need for Help”, what I have attempted is to outline a method that teams can use to reconcile both the complexity of the decision problems that they are facing, and the level of decision analysis support needed. As with most methods or processes associated with decision analysis, the real value of the method is with the insightful, high quality conversation held with the team on the decision problem being faced. The tool being used is just an end to the means to facilitate the discussion.