Outcomes and Solution Criteria: reflecting on meeting 5

Having defined a rather complex problem so well last meeting, the decision making working party was ready to tackle what turned out to be an even more difficult part of the problem definition stage: stating the outcomes.

Stating the outcomes answers the question:

How will we know when the problem is solved?

This question and the discussion seemed to drag the group straight back into jumping to solutions. It was very difficult to steer them to think/visualize how ‘it’ would be once the problem no longer existed.  The group did agree that the outcomes should be measurable otherwise it is too difficult to tell if there is an impovement trend or just ‘hiccups’ that look good but are not sustained. Some suggestions were made but at one point, the group became so bogged in trying to avoid solutions but find outcomes I suggested perhaps we break and look at solution criteria for a moment.  At this point I am undecided at to whether it was a good idea to move forward then back. At first it seemed to confuse the group more. Some members couldn’t understand the difference between outcomes and solution criteria. But once I gave them examples from the book and the parents with experience in using similar methods in business further elaborated, they were set to give suggestions of solution criteria a go. The group also agreed that these should be quantifiable wherever possible.

We once again generated cards,  this time one side had the statement:

“To improve ***** , the solution must ___”

and on the other was:

To improve *****, the solution should ___”

The group worked on the cards individually so members each had an equal voice. Time was running out so I collected them and grouped them in the minutes I sent out after the meeting. We briefly returned to the outcomes for review and people seemed happier with what they had written but no consensus was reached at that point.

Photo: Logical outcome  from http://www.flickr.com/photos/commandments/2128889805/

Defining the Problem: reflecting on the 4th meeting

Now that my last assignment has been shoved out the door, I can take the time to update my blog and reflect on the path our working party is travelling down.

At the beginning of the meetings we always ask for PITS – any personal or interpersonal issues that need to be discussed before we begin. At this meeting the senior teacher wished to discuss the preciseness of the survey results. Given that some members did not have all the facts about issues (ie. amount of prep time given to teachers) she felt the results would not reflect reality and would change the results. There was more discussion about the purpose of the survey exercise — which was not to collect facts but perceptions of problems/symptoms in order to generate statements to lead to a root cause.

I have concerns that at the end of the PITS discussion this person was not convinced. An agenda is revealing itself in this case and I am relying somewhat on the fact that the rest of the group is also aware of this agenda and is working well together to stay on track with the bigger picture of what they are trying to do.

The group next looked over the results of the survey and we focussed on any areas that had gaps of 2.0 or more between actual and desired conditions. From these gap areas I had prepared analysis summary statements (ahead of time) but asked for feedback to modify them if necessary.

One example analysis summary statement:

“School and community need to communicate more effectively”.

There were seven statements in all. Using the seven summary statements on a white board I took the group through an exercise using an Interrelationship Digraph structuring tool in order to determine the cause of the SITNA.

There was much discussion as to which ways the arrows should go (pointy end to what is affected) on a couple of the areas but over all everyone was satisfied with the result at the end.

At the end of the exercise a question was put to the group —

Q. Are these symptoms of another, bigger problem or is one or more of these the root cause of the short-fall SITNA?

The group agreed that while two other factors were key drivers, management/leadership issues were the root cause of the problem. There was unanimous all five’s ‘fist-o’-five’ consensus on this.

With only twenty minutes left in the set meeting time — we celebrated the fact that we had defined our problem and went home early on a small high. ( I did mention that Step 2 was not complete until outcomes were also stated but wanted to finish on a win).

I know that management issues has been an obvious problem to everyone but the victory that night was that they arrived at the definition through a proper process. The problem definition has been validated. Also now everyone knows and knows they have agreed. This group has resolved to find a solution to the real SITNA not leave it in the too hard basket.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seetheeasylife/2535236720/

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)

Determining the Gap: Reflecting on the 3rd meeting of the decision-making process

after a three-week term break, the school working party is back to regular weekly meetings in pursuit of defining a problem.

You can read about the first meeting here and the second meeting here

Last week, the group decided on desired conditions for each of the seven areas that they identified as needing examination. Below are the desired condition for one of those areas — communications.


  • Two-way
  • Regular
  • Clearly articulated
  • Easily understood
  • Timely
  • Open
  • Within consistent communication process/es

It was interesting to note that the group failed to identify “effective” as one of the desired conditions. I wondered if this was partly an effect of running the meeting too long. Fresh minds are needed for clarity and creativity, two vital ingredients when a group is looking for quality within a process.

The task for the third meeting was to determine the size of the gaps between the desired conditions and the actuality. For this task, The Practical Decision Maker recommended using a Discrepancy Analysis tool. Because the working party consists of 5 teachers, 4 school council members, and one office staff member, I decided to create a Discrepancy Analysis survey to fill out instead of going over each item orally (very time-consuming). I also thought this might eliminate some issues with members who are overbearing in their opinions. For each condition of each area, I created a question asking for the desired state to be quantified and then the actual state to be quantified as the authors’ suggested (p. 136). I constructed this survey using Survey Monkey, a Web 2.0 tool for creating online surveys.

Here are a couple of example questions constructed from the desired conditions recorded above for Communication:

Some post meeting thoughts:

  • This was the first meeting we’ve had at the school and there was a definite difference in the behaviour of the teachers. It was difficult to bring them to order to begin the meeting. They were sorting out classroom items and generally distracted with their own little tasks throughout the meeting. Whether this was solely to do with the environment or also a general relaxing into the group, I am not sure. I will keep this in mind and try to have the meetings away from the school. And I will make mention of prompt starts in the next agenda email.
  • Although we went over the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, I need to emphasize more which step we are at in the decision making process. I think at times they forget in the process of the task-at-hand. We are only working to come up with a problem definition at this point. Members still want to jump to “then we should … ” statements although they then say, “Oh, I guess that’s a solution isn’t it.”  Call me cynical but I am the tiniest suspicious that this is a tactic used on the part of one individual to influence the process. My answer to the above statement last night was, “No, it’s not a solution, but we’re not up to taking suggestions yet.”
  • I am taking these more relaxed behaviours as signs that group evolution, Stage Two — Storming is on the horizon.

The authors of The Practical Decision Maker claim discrepancy analysis is precise in “identifying gaps between where we want to be and where we are” (Harvey, Bearley and Corkrum, 2002, p. 54). Ideally this would be true, but when groups are made up of people with vested interests, the objectivity suffers. The problem definition will only be as good as the group will allow it to be. The teachers in this group failed to record a gap in any of the teaching areas and as they outweigh the parent/council stakeholders, this will not help to strongly focus on any aspect of teaching that needs improvement.

I am finding the role of facilitator to be one of delicate balance. I want the group to make the best decisions it can (so I did point out they had missed ‘effective’ in their desired outcomes). On the other hand, they need to own the process and if I appear to be influencing too much I can see one of several things happening:

  1. They see me as pushing an agenda and lose faith in me as a leader
  2. Ownership of the problem and the solution is diluted so no action comes of the decision making process
  3. The process is biased by me (and who knows how clearly I’m seeing the SITNA?)

At the next meeting we will be looking for causes for the gaps and to perhaps begin defining our problem.



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.



Although I may not have sounded entirely happy with the subjectivity of this step in the problem-solving process, Eunson (1987, p. 272) argues that two dimensions are necessary for an effective decision: it’s quality and its ability to attract the acceptance of the people who are related to the decision. I accept this.

Eunson, B. (1987). Decision-making and problem-solving. In Behaving: Managing yourself and others (pp. 268-298). Roseville NSW: McGraw-Hill.

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: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/?display=103621&

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.