Better Decision Making Discussions and the Ultimate Tool Kit

In an earlier post on LinkedIn, I discuss how unfortunate it is that the use of good decision making principles are largely limited to the oil & gas and pharma industries, and share how it can also be invaluable in other settings like health care.  The examples I shared at the referenced 2016 Standford MedX conference illustrate how the conversations between patients and doctors can be on two very different planes.  As an example,

PATIENT: I don’t want to go with that treatment because that would involve driving once a week to your office.

DOCTOR: Well, there’s a question as to which of the three treatments is best, but they are probably pretty close.

PATIENT: I am really concerned about the in-office treatment, maybe even taking any drugs at all.

DOCTOR: I think we should go with Therapy #2. But, you know, it is really your choice.

She’s talking objectives or values: driving time, and he is talking choices:  Therapy #2.  We have no idea why he chose Therapy #2, but that’s what he is advocating. (And we haven’t a clue as to what he means by “best.”) And when the patient replies to that by repeating her prior statement and even advancing it a bit further, well, that sets up the conversational swirl in which they are talking on completely different planes, resulting in frustration and impatience for both.

This is a common phenomenon in organizations as well, one that you likely experience. In a such discussions (typically decision-making meetings or the solutions phase of some problem-solving endeavor), some people are arguing about what should be done (choices), others are talking about what they want to achieve (values), and someone else might be advocating the need to collect more data before making any kind of decision (risk). Once again, it becomes a swirl of talk, a conversational vortex that never advances, leaves everyone frustrated, spawns disengagement, and ends with the phrase, “We’ll continue this discussion in our next meeting.”  Sound familiar?

So what’s a good way to improve these discussions? One of my favorite tools to use in such situations is called the “Three Column Clarifier,” developed by Dr. Gary Bush. Gary was introduced to Decision Analysis in 1989 and has facilitated well over 2000 decision meetings since that time. He is known for his ability to be “covert” in the use of the process, using more of a questioning approach and getting the decision makers engaged in the flow of the dialogue with the process as a backdrop, instead of employing the typical mechanical approach that can potentially alienate a group.

I am another fan of covert facilitation, using decision-making or problem-solving tools in such a way that a) there’s never a need to call them out by name or teach them and b) they mesh with the current conversational flow of the group. A quote that has guided my work for over two decades is by John Heider who, in The Tao of Leadership, wrote, “Facilitate what is happening, not what you think ought to be happening.” It doesn’t mean you give up on the goal, but that you first “get with” the group and be flexible in your approach.

The Three Column Clarifier is a tool that easily meshes with the current dialogue, taking the energy of the group and channeling it in a productive manner, rather than completely redirecting or, even worse, opposing the group’s thinking. (Telling someone to “Just trust the process” rarely engenders the kind of engagement needed to resolve the issue.)  The tool breaks up the conversational swirl, producing a visualization that provides insights as to the path forward that the group so desperately seeks. So when the question, “This is a mess! How can I extract the various components of this discussion so we can get a picture of what is going on?” pops into your head, the Three Column Clarifier might be a helpful tool to use. For those DA facilitators, this is a great group framing tool.

You can find out the specifics on the use of this tool, and many other creative thinking, dialogue-enhancing, conflict resolving, and problem-solving tools in my just-released The Ultimate Facilitation Tool Kit. Participants in my workshops receive a hard copy of a subset of these tools, but I’ve finally made the entire collection available in both a soft cover and ePub format (compatible with desktop eReaders, Android devices, iPhones or iPads. NOT compatible with Kindle devices).

Check it out at the following link and put an end to those conversational swirls!


About the author: Katherine Rosback