In this excerpt from his book, The Thinking Effect, Michael Vaughan, corporate leadership training expert and CEO, The Regis Company, discusses why the best leadership training programs focus on decision-making, problem-solving, and collaboration.

DECISION MAKING

In a 2010 article in McKinsey Quarterly, authors Don Lovallo and Oliver Sibony examined a recent survey of 2,207 executives, in which only 28% said that the quality of strategic decisions in their companies was generally good. Another 60% thought that bad decisions were made about as frequently as good ones, and the remaining 12% thought good decisions were made altogether infrequently.

With that many bad decisions hindering organizations, the McKinsey team set out to quantify the financial value of quality, unbiased decisions, and to create a common language for how to define good decisions.

They studied 1,048 major decisions made over a five-year period. Isolating factors such as industry, geography, and size, they calculated the variance between decision outcomes, the quality of the decision-making process, and the quality of data analysis. They concluded that people make better decisions in the workplace when they are encouraged to recognize their personal and professional biases, examine broader alternative hypotheses, and appreciate uncertainty.

An examination of the broader community of researchers and research reveals that there are a few common tenets to improving decision making.

Decision making is best learned in the real-life contexts of an organization. It’s not possible to teach people to become better decision makers by describing decision-making processes, providing checklists, or punishing failures via traditional learning and development training. Employees improve their decision-making skills the most in the context of real-world situations, such as business simulations, in which they have time to reflect, evaluate, adjust, and reevaluate the impacts of their actions.

PROBLEM SOLVING

If decision making is the skill that workers need daily, then problem-solving is the one that, all by itself, can really increase the value of an organization. Ask almost any executive leader what kind of employee is needed the most, and you will hear “problem solvers.” Chances are, that executive got to where he is today either by being good at solving problems or by being surrounded by people who were good at solving problems. The best executive knows that employees at every level are called on to solve internal, client or customer problems, or to help others solve problems. Even as day-to-day operations are automated and streamlined, problem-solving is a skill that requires the thoughtful insight of an employee.

Problems typically have many attributes, considerations, and solutions, each with their own spectrum of possible outcomes. Problem-solving is considered the most complex of all intellectual functions, a higher-order cognitive process that requires the modulation and control of more routine or fundamental skills.

In fact, problem-solving requires a combination of critical systems and creative thinking, as well as the value skills of decision making and collaboration.

There are problems that have “correct” solutions and problems that do not have any solutions. As in decision making, the mindset of solving problems is more important than the solutions, and learning how to think differently in novel situations, often achieved by leveraging business simulations or other learning and development training tools,  is key to successful problem-solving.

As Peter Senge writes, “Todays’ problems come from yesterday’s solutions.” There are often so many interdependent factors contributing to a problem that fixing one aspect of the problem may cause new problems.

A valuable employee is one who internalizes this thinking about approaching problems.

COLLABORATION

The golden thread that ties all the core abilities and value skills together for a common purpose is collaboration.

Globalization, mergers, and acquisitions in an increasingly competitive market require leaders and workers to learn the art and discipline of collaboration across 

The golden thread that ties all the core abilities and value skills together for a common purpose is collaboration.

Globalization, mergers, and acquisitions in an increasingly competitive market require leaders and workers to learn the art and discipline of collaboration across determination to strive for something greater than any individual can achieve alone. It requires a willingness to share and learn.

When collaboration is done right, teams that work collaboratively can leverage resources more responsibly, solve problems more thoughtfully, and find new ways to do things more innovatively.

This all sounds like a no-brainer. Of course collaboration is important. Why, then, with so much written about the subject, so much focus on it by leadership development consulting firms, and so much of our time spent practicing communications, can most problems be traced back to a breakdown in communication?

It’s because organizations are teaching and practicing the wrong skills or they talk about the purpose of communication in abstract terms. For example, most corporate leadership training talks about the need to establish trust and credibility before real communication can occur. Other leadership development programs focus on processes or tools used to drive toward win/win outcomes. And others focus on what is needed to engage the hearts and minds of the listeners to persuade and motivate them to do your bidding.

Frankly, it’s hard to argue with any of these statements. On the surface, they’re all important to communication. The issue resides in the fact that they focus on the visible factors of communication and miss the underlying dynamics that drive effective collaborations.

Communication, in its simplest definition, implies that the communicator conveys information to the receiver, who then reciprocates with either questions or confirmation. This process switches between the various parties until understanding is achieved.

Collaboration, as we define it, focuses on the identification of one’s own biases and flawed mental models that hinder the progress toward a shared vision.

While communication emphasizes external processes, collaboration exposes internal dynamics. Both are needed, but the latter is rarely developed.

Effective collaboration, then, is not just about getting others to agree; it resides in the ability of the collaborators to surface and discuss the underlying systems behind the problem.

Mike Vaughan

Author Mike Vaughan

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