Define-the-Problem: Reflections on the second meeting

This working party meeting happened just before the school term break and so while it was minuted, I haven’t had a chance to reflect on it yet. Better do that now as the next meeting is in a couple of days.

This was the second meeting of the working party that I’m taking through the Six Core Steps decision-making process as outlined in The Practical Decision Maker You can read about the first meeting here.

I’d adopted what Beck & Yeager (1994, p. 196) define as Style 1Leadership, Directing. This was important as I needed to come across as strong and committed from the beginning. This group consists of school council members, the principal and teachers and I have seen meetings with this group get hijacked and side-railed in the past. The group needs to remain focussed and see real progression as we are working through problems that have been worked through before but not solved. Expectations were made set out at the first meeting.They now must be maintained. I have been insisting on RSVP emails so that attendance is reinforced as an expectation. This is working so far. Twelve out of fourteen members attended the second meeting (one was overseas, the other home with an unwell child).

I did stuff up on a couple of the expectations we set and I hope this has not damaged my reputation as a leader too much. We forgot to read the list of positive norms before starting the meeting. This is important in maintaining a positive mindset for this group and — I also slipped over into a democratic leadership style (Goleman as cited in Fullan, 2004, p. 43)  too soon by letting them persuade me into allowing the meeting to run overtime. They wanted to finish the task they were doing, but I won’t let that happen again. I think the group was over-tired by then and not functioning at their best. I also think the strict time-frame of two hours per meeting was an important promise (on my part) that this process won’t turn into mind-numbing marathon meetings that don’t accomplish anything (a common past occurrence).

The first task for the group at this meeting was to begin defining the problem. We went over the four categories of problems: New Venture, Short-Fall, Improvement and Opportunity (p. 25). And I was surprised (given the circumstances) that there was not quick consensus that there is a short-fall problem. Some members expressed the opinion that they would like to look at the problem more positively — as an opportunity not a short-fall (the mind-set session obviously worked). Luckily, the group is still very much in a forming stage as described by Tuckman (as cited by Law & Glover, 2000, p.75) Beck and Yeager, (1994, p. 189). The group is polite and formal, receptive to being directed and seeking clarification and we were able to finally agree that the SITNA was a threat to the viability of the school (p.40) and must be addressed so, in fact, it is not an opportunity but a short-fall.

The next step in the case of a short-fall SITNA was to identify desired conditions. I chose to try a device recommended by Harvey and Bearley (2001, pp. 220-222) called Snow Card structuring because the SITNA involved several issues and needed focussing. Snow Cards allows for members to generate a number of ideas and then they are grouped to narrow the list and more clearly define the desired conditions. Thirty-two cards were generated and then sorted into seven categories. This categorising did not take too long and I think the complexity of the problem was again made clear when it became apparent that there were seven areas that the members felt were part of the SITNA (perhaps an indication that they are not yet to the root of the problem).

The most time-consuming part was describing as accurately a possible what the ‘desired conditions that they want the solution to achieve” would look like for each area. This is where we ran overtime and the quality of problem solving/creativity deteriorated.

I really did not know what to expect when using the Snow Card structuring devise and was very impressed with the quality of description the group produced and how we were able to combine the ideas into categories. It feels cohesive, it feels on track. I think the group felt the same.


Photo from:

Beck, J., & Yeager, N. (1994). Making teams work: An underused window of opportunity. In The leader’s window: Mastering the four styles of leadership to build high-performing teams (pp. 183-206). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Harvey, T. R., Bearley, W. L., & Corkrum, S. M. (2002). The practical decision maker: A handbook for decision making and problem solving in organizations. Lanham, ML: Scarecrow Press.

Law, S., & Glover, D. (2000). Leading effective teams. In Educational leadership and learning: Practice, policy and research (pp. 71-86). Buckingham: Open University Press.

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