Helping Others Decide, Part 2

In the December issue I introduced the idea that leaders need to be good decision makers and also help others make good decisions. Here are the general decision making environments or categories that might impact others who are trying to define a direction for movement:

  • Easy and Obvious – often thought of as “no brainers”
  • Complicated but Known – many moving parts, but all are evident
  • Complex and Unknowns – many undefined areas that are unpredictable
  • Chaotic and Unknowable – many decisions to make, no facts, no time to think

We discussed the first two and now move on to the last two. If you need a refresher, or missed the last article, I suggest you take a look at last month’s column.

Complex Decisions

Complex environments are those with many moving parts, like the complicated framework we discussed before, but there is no obvious connection between cause and effect. There are few patterns of behavior in systems or people. It is unpredictable on the surface. There is no definitive solution like a complicated environment might have. There are many competing solution ideas and options in front of you, none of which garner consensus agreement from those involved. There are areas where you are unaware of what you do not know. Relationships between components are not defined and seem random.

Helping those you lead may include a focus on the following:

Look for patterns. Encourage the search for patterns (If we do this, this happens. If we do that, this does not happen).  That is simplistic, but gives you an idea of patterns. If there are no patterns, then set up experiments and environments that allow patterns to develop. Complex decisions may present very subtle patterns. Strive to have others see the patterns that lead to conclusions. Once patterns emerge, options can become clarified. If all roads seem equal, start down one and see what happens.

Talk more. Keep conversation going among teams and people. Help others talk it out. Ask more questions. Go down multiple rabbit trails. Search for more ideas and don’t count anything out. The more discussions happen, the more opportunities arise to see patterns and options that may have gone unnoticed.

Command and control won’t work. Do not encourage someone to just give orders or force structure into chaos.  This usually fails.  It may make the person feel like they are in charge, but most often the complexity of the problem does not favor just plowing forward and not being reflective. If the person over-controls the situation, you may not have the opportunity to see patterns emerge.

Take your time. Do not rush the process when things appear complex. Don’t give up too soon and randomly pick an option. Patterns may take time to be unearthed and may take time to decipher. Options may become clearer only after extended discussion or thought.

Chaotic Decision Making

Chaotic environments are those with high levels of turbulence. They are like the complicated or complex frameworks we discussed before, but they appear to be constantly changing and never stable. Nothing remains that same and there is unpredictability about cause and effect. They contain unrepeatable processes that might help define outcomes. You cannot “break it” on purpose to see what happens. They contain random problems or results with infrequent and scattered repetition.  There is a problem, but there are no obvious trails to go down to find the answer.  What works appears to be a random list that changes. Some things remain unknown. You just can’t figure out which option is best, or why things are not working consistently. Fixes work for short periods and long-term solutions seem out of reach.

Separate the chaos from the fire.  Chaos and crisis often look alike.  Tech Managers have to operate as first responders a great portion of the time.  Things break. Projects veer off course. Software does not cooperate. Chaos differs from crisis, in that a crisis needs to be fixed now. In a crisis there is no time for discussion (see Sidebar).

Bring calm. When chaos erupts, many get flustered and a calming influence may be the best first step to avoid crisis. The demeanor of the decision makers will impact everyone and they need to have their wits about them.

Command and control might work. In the early stages, just taking action brings comfort. Failing to act makes folks think that the decision maker may have no clue about what needs to be done. Even moving tasks and people into key roles is progress.  Positioning staff for action might start the process moving. Nudge the decision maker toward staging people to make some easy progress and then…

Move from chaotic toward easy.  The goal is to have staff that needs to make decisions move the framework farther down the line from chaotic to easy. Make methodical and measured progress. Some decisions will not move to a more simplistic approach, but most will.  Just moving from one level to another will make decisions easier on your people. If you cannot move the entire discussion to a less chaotic state, then try to find the simplest components of a decision and work toward stabilizing the chaos. As things become easier, move away from command and control measures and let the team start participating in next steps.

Keep people informed. Have the deciders be ready to answer “what is happening?” questions and give information prior to being asked.  Have them lay out the steps they are taking even if they do not know the end game plan.  Keep the communication flowing.

Debrief after the turmoil subsides.  Once the environment gets past critical mode, have the decisions reviewed to see if adjustments need to be made. Things that worked in a pinch may not be long-term corrective actions. Advise a full review after the dust settles.


By adjusting your advice depending on the situation, you can help others apply the best approach for deciding a course of action. Understand that what appears to you as easy might look complicated to others. Apply the right methodology to the right level of their concern, not yours. Support the process that others are using to make good decisions and get them through the current situation, then help them to be prepared for the next time. By passing on some lessons learned and advising others on how to think through a problem, you can help them avoid an easy decision inflating to chaos or even crisis.


Crisis Mode: Decisions under Pressure

Much of the time, CAD managers are called on to “just fix it.” Something is failing and project teams feel as if they are careening out of control and heading toward disaster. No one can figure it out and there is no time to analyze and research the issue.  It might be hardware or software failure, corruptions, lost files, or so much more.

When the stakes are high and time is fleeting, take these steps and focus on action.

Show me what happened. Ask those involved to show you the processes they used that caused the problem. Tell them to show you, not just tell you. They should be the hands-on driver and not you. Many times people say they have done one thing when they actually, unknowingly, have done another. This process may help you find a misstep or indication of the problem’s origin.

Tell me what changed. Ask what changed. Sometimes another system, process, or platform has changed.  Sending final plots to a printer that was not previously used; a change in the configuration of their local PC; or maybe an upgrade to the software that was automatically completed (think Adobe).

Trial and error is okay. Try out some solutions that you think might make progress. As you experiment, monitor solutions.  Keep track of what starts working and what made no difference at all. Move past the items that make no impact and track down the solution by process of elimination.

Abandon ship. Move to another computer, server, plotter, or software tool.  Get creative.  There are many ways to get a plot out the door.  There are many ways to exchange files with contractors. When the crisis has passed, move back to defining the long-term fix.

Don’t worry about the root cause (for now). The point in a crisis is to get beyond the heightened level of concern as quickly as possible. Discovering the root cause of a problem may not be the most pressing item.  If you can get things working again and go back to it, then that might be the best approach. If you have a solution, there may be no immediate need to uncover the original issue. Go back to it later.

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