I spent the afternoon of Great Ideas in a new style of session, the "Deep Dive," which is three hours going in-depth on a topic. The session was led by Jennifer Riel of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
To summarize the session in one paragraph, I'd say the idea is the most successful leaders one ones who understand that their frame of reference is no more valid than someone else's. They use this understanding to seek out other frames, which leads to solutions that would not be possible otherwise. For example, if you are faced with a tough decision between two alternatives, the strong leader is able to see the desirable traits in both alternatives and craft an entirely new solution that captures more of those traits.
After the session, I had the opportunity to ask Riel a few questions:
You are trying to think through a tough decision, trying to see alternative frames of reference--how do you know you've reached a point where the thought exercise is no longer productive?
I don't think there's actually an algorithm, sadly. If there was, life would be a lot easier. It's taking steps back every once in a while and reminding yourself of the problem you're trying to solve and saying does this feel like I'm working on that problem or am I getting stuck on an aspect that is different. And so it's giving yourself permission to reframe what you're working on, but I think we often have that moment where we feel the progress has stopped and we can't push further. I think in part it's intuitive but also just giving yourself that moment to reflect.
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about research that indicated oftentimes our best decisions are made with just an instant of observation. How does that reconcile with seeking opposable views?
In Blink, which I think is a great book, he talks about the power of the split second decision, but there are also limitations to that right? Sometimes we make that split decision correctly, and sometimes we don't. And the challenge is without a process--without a way of working through, you don't have a way of reproducing the great decisions, and not reproducing the bad ones, [or] in fact teaching people how you made the great decisions. So while I have a lot of sympathy for that idea that we can learn a lot in a very short period of time, for me it's more about saying for those bigger, more complicated decisions, can we create methodology where people can actually learn what we're doing and what our thinking was?
Other than just finding the time to think about it, what techniques can you offer people who want to try to make decisions in this way?
One is going back to finding people who disagree with you, finding people who see the world differently, and trying to find genuinely what that's about, and where it comes form. The other thing that seems simple but can be complicated is turning an issue into a dilemma. So I have an issue that, man it's really hard to get keep my members. It's really hard to keep memebers engaged and that's an issue you can talk about for the rest of your life, that it's hard to keep members engaged. Turn it into a choice. If I'm going to engage members, I can either invest a million more dollars a year in programs, or I can say paid membership doesn't matter and I'm going to engage people entirely outside of the paid membership mechanisms. That's a much more concrete thing to think about and work your way through than "it's hard to engage my members." So the technique is turning an issue into a dilemma or a choice and then working through that choice to sort of go back and solve that problem.
Decision making in the association context, particularly big decisions, is unlike decisions in other sectors. Power is often widely diffused between a CEO, a board, other important volunteers, and so on. So often we have to work to build consensus. How does such a decision-making dynamic affect the ability to make decisions with this technique?
It's about what are you going to do with the opposing views. We get ourselves in trouble when we think our job is to minimize our disagreements and to drive toward some sort of compromise . That's one way of thinking about leveraging that diversity. It's about saying can we tease out where we disagree, dive more deeply into it understand the nature of those opposing models and choices and do something better? I think the fact that you have a diversity of views positions you better to actually apply integrative thinking in groups. I think it's actually easier to apply integrative thinking in groups if you genuinely have respect for other people's views and a position that [a solution] is possible, and then leveraging those other people is going to make it easier than trying to do it by yourself in the dark with a piece of paper.