Friday, April 29, 2011

Can’t Decide? Change the Question

Executive Summary:
Every day we are faced with making decisions.  When our own experience or the advice of our peers and mentors fails to show us a clear direction, we find it difficult to be decisive.  Sometimes, the answer is not in the decision, but in re-phrasing the question into terms which are more explicit and, therefore, easier to resolve.

The Rest of the Story:
Answer the following question.  What do you want from life?  Take your time.  For me, it’s a difficult question to answer, so if you don’t have one ready, don’t feel bad, you are just helping me make my point.

If you do have an answer handy, is it specific, or is its vagueness equal to the question’s?  For example, did you answer “happiness?"  Is the answer, “happiness” actionable?  Is it an answer that tells you or someone else what to do?  Not really.

Often times, when we find ourselves without a decisive answer or direction, it is because the question doesn’t lend itself to a decisive answer.  Sure I gave an example of a philosophic life-question, but what about even seemingly straightforward questions?

Let’s try this work-place question.  “Which supplier should we use?”  Maybe we can answer this question because our experience tells us which supplier we want.  But, this question could be just as difficult to answer in some cases as the philosophical ones.  How do we know which supplier is the right one for the challenge at hand?  Do we know at all?

If you look at your day, or the last week, I’ll wager that you had to stew on at least one question where the answer wasn’t clear to you.  How did you solve it?  Did you get someone else to lend you his or her experience?  Did you ask more questions?

The latter, asking more questions, is often the key to resolving a debate and achieving a conclusion.  It’s similar to the solution that I offer up for your consideration in this post.

Many times, when the answer to the question isn’t forthcoming or clear, it’s because the question isn’t worded in a way to demand a straightforward decision.  “Which supplier should we use?”  The answer could be as flippant as, “It doesn’t matter, flip a coin.”  However, if we provided such an answer our teammates might begin to question our judgment.

Here is what I propose.  When faced with a question to which you do not have a ready answer, re-word the question in terms of whatever prevailing strategy you might have for your team, for the project, or for your business.

Let’s say that the business has a growth strategy.  Now let’s re-examine the example question.  “Which supplier should we use to support our business’s growth strategy?”  Now, suddenly, we have a way to compare the supplier choices based upon which one will best meet future needs.

If it still isn’t clear how to re-word the question, or it isn’t clear how to answer the question, I recommend backing into the question from a different decision angle.  Here is what I mean.  If it isn’t clear which supplier is better for the business’s growth strategy, then try to find another meaningful criteria for decision.

Does the project or product have special needs from a supplier?  Can you use the impasse as leverage to compel your suppliers to refine their proposals and give you a deciding factor based on cost or performance?  Perhaps the question becomes, “Which supplier should we choose to support this project’s needs as well as the next project in the pipeline?”

Bottom line, if you can’t decisively answer the question, change the question by adding in some decision criteria.  Select criteria that are meaningful to the immediate or future needs of the business or of your team. 

Another example, an often-difficult decision, is which candidate should you choose to hire for your team.  Instead of asking which one to select, ask which one will best support the direction your team is going, or which one appears to have the greatest potential to grow within the team or to help the team grow and evolve.  Suddenly, the choice should become clear.

OK, I admit that my examples seem obvious to the point of questioning whether I even had to write a post about it.  I chose plain examples to make a point, but I’ll bet if you go back to that question you debated over today or this week and think about how you resolved it, you’ll find that you probably did something similar.

Sometimes, we don’t always consider the simple solutions.  I brought up this post because I have been having difficulty balancing priorities this week and finally had to slap myself on the forehead when I realized that instead of asking which project was most important, I had to ask which project was going to get me closest to my immediate goals.

I assume that because I didn’t see the solution of changing the question for the better part of a week, that perhaps others miss the simple solution too.  So, before you go and scold me for stating the obvious, take a week and try out my advice.  See if it doesn’t help you the next time you run into an impasse.   If, after you try it, you feel compelled to write me, then I’ll eat my words.

Our decisiveness is often a reflection of our leadership.  I offer up a quick and simple way to get past the questions that seem difficult to resolve quickly.  It might make a big difference in your leadership and decision making skills. Try it and see. 

I’m betting public embarrassment that you will find that re-wording the question to include your prevailing goals or strategy, or to insert some comparable criteria will help you quickly resolve debates or act decisively.  The simple solutions, especially the ones that appear obvious to a fault, are often the best.

Stay wise, friends.

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