Unstructured ad hoc decision making: what could possibly go wrong?

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Several weeks ago I was involved in towing a boat across Moreton Bay off the coast of Brisbane.  The owner of the boat had found that his boat’s battery was flat when he got to the boat ramp so he jump started the engine from another battery and headed off, due east, without a care in the world.  After anchoring at his secret fishing spot (most boat owners have secret fishing spots) and spending the morning nearly catching “the largest fish you have ever seen”, he decided to head for home.  He told me it was at that point he realised that the flat battery was still just as flat as it had been earlier that day and this time there was no other battery to jump start from.  Luckily his mobile phone was still in range of a tower near the coast and after a very embarrassing call to Marine Rescue he was eventually found and towed safely back to the boat ramp where he had begun.

It’s easy to sit back and think what an obvious and ridiculous mistake this person made, notwithstanding the fact that this very scenario actually occurs on a weekly basis on Moreton Bay.  However, on closer inspection, I can’t help but get the feeling that the underlying problem at work here is actually far more common than many of us would care to admit. 

If we do a very rough root cause analysis we can see that this person:

a) encountered an unexpected problem

b) which led him to implement an ad hoc solution that solved the immediate unexpected problem

c) which set in place the conditions for a larger problem in the future

If you are anything like me and if you are reading this then you probably are, you will be able to find many instances where you can identify this 3 step process playing out in your own professional and personal life.  For example, have you ever found that you suddenly have more work to do than you can possibly get through in the time you have to do it (a), so you cut some corners where you think no one will notice (b), only to have an angry customer come back and complain about something important that is not working because it wasn’t done right (c)?  Or perhaps you had to schedule a meeting late on a Friday because your calendar was so full (a), so you cancelled a romantic dinner with your significant other to accommodate it (b), only to find out later that they had actually organised a special surprise for you that night and they are upset because you ruined it (c).  Yeah, I’ve done both of those things and lots more.  I’m sure you can relate. 

 So the question becomes, how do we short circuit this a, b, c, pattern to stop this happening?  Because you can’t be in possession of all of the relevant bits of information all of the time, there is no bullet proof solution here, but I think there are things you can do.  In a general sense, working through a process that involves answering the following questions before rushing to implement an ad hoc solution when an unexpected problem comes up can go a long way towards avoiding unexpected negative outcomes.    

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Why did the problem occur?
  3. What are all of the possible solutions I can think of?
  4. Which solution do I favour?
  5. Why do I favour that solution?
  6. Who else could be impacted by that solution that I should consult with first?
  7. If I want to implement that solution, what do I have to change now to make it work?
  8. If I implement that solution, what are all of the longer term effects I can think of?
  9. Which of those longer term effects might result in a new problem?
  10. What do I have to do or change in the future to avoid those new problems?
  11. If my solution doesn’t work, how am I going to get back to where I started so I can try a new solution?
  12. How am I going to stop the original problem happening again?

 What working through this process does is forces you to move from short term thinking mode to long term thinking mode.  It’s exactly the opposite of what a professional interrogator will do.  A good interrogator will use statements and questions that keep you locked into short term thinking mode so you can’t step back and think about the long term consequences of making disclosures to them, or even think about the larger picture beyond the immediate scenario they create in your mind for you. Indeed, in the moment each disclosure you make will feel like it is the best option available for helping you solve an immediate problem, the future is not a consideration. Does that sound somewhat familiar?  By comparison, the process outlined in this article actually forces you to think beyond the immediate situation you find yourself in and makes you consider how your actions at that point fit within the bigger picture and what the longer term consequences of your actions could be.

Obviously, the amount of time you devote to this process depends greatly on how serious the problem you identify in step 1 is and how weighty the solutions you come up with in step 3 appear to be. Working through this process if you identify that your business is about to suffer a significant cash flow shortage, is very different to working through this process if you realise that you forgot to pack your phone charger while traveling.  Regardless of how big or small the unexpected issue is though, I have found it is still worth working through these steps, even if only quickly.  Doing so just might stop a small issue in the here and now from setting off a cascading series of events that leads to a bigger problem down the road.