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November 15, 2006

How to Avoid Harebrained, Cockamamie Schemes

During frequent lunchtime conversations, a friend often uses the term "cockamamie" to refer to the latest in Forest Service activity traps and decision traps. This morning I added "harebrained" to the title just for spice. Together, the two words capture the absurd nature of getting caught in the traps, which unfortunately seems to be the norm in the Forest Service these days.

Activity traps are simply those where we get so caught up in the day to day activities of an organization that we forget to take time to attend to the main purposes and objectives of the organization. Decision Traps are simply those were we get so caught up in the momentum of decisions (and the crises that often force them) that we forget common sense in the decision process and/or forget to pay attention to betterment of the decision process.

Activity traps are everywhere in the Forest Service and other organizations. I don't have a handy-dandy list, but would append one here if anyone else does. Attend almost any meeting or conference call, and you can begin to develop such a list. Not too long ago, I overheard a conversation between a policy professor and a Forest Service planner about the planners' schedule which was 'booked solid' for the next month. The professor finally said, "I don't get it. You Forest Service people are always in meetings—meeting with yourselves. How do you ever get any work done?"

Decision Traps have likely had more formal attention in the literature. J. Edward Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker's Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them is a good place to begin. Here is their list of 10, and a few questions I threw together that might help folks avoid the trap:

  • Plunging In: Gathering information before spending time to reach agreement about why the information is important or how it will help. When was the last time you found yourself engaged in a process that seemed mired in this trap? How is it that we spend so little time to reach at least some agreement on informaiton needs, recognizing that we can never know all that will be required and knowing too the tradeoff between informaiton gathering traps and the plunging in trap.

  • Frame Blindness: Setting out to solve the wrong problem due to a lack of perspective. If you didn't work for "the government," would you be more likely to ask hard questions about frames? Why ? Why not ask them now?

  • Lack of Frame Control: Defining the problem from only one perspective (i.e. too few frames) or continuously redefining the problem (too many). Are there any signs that current thinking is either too structured or too unstructured?

  • Overconfidence in Your Judgment: Failing to gather key information because of overconfidence about assumptions or opinions. Are there concerns being raised about process that may not have been adequately aired or discussed? Or worse, are concerns not even being raised?

  • Shortsighted Shortcuts: Overly relying on convenient facts, "rules of thumb", or "traditional approaches" without questioning whether they fit the situation. If a hypothetical outside decision-maker were presented with the information currently being gathered, where might he or she feel uncomfortable about making the needed decision? Can any given decision pass the "red face" test"? (Note: the point is not to gather all information possible and paralyze the process, the point is to not leave gaping holes).

  • Shooting From the Hip: Failing to rely on a systematic process to keep all valid information available when making a decision. Is there any information you're getting that might prove pretty useless or that might be mistakenly discarded? What organization processes help us avoid this trap while not leading us into other traps?

  • Group Failure: Assuming that smart decisions and good work emerge from groups of smart people without any management of group process. What is it about government group process that tends to force decisions and work toward dumbness rather than smartness?

  • Fooling Yourself About Feedback: Failing to interpret outcomes of past decisions for what they really say. Is a process generating enough but not too much feedback to correctly understanding what's coming in now?

  • Not Keeping Track: Assuming experience is obvious and there is no need to track results or look for less obvious lessons. Is there a clear, workable strategy for tracking and 'reflecting on' decision process, decision content, and decision outcomes? Is there a related process for tracking 'lessons learned' so they become shared knowledge?

  • Failure to Audit Your Own Decision Process: Paying attention to only the pieces and not their interactions and how they affect each other. When was the last time you reflected on, or inquired about your decision process? When was the last time you saw anyone reflecting on decisions or decision process?
P.S. We ought to add in one more category under the banner "traps." These are what renowned managmemt thinker/writer Chris Argyris calls "the management trap" in one of his latest books titled Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They're Getting Good Advice and When They're Not. Another favorite "read" is his Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitiating Organizational Learning. We will leave discussion of that particularly large "trap" for another time.

Posted by Dave on November 15, 2006 at 02:25 PM | Permalink


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