Problems, Conflicts and Decisions

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While frequently treated as separate topics, conflict management, problem-solving and decision-making are interrelated and all are focused on achieving the best possible outcome.

In an ideal world, there would always be sufficient information and rational maturity to allow you to treat everything as a problem and apply the following problem-solving steps to reach the optimum solution:

  1. Investigate the problem.
  2. Define the problem; the way it is defined will influence the solution.
  3. Identify the root cause.
  4. Define the "solution space" -- the potential range of acceptable methods and solutions the options have to conform to.
  5. Generate options. This can include: group creative processes such as brainstorming, negotiation between parties, facilitated processes, and reflection and other individual processes.
  6. Decide on the solution that solves the root cause in the simplest way. 
  7. Implement the solution effectively.
  8. Review the implementation.

The trouble with this process is that problem-solving assumes there is a best answer -- that the information needed to determine the answer is available and that the people involved in the process are acting rationally. These circumstances are relatively rare!

Many of the problems that require solving are rooted in emotions. At its center, every conflict has people acting (or reacting) emotionally, and conflict management is focused on reducing the effect of emotions to allow the people in conflict to start acting rationally. Any effective solution to a conflict involves defining the problem, defining a solution space (e.g., a formal mediation), understanding the options, choosing a solution and then implementing the solution. The only difference is how these steps are implemented or imposed. The standard solution options are:

  • Forcing/Directing: The solution is imposed by a manager with adequate power or a tribunal (i.e., a judge, arbitrator or adjudicator).
  • Smoothing/Accommodating: Emphasizes agreement, minimizes the issues in dispute and allows time for emotions to cool and any residual issues to be resolved through a rational decision-making process.
  • Compromising/Reconciling: Both sides give something up to resolve the problem. Option generation is limited by the level of conflict.
  • Problem-solving/Collaborating: Also referred to as "confronting." A joint approach to the problem -- collaborative decision-making -- is used to find a mutually acceptable solution (that is, a win-win).
  • Withdrawing/Avoiding/Accepting: Allows time for emotions to cool but may not resolve the issue.
Different conflict-management processes are appropriate at different times. The primary focus is on reducing or managing the level of conflict, but eventually someone has to decide on the solution to the underlying problems.

Problem-solving and decision-making are also closely aligned. But the weakness of the problem-solving concept is the assumption that there is sufficient data to make the "right decision." Unfortunately, many decisions are not that simple!

The types of decisions you will be required to make range from "simple problems" through to "wicked problems":

  • Wicked problems are those that keep changing and involve the stakeholder's emotions and complexity. You can never really define the problem that needs a decision but still have to decide something. And every decision changes the problem -- an iterative, one-step-at-a-time approach is usually best.
  • Dilemmas have no right answer. You have to use your intuition and choose the lesser of two evils. Not making a decision is almost always worse than either of the options.
  • Conundrums are intricate and difficult questions that only have a conjectural answer.
  • Puzzles and mysteries lack adequate information to resolve, requiring your best decision based on the assessed probabilities at the given time. You almost never have enough time to get all of the information and skills you need to reduce these decisions to simple problems, but you can use processes to a point.
  • Problems just require hard work and the application of the problem-solving process described above to get to the best decision.
The challenge of decision-making is to understand and balance the following:

  • The characteristics of the problem you have to make a decision about
  • The levels of emotion and conflict in the people affected by the decision
  • The characteristics of the different types of decisions you will have to make
  • The last step is to have the courage to make the best decision you can, in the circumstances as you understand them at that point in time. 
Ultimately, good decision-making is firstly getting most decisions reasonably correct (luck plays a part) and then continually reviewing the consequences of your decisions to adapt, adjust and correct the suboptimal ones as quickly as possible. Generally, any considered decision made in the appropriate time frame is better than no decision or an unnecessarily delayed one.

How do you make your decisions when confronted with a problem?

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: August 06, 2014 10:51 AM | Permalink

Comments (1)

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Great article Lynda. Very informative chart and a great description of the types of what I will call issues and the level of decision-making preparation that is required. Very well written overall. Thank you for sharing

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