How to Define a Decision-Making Problem

October 22, 2023




In this 8020Info Water Cooler we look at defining problems for better decision-making, Elon Musk’s management “algorithm”, leadership in the AI era, managing your own ego, simple rules for balancing autonomy and collaboration in a complex world and, for fun, some new words. Enjoy!


1. How to Define a Decision-Making Problem

The most critical step in decision-making is to define the problem correctly, says Ottawa-based thought leader Shane Parrish. That boils down to identifying what you want to achieve and what obstacles stand in your way.

But Parrish identifies a common stumbling block — in school, many of us were taught that solving problems our teachers handed out is how we succeed. So we’re much less comfortable defining problems and instead rush to solve ill-defined ones.

In his new book, Clear Thinking, he writes:

“Take responsibility for defining the problem. Don’t let someone define it for you. Do the work yourself to understand it. Don’t use jargon to describe or explain it.

Along with that, identify the root cause of the problem. Don’t be content with simply treating the symptoms.

To make sure you give proper time to this task, he recommends separating the problem-defining phase of the decision-making process from the problem-solving phase. For example, you might hold separate meetings for each.

To shorten meetings and avoid repeating known information, ask participants: “What do you know about this problem that other people in the room don’t know?”

Write out the problem. That can make the invisible visible. Look at it the next day to see if it still makes sense. If it’s filled with jargon, he says, you still don’t understand the problem.

When you get to developing solutions, you should choose options that are likely to fix the problem permanently. If not, you are just treating the symptoms of the problem — time to return to the task of clear problem definition to set the stage for better decision-making.

2. Elon Musk’s Management Algorithm

Elon Musk combines a visionary strategic outlook with a very practical, get-the-details-under-control approach. He often will remind his team of certain rules he calls “the algorithm,” which author Walter Isaacson shares in Elon Musk, his recent biography of the entrepreneur.

  • Question every requirement: He insists that people know the name of the person who issued each requirement that is getting in the way. They can never accept it came from a department, like “the legal department” or the “safety department.” Requirements from smart people are particularly dangerous because they are less likely to be questioned.
  • Delete any part or process you can: You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you don’t end up having to add back at least 10% you haven’t cut enough.
  • Simplify and optimize: Now you can simplify and optimize – but not before you have eliminated all the processes you can. It’s a mistake to simplify a process that shouldn’t exist.
  • Accelerate cycle time: Every process can be speeded up. But again, only after following the previous steps in the algorithm so you don’t waste time accelerating processes that shouldn’t exist, as he did at Tesla.
  • Automate: Now you should automate whatever parts of the work you can.

His rules also have corollaries — one is that camaraderie is dangerous as it makes it hard for people to challenge each other’s work. Another is that it’s OK to be wrong; just don’t be confident and wrong.

All of his methods must incorporate, Musk insists, a maniacal sense of urgency.

3. Leading the AI Expedition

Kellogg School of Management Professor Robert Bray says the arrival of ChatGPT means managers are leading an expedition into new territory and should get their teams excited.

“ChatGPT enables a whole set of new things that you can do, but they’re very specific things, and they’re often kind of weird things that we never would’ve thought of before,” he told Kellogg Insight. “You need to actively go there and think about how to act.”

Bray found that asking students to present tips and tricks they learned while solving problems was highly motivating.

“Humans are intrinsically curious. Once you get one person showing off something cool, that blows the brain and makes everyone’s life easier. What I found was the students just became really excited,” he notes. The same type of sharing, he believes, would be effective in your workplace.

As well, be open to the ways generative language models will change group work. Keeping the same number of people on a project made more efficient using ChatGPT can lead not just to a misallocation of resources but to inefficiencies (a problem of “too many cooks in the kitchen”).

4. How to Counter Your Egotistical Behaviour

Consultant LaRae Quy says to be successful over the long term we must avoid egotistical behaviour.

That starts by refusing to consider yourself superior to others.

To make that work, she recommends on her blog that you:

  • Consider if your sense of superiority is confined to one topic, or does it apply to all areas of your life?
  • Dig down and identify when, how, and why your sense of superiority happened. What were the circumstances? With what types of people?
  • Review your day and what happened in each situation. What could you have done differently? What did you not do?

5. Zingers

  • Resist Temptation: Sometimes the most useful thing you can do is nothing, argues author Mark Manson, adding that, coincidentally, this is usually also the hardest thing to do. (Source: Mark Manson).
  • Meeting Barometer: Executive coach Dan Rockwell says meetings are good when you’re disappointed they’re over and you have learned, strengthened connections, gained useful information, and participated in decisions. By that measure, how many of your meetings are good?  (Source: Leadership Freak).
  • Advertising’s Big Five: Five companies now capture half of all advertising spent globally (and two of them are Chinese): Alibaba, Alphabet, Amazon, Bytedance, and Meta. (Source: MarketingProfs).
  • Team Job Descriptions: Given today’s collaborative environment, consider writing job descriptions for teams rather than for individuals. Project management consultant Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez recommends writing a collective set of objectives, outcomes and deliverables, and then leaving it to the team to collectively decide how each member will contribute. (Source: Harvard Business Review).
  • Moods for Planning: Atomic Habits author James Clear urges you to follow this formula when developing a plan of attack for a problem: Optimism early, pessimism in the middle, optimism late. When starting, be somewhat optimistic or you’ll talk yourself out of getting started. Once you’ve committed, pessimism becomes useful — question things, find holes in your plan, and identify mistaken beliefs before they become misplaced actions. After time spent troubleshooting, return to optimism: Nothing will ever be perfect, but you have to act anyway. And that takes courage. (Source: James Clear).

6. The List: Simple Rules to Manage Complexity

In 2014, the Boston Consulting Group published Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated with strategies drawn from economics, game theory and organizational psychology.

Their approach recognizes the tension and need for both autonomy and cooperation in complex work environments, but nudging people to co-operate while doing their own thing can be counter-intuitive and tricky to navigate.

Here’s their list of suggested rules well worth another look in these complex times:

  • Develop a true understanding of performance — what your people do and why they do it. Then seek “smart simplicity”, eliminating unnecessary functions and procedures.
  • Reinforce the integrators. Empower individuals and units to foster co-operation in your organization and reinforce their ability to benefit from it. Note the hard work of working with others can create conflict and tension.
  • Give people more power. Don’t just shift or reallocate existing power, but effectively mobilize people in ways that satisfy the multiple performance requirements at play in complex operating environments.
  • Increase reciprocity. To enable autonomy but keep effort aligned with goals,  it helps to set out rich objectives and eliminate internal monopolies. Consider removing some resources (available time, money or information) from those who do not cooperate — it pushes them to rely on others.
  • Extend the “shadow of the future”. What happens tomorrow results from what we do today. “People work better when they understand —and have to live with— the consequences of their actions.”
  • Reward those who cooperate. Don’t punish failure — punish the failure to cooperate.


7.  Around Our Water Cooler

New Words in the Language

Thanks to Claudia Dawson at Recomendo, we enjoyed learning about the 690 new words added to the online dictionary last month. They spark reflection on the fast-changing times in which we live.

Here’s a sampling of 10 entries from their list, including new slang and words with new meanings made popular by online culture:

  • Hallucination — in the sense of “a plausible but false or misleading response generated by an artificial intelligence algorithm.”
  • Bingo card — a list of possible, expected, or likely scenarios, usually used in the phrase “on one’s bingo card”.
  • GOATED — considered to be the Greatest Of All Time
  • Rewild — to return to a more natural or wild state.
  • Tiny house — a small or mobile home, typically less than 500 square feet, that is usually designed for ergonomics and space efficiency.
  • Rage quit — to suddenly stop participating or engaging in (something) in a fit of anger and frustration.
  • Quiet quit — to do the minimum amount of work required for a job.
  • Doom scroll — to spend excessive time online scrolling through news or other content that makes one feel sad, anxious, angry and so on.
  • Forever chemical — a toxic substance and especially a synthetic chemical that persists and accumulates in the environment.
  • Prosocial — intended to help or benefit another person or group.

Some of these terms may already be familiar, but our evolving language reflects the many impacts of gaming and digital technology, social/cultural trends and active environmental concerns.

What We’re Reading:

  • Harvey’s Pick: Good Charts by Scott Berinato, senior editor at Harvard Business Review, offers general visual principles and practical tips that will help make your charts more effective.
  • Rob’s Pick: Henry Cloud addresses the difficulties we face in Necessary Endings, (subtitled The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward). As one reviewer noted, his compassionate insights may be most helpful “if you’re hesitant to pull the trigger when things obviously aren’t working out”.


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8020Info helps senior leadership teams and boards develop, clarify and build consensus behind strategic priorities. Our services support strategic planning and change processes, marketing communications and research / stakeholder consultations. We would be pleased to discuss your needs and welcome enquiries.

8.  Closing Thought

“Nothing is impossible; the word itself says ‘I’m possible!’”

Audrey Hepburn