Tactical Decision Games to Increase Speed and Maturity of Problem Solving: The Lessons Learned

“Confronted with a task, and having less information available than is needed to perform that task, an organization may react in either of two ways. One is to increase its information-processing capacity, the other to design the organization, and indeed the task itself, in such a way as to enable it to operate on the basis of less information. These approaches are exhaustive; no others are conceivable. A failure to adopt one or the other will automatically result in a drop in the level of performance.” —Martin van Creveld, Command in War

The ability to solve emerging problems, both those day to day issues that we encounter in normal work, and those complex emergencies that hit us without warning, are key to our personal and organizational survival in difficult economic times. Tactical Decision Games are short, pointed exercises to increase the speed and maturity of problem solving. Used regularly and thoughtfully, tactical Decision Games will train individuals and teams to shorten the time needed to recognize and successfully overcome emergent problems of any type.

I spent last week at an EXL Pharma, conference. EXL Pharma is an emerging leader in developing innovative and educational events that serve the healthcare community and allied professionals. On Wednesday March 19th Dr. Terry Barnhart and I facilitated a workshop Tactical Decision Games to Increase Speed and Maturity of Problem Solving. There were 17 workshop participants from the pharmaceutical profession, all leaders in Lean Six Sigma with strong backgrounds identifying and setting up frameworks to solve problems.

The workshop consisted of 4 tactical decision games that included typical Pharma research and development problems as well as leadership and workplace violence scenario. Participants used problem solving tools such as; critical question mapping, A-3s, thought mapping, 6 hats methodology and each exercise included an after action review. The goals of the workshop was to develop both rapid and rational methods of decision making and to learn from experiencing novel and unconventional problems how to use experience, intuitive and logical thinking to create and nurture people who are comfortable in uncertain conditions, building confident decision makers who understand their options when solving problems.

The lessons learned from the workshop were many. The use of tactical decision games induced stress levels that created initial confusion and uncertainty, even among these experienced problem solvers; however the problem solving tools helped create and nurture quickly the ability for strangers to form groups or teams and develop unit cohesion in a rapid manner. Through their experience and socials skills they identified the problems presented through robust conversation and a willingness to collaborate that led all groups to successfully identify paths to outcomes they sought. They were able to engage pretty broadly on very complicated problems in 5 -20 minutes depending upon the scenario. They began to understand the power of human attributes such as; strength of character, decisiveness, seeing and testing assumptions, identifying the power of interaction and the value of incorporating other people’s ideas into more effective outcomes.

That said, none of the groups were able to come to successful outcomes in all scenarios, displaying an inability to convert their problem structuring into a course of action. This could possibly be from bias towards reflection as Lean Six Sigma leaders in the pharmaceutical industry have strong training at identifying and setting up problems due to their lean training (and typical academic training as scientists). By contrast most cops, security and military teams appear to have a greater bias towards action, but struggle with identifying and setting up problems.

Taking this thinking into Boyd’s OODA model for decision making, we observe that some groups (like researchers and Lean Sigma experts) will have a propensity to get stuck in the observation and orientation (OO) phases, while others (e.g. cops) will have the propensity to decide and act (DA) in the absence of a good orientation. These examples show different overemphasis in our thinking and learning cycles, disaggregating a balanced thought processes and potentially leading to failure. With this in mind, it is apparent that when training better decision making into any profession, one focus of effort should be on how we engage in improving the entire OODA Loop or thought process so that we balance a bias for reflection with the bias for action based on the unfolding conditions, time and risk.

I attended this conference because I saw it as a great learning opportunity and I expected to see vast differences in how research and development people from the pharmaceutical industry as compared to those of us in law enforcement. The main difference was the bias for reflection versus the bias for action mentioned above, but most everything else I observed over the four days was very much similar and centered on the human element. Throughout the conference including the other classes I attended was a big emphasis on the human side of decision making and the barriers that stifle it. Communications and ensuring the flow of information is flowing up/down/sideways in a robust way ensures that mission and intent is understood and allows for all to possess a common outlook allowing parallel execution throughout the organization. What we reward, tolerate and punish is what people will base their execution on or put another way; “people train and execute to the test.” So it’s important for leaders to acknowledge resistance toward any new method, policy, procedure or initiative sought by the organization to help manage the mindset of all in the organization. This will help enhance the common goals, mission and intent so important to execution in any organization.

What does this mean for future workshops and our training? We will look for a bias for action or reflection and if detected engage the team in overcoming that bias. This understanding of what bias, reflection or action is important to identify as it could be detrimental to fluid, effective and ongoing observation, orientation, decision and action cycles. Law Enforcement questions; how will this help us police better? How do we add value to the methods and tactics we use? What cognitive biases do we have that we need to be aware of and work around to become better real time decision makers? Then how do we reshape our culture so we become an organization that can really see and solve our problems and make that culture stick?

To share a comment from a fellow conference member and Pharma professional I feel was quite insightful in our efforts to continually learn, unlearn and relearn and breed the culture of a learning organization, “we need to prepare the ground, plant the seeds and replant the seeds” so the root of sound decision makers and state of the art problem solvers takes hold and does not wither away.

“Then he told them many things in parables, saying. “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop-a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He, who has ears, let him hear.” ~Mathew 15:5-9

Stay Oriented