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.

Communication Guidelines from Day-time Soaps

OK, I confess. When I was a uni student in the 1980’s I used to race home from my final lecture (just like the rest of the dorm students) to catch the “Days of Our Lives”. My lasting impressions are: the drapes always seemed to be drawn in the houses and the Lawry organ music  gave it a silent movie atmosphere.  But there was one very important lesson in all the soapy episodes if you were paying attention. It had to do with communication. Most of the problems the characters found themselves in had to do with NOT saying something rather than what they did say.

If only Rachel had told John that she was pregnant ..

If only Thorn said he had seen Ashley being comforted by Dallas (and jumped to a terrible conclusion) …

Anyways you get the drift. Not being open and honest can lead to drama but not to good teams or to good decisions. And I am very interested in having good decisions made.

I am preparing to facilitate a decision-making working party at school. It is my first time facilitating at school and the Situation-that-needs-attention (SITNA) is complex. I gave a presentation to the working group a fortnight ago about the 6 Step Core Decision Making Model as outlined by Harvey, Bearley and Corkrum in The Practical Decision-Maker. (This model was part of our course studies). The group has agreed to working through this model. In the first step, Mind-Set, the group is asked to address the circumstances and state of the situation. Getting the context right is my priority at this first meeting. The The Practical Decision-Maker authors state:

Often, you must deal with concerns about conflict, openness, trust, and communication as part of establishing a mind-set that is supportive of problem solving. (Harvey, Bearley and Corkrum, 2001, 21)

And I know this will be true so I am re-readng everything I own about effective communication and conflict management.

The soaps provided a good lesson about honest communication, other communication/conflict resolution gems I’ve revisited are from (a great book with an unfortunate title) Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring out the Best in People at Their Worst

  • Poor communication/negative remarks often have positive intent – look for the underlying good purpose that was meant and acknowledge it ( don’t know what it is? make one up – communicator will either agree or make their good intent clear) Egs. want to get something done right, want acknowledgement for something done, want support.
  • State your own positive intent. Tell people why you are telling them something before telling them. Directs more positive attention to your message.
  • Whenever a discussion starts to degenerate into conflict, try to ascertain the reasons why people are for or against something.

I read on …


Brinkman, R. and Kirschner, Rick. (1994). Dealing with people you can’t stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst. McGraw Hill: New York.

Harvey, TR, Bearley, Wl & Corkrum, SM. (2001) “Core steps in decision making”, in The practical decision maker: A handbook for decision making and problem solving in organizations, The Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD and London, pp. 17-34.