The Right Hammer for the Job

One of the most important things I’ve learned facilitating the decision making working group is that there are a lot of tools out there to make the job easier. The reason decisions haven’t been made properly in the past has a lot to do with the casual approach taken to them. A typical pattern for making a decision has been something like this:

  1. A problem is identified and brought up at a meeting.
  2. Everyone tells their story about it or their take on it.
  3. There is some discussion about the last time they dealt with it and what didn’t work
  4. Some suggestions for what to do about it are offered and immediately criticised or dismissed
  5. A suggestion is finally offered that hasn’t been tried or is the only/last one people can think of that sounds reasonable
  6. A vote is taken – may or may not be unanimous
  7. The decision is minuted
  8. A person to do it may or may not be appointed
  9. The committee moves on to the next item on the list

Several problems exist with this method but “The One About the Hammer” is the problem I want to examine in this blog entry. As Harvey, Bearley and Corkrum state:

Information tends to be wild and incomplete; individuals have widely different needs and demands; and each situation varies in its context and consequences. (2002, P. 51)

Structuring tools or devices are available to help focus, clarify and organise what we (or any group) are trying to accomplish. Being focussed, clear and organised is especially important  when situations are complex because the solutions will likely be complex too. Simple discussion will not sort out the complex issue, only waste time going in circles.

So far I have used two structuring tools outlined in The Practical Decision Maker: Snow Cards and the Discrepancy Analysis tool (Harvey, Bearley, & Corkrum, 2002, pp. 135-136, 220-222). Each of these tools has a very specific and separate function and it is important to use the right tool for the job.

Snow Cards assisted the working party to group the issues for clarification and focus the issues into a manageable number of categories. From it we were able to define our desired conditions quite clearly. The Discrepancy Analysis tool has given us a clearer picture of where exactly our shortfalls lie within the areas determined. I am now preparing to use the Cause/Effect Fishbone tool to assist the group to find the causes for the gaps in the conditions and hopefully find/ define a root problem to the situation.

I am finding a strength and integrity in the decision making process I’ve not encountered before from using these tools. But one member of the group has recently expressed annoyance (via email) with the structuring devises and the amount of time the process is taking. They are finding it ‘tedious’ and want to ‘get on with it’.

The authors do warn,

There are two classic errors that decision makers commit when working through the decision process. The first is to assume that decision making can be completed without the aid of structuring devices. The second is to use such devises too much or inappropriately (Harvey, Bearley and Corkrum, 2002, p.51)

They then discuss the use of tools such as brainstorming as a crutch when no one knows what else to do (When All Else Fails, Use a Hammer) and about using tools that don’t fit the job (Using a Sledgehammer to Put in a Finishing Nail) but they don’t define what they mean by ‘use too much’. Is using a structuring tool for each step too much? Going back to the analogy of The Hammer, am I using a set of hammers when I don’t need a hammer all the time? I don’t feel that that is so. I do feel that they tried to build ‘the thing’ without tools in the past, now it’s time to try the carpenter’s approach.


Harvey, T. R., Bearley, W. L., & Corkrum, S. M. (2002). The practical decision maker: A handbook for decision making and problem solving in organizations. Oxford: The Scarecrow Press. (Original work published 1997)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.