Monthly Archives: December 2013

Rest and relaxation

winter break“Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

DeeAnne, Todd, and I will be taking a short break from the HigherEDge blog during the next 10 days as we spend time with friends and family over the holidays. We hope you will also be taking some time away to spend with family and friends and perhaps even some time for a little rest and relaxation.

We look forward to reconnecting with you in 2014! Until then, have a terrific holiday season.

Anita Rios


What’s the problem?

Solving jigsaw puzzle One important task for leaders is to make good decisions that lead to effective problem solving.  As we know, within higher education such decisions are rarely made alone.  Most problem solving involves a village, if not a small city.  So how can we make sure that our efforts are going in the right direction?

One requirement is to be sure that we’re solving the real problem.  This sounds obvious, but it’s often quite tricky.  It can be tempting for groups to jump right in and start taking action, but without thoughtful preparation our activity may not be leading to the results we want.

The Community Tool Box is a website that provides resources for community development and education.  It provides a useful model for problem solving.  Briefly, the steps are:

  1. Clarify the problem.  What do you know? What information is missing?  How can you gather more data? Once you have enough information,  write a brief and clear statement of the problem.
  2. Decide whether to solve the problem.  Is the issue worth the energy it will take to address it?  Is this the best way to spend our limited resources? Is now the right time? Are there any possible unintended negative consequences of addressing it?
  3. Analyze the problem.  Answer the who, what, why, when, how much questions.  Use appropriate tools to identify the root cause, such as five whys or force field analysis.
  4. Generate solutions.  There are a wide variety of methods for generating solutions.  The most important thing is not to select a solution too quickly.  Make sure you have explored the problem and possible solutions from a variety of viewpoints.
  5. Select solutions.  Evaluate your possible solutions and create an action plan.  Remember that complex problems in higher education often require a set of inter-related solutions. Consider what you will do first, and what needs to follow.
  6. Implement and evaluate the solution.  Putting your plan into practice requires strategic action.  Who will do what?  How will you know if it’s successful?  What will your evaluation process look like?  Who needs to know the results?

Solving problems is one of the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of leading groups.  As the Community Tool Box says, “operating together, groups can overcome obstacles individuals have found insurmountable.”  What strategies do you use to be sure your teams are addressing the right problem?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Who decides?

indecisionIt depends! Not the most satisfying answer but likely the most accurate. While it is true that the “buck stops with you” and leaders are accountable for decisions being made, who actually needs to make the decision is not always as clear.

In our three-day leadership development program we have defined six different decision-making styles that are found in higher education. Each style is defined by “who” makes the final decision. Effective leaders recognize that no single style works best and it is important to match the decision style with the situation.

  1. Executive: the leader makes the decision on their own using only their own judgement and information.
  2. Consultative: the leader consults with others, asks for input and then makes the final decision themselves.
  3. Expert: the leader delegates the final decision to an expert.
  4. Majority rules: the leader delegates the final decision to a majority vote.
  5. Participative: the leader delegates the final decision to a subgroup or representative team.
  6. Consensus: the final decision is only made through a process that leads to consensus among all participants.

Each style has its own benefits and drawbacks based on quality of information available, urgency and consequences of the decisions, level of commitment needed, trust among team members and the leader, complexity of the issue, and history of previous decisions.

After selecting the best style for the situation a crucial insight shared by leaders in our program is the importance of clearly communicating which style you are using. If the people on your team do not know who is actually making the decision or how their ideas are being used you can lose their trust or commitment to the final decision.

We all have a decision style we are most comfortable using, yet limiting ourselves to only one can limit the effectiveness of our decisions and the engagement of our teams.

How clear are you when decisions are made?

Todd Thorsgaard

For good decision making, check your biases at the door

Two quite opposite qualities equally bias our minds –habits and novelty.
– Jean de la Bruyere

Last week as I worked with a group of leaders at one of our colleges, we talked about a useful  5-step framework that can improve critical thinking and support better decision making.  One of the steps is to evaluate information, asking:

  • Do I have the relevant information to make a decision?
  • Is it accurate?
  • Am I evaluating it objectively?
  • Do I have any biases that may color my judgment?

This last question is especially helpful since biases can often creep into our decision-making processes without realizing it. Here is a list of biases that often pop up in decision making:

  • Confirmation bias – People tend to be willing to gather facts that support certain conclusions but disregard other facts that support different conclusions.
  • Premature termination of search for evidence – People      tend to accept the first alternative that looks like it might work.
  • Cognitive inertia – Unwillingness to change existing thought patterns in the face of new circumstances.
  • Selective perception – We actively screen out information that we do not think is important.
  • Wishful thinking – a tendency to want to see things in a positive light, which can distort perception and thinking.
  • Choice-supportive bias occurs when people distort their memories of chosen and rejected options to make the chosen options seem more attractive.
  • Recency – People tend to place more attention on more recent information and either  ignore or forget more distant.
  • Repetition bias – A willingness to believe what one has been told most often and by the greatest number of different sources.
  • Group think – peer pressure to conform to the opinions  held by the group.
  • Source credibility bias – A tendency to reject a person’s statement on the basis of a bias against the person, organization, or group to which the person belongs. People preferentially accept statements by others that they like.

I can think of several occasions where I have experienced source credibility bias because of my previous experience with an individual where I questioned their expertise or commitment. I’ve also had confirmation bias where I’ve collected confirming information that supports a decision and disregarded information that doesn’t fit easily. I’ve also observed others who have displayed this as well.

The challenge is to recognize biases in your own decision making. Incorporating the questions: 1) Am I evaluating it objectively?, and 2) Do I have any biases that may color my judgment? into your decision making processes can give you the time and space to make sure that your biases don’t lead you down a wrong path when making decisions.

Which of these biases cause the most problems for you and the teams you work with? What do you do to avoid them?

Anita Rios

Leading with powerful questions

questions1In my last post, I talked about the importance of asking good questions. This can seem obvious, but I’ve found it to be very difficult in practice.  As leaders, it’s easy to believe that we are asking thought-provoking questions, while in reality others see them differently.  How often have you heard people say “He asked for our opinion, but I know the decision was already made.”

Asking powerful questions is one of the most effective ways to involve stakeholders in decisions that affect them, and to increase buy-in to the decision once it’s made. As I’ve been learning more about the art of asking questions, a colleague shared an excellent resource created by the World Cafe and Pegasus Communications: The Art of Powerful Questions. I highly recommend the entire article.  As a sample, here are some questions they recommend to help leaders frame questions that will generate productive dialogue:

  • Is this question relevant to the team’s goals?
  • Do I genuinely not know the answer?
  • What do I want to happen as a result of the question?
  • Is the question likely to generate new trains of thought or new directions?
  • Is this question likely to generate creative action?
  • Is it likely to generate more questions?

As I prepare to lead meetings, I’ve been challenging myself to be intentional about the questions I’ll ask. It really makes a difference in what I bring to the table and in the outcomes that are generated.

Einstein is supposed to have said that if he had only one hour to solve a life-threatening problem, he’d spend the first 55 minutes forming the right question, because then the problem could be solved in the remaining 5 minutes. How much time do you typically spend forming the right question?

–Dee Anne Bonebright

It’s a wrap!

Clap Board

To succeed as a leader and successfully navigate the challenges you face demands making decisions. You are the director of a large cast of faculty and staff who count on you to assess the situation, utilize the expertise of your team and call for “action.” This past summer Chip and Dan Heath examined the past 40 years of psychological research, including the newest work in neuropsychology and behavioral economics, on decision-making and their work can help leaders call for the best “action!”  Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford and his brother Dan is a senior fellow at Duke University. They co-authored Made to Stick and Switch, books that offer practical advice for leaders on effective communication and change management. Their latest book, Decisiveaddresses how to make good decisions.  I want to highlight their 4 step process for improving how people can make decisions.

What has become clear over time is that humans are hard-wired to push for action and we use many mental and emotional short cuts to help us make decisions and move forward. Even with an awareness of our decision-making biases they still have a negative impact on the quality of our decisions. The Heath brothers suggest that we must move past trying to avoid or eliminate our short-cuts and instead utilize a 4 step checklist or framework to ensure that our biases don’t send us down the wrong path.  The framework goes by the acronym WRAP.

  • Widen your options – actively seek out more choices. Engage in debate and don’t rush to narrowing your choices.
  • Reality-test your assumptions – ask questions that challenge your insights and initial responses. 
  • Attain distance before deciding – force yourself to step back and clarify your long-term priorities before you take action. Ignore your immediate excitement at finding a good idea.
  • Prepare to be wrong – focus on success and not proving that you made the right decision. Plan to make changes that will help your decisions succeed in an uncertain future that can’t be predicted.

Keeping the WRAP framework in mind as you grapple with day-to-day issues and make strategic decisions can help you take action to focus on what is truly important and not get side-tracked by our human tendencies.

Todd Thorsgaard

Sharpen your thinking

axe“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  –Abraham Lincoln

Research shows that critical thinking is a key leadership skill for today’s organizations. Good critical thinking can lead to better decision making and problem solving for leaders and their teams. In a recent study by the American Management Association, nearly 70% of respondents ranked it as the most important skill for helping grow their organizations.

As leaders, we are all being asked to make increasingly complex decisions and to solve unique problems. That’s why it is so important to make sure we sharpen our critical thinking skills and make sure we are using the best tools at our disposal.  Next week I’ll be working with leaders at one of our campuses to help them better understand their preferred approaches to problem solving and decision making and introduce them to a critical thinking model featured in a new book, called Now You’re Thinking by Judy Chartrand et. al.

In a nutshell, the model highlights 5 steps to better critical thinking, which any leader can begin using right away, whether you need to work with your team to solve a unique problem or make a complex decision. Here’s the short and sweet version:

5 Steps to Critical Thinking

1.      Stop and Think

Take time to reflect and set direction. Ask: What are we trying to accomplish? What is going on here? Is the situation urgent? Is it important?

2.      Recognize Assumptions

Distinguish facts from opinions and check for implicit assumptions. Make sure you are solving the right problem. Ask: What do we know about the situation? What don’t we know? What are the important facts? Opinions?

3.      Evaluate Information

Evaluate the range of information available to you. Ask: What information is needed? Is it relevant and accurate? What key factors or criteria will lead to a successful outcome?

4.      Draw Conclusions

Draw a conclusion that logically flows from the previous steps. Ask: Does the conclusion fit the evidence? Achieve my/our goals?

5.     Plan of Action

Create a plan of action that will help people move forward to achieve the desired goal. Ask: What processes need to be developed to achieve our goal? What resources are needed? How will we communicate our plan? How will we monitor and evaluate progress? What is our Plan B, if this solution or decision does not work out as planned?

I like this critical thinking model because of its simplicity and ease of use. However, it is just one of the tools available to leaders to arrive at better decision-making and problem solving. What tools have you used to sharpen your axe and improve the quality of your decision making? What would you recommend to other leaders?

Anita Rios

To get innovative decisions, ask good questions

questionOne of the challenges of innovative leadership is to ensure that new ideas and viewpoints are considered when making the wide range of decisions that we face on a regular basis.

In a recent blog on strategic planning, Harvard Business School authors Logan Chandler and Ron Ashkenas gave several pieces of advice about innovative decision making.  They said that while the process should generate “intense debates,” what it more often generates is a set of dense documents, crowded with data and text, that end up on the shelf.

How can we avoid this fate for our decision making processes? I found this advice be the most interesting: to ask provocative questions – the kind that lead to authentic discussion. Here are some of the questions they suggest:

  • What are the top 2 or 3 things that must go right for this strategy to work?
  • If we pursue this strategy, what are we deciding not to do?
  • What specific capabilities will we need to develop in order for this plan to succeed?

Similar to strategic planning, much of leadership decision-making is about asking hard questions and listening carefully for the answers. What strategies do you use to create questions that drive innovative decisions?

–Dee Anne Bonebright

“Excuses are for losers…..”

Truman_pass-the-buckMy high school football coach would “remind us” of the importance of accountability with that phrase “excuses are for losers..” when we offered up reasons for why we were not executing our assignments during practice. At times it was frustrating to hear but I came to recognize that he cared about us and wanted us to succeed. That was why he wanted us to take accountability for our actions. As leaders we also need to accept and embrace our accountability for decision-making. Think about the leaders you most admire, it is clear that they know that the “buck stops with them.”

Over the next month we will be exploring different ways you can make effective decisions, how to involve and engage your people in decision-making, and the importance of communicating and supporting decisions after they are made. How you do that directly affects the relationships and trust you build with your team, your effectiveness as a manager and your ability to drive innovation. Before any of that can happen, however, true leadership demands the willingness to actually make the tough decisions and to accept the consequences of those decisions. As Coach McKay, not so gently, reminded me years ago, make sure you act in a way that makes it clear to your team that “the buck stops with you,” even in the tough times.

Todd Thorsgaard

Making effective decisions

decision lights free to useWe’ve reached our final discussion on the MnSCU leadership competencies. The last topic is one of the most visible indicators of good leadership – effective decision making.

Decision making plays out in many ways across higher education. Examples from the MnSCU competencies include:

  • Ability to creatively and efficiently solve problems
  • Demonstrating critical thinking and asking appropriate questions
  • Seeking alternative viewpoints
  • Using appropriate decision-making methods based on the situation
  • Preparing stakeholders for, and involving them in, decisions that affect them
  • Communicating decisions effectively to stakeholders
  • Supporting decisions once they are made

This list is a bit daunting. Exhibiting all of these behaviors requires a strong set of leadership skills in a wide variety of areas. At the same time, it’s a great description of leadership that is not dependent on rank, position, or job role.

If you were describing effective decision making, which items do you think are most important?  What else might you add to the list?

Dee Anne Bonebright