The COVID pandemic has created an existential challenge to higher education in the United States. As we have argued in earlier blogs, however, the cracks in the higher education business model were evident long before any of us had heard of the coronavirus. Demographic and financial challenges to the long-term growth and profitability of colleges and universities, especially for small private colleges in the northeast, were well known if not well understood. Now that the crisis is upon us, these cracks have become chasms and most thoughtful observers expect large numbers of financially marginal institutions and institutions on firmer financial footing to seek mergers or to close their doors. This fall journalists have wondered where the closings are. It is likely that they are coming this spring as the full weight of the COVID pandemic impacts long-term budget planning.
In the face of these challenges, I have argued for many changes in the collegiate decision-making process. In a recent blog, I updated our conceptualization of scenario planning as an effective technique for planning and problem-solving. What I have not spoken to are the interpersonal and behavioral challenges to the decision-making process. Even in the best of times, the process ends up becoming conflict-ridden as opposed to problem-solving oriented. In this blog, I will explore problem-solving techniques that can improve your institution’s effectiveness as you plan to deal with the financial and programmatic challenges that have become more salient as a result of the COVID pandemic.
Challenges to Effective Problem-Solving
In many ways, the greatest threat to effective problem-solving is the degree to which individuals lock onto solutions that both create conflict where it did not previously exist as well as intensify conflict beyond what was apparent when the problem-solving discussion began. All problems have many solutions—most with both advantages and disadvantages. Some can be compatible and synergistic with each other. On the other hand, solutions are often mutually incompatible and, when the problem-solving focus becomes one solution versus another, conflict may actually intensify as the situation becomes more personal than analytical. When the discussion becomes will we do it “my way” or “your way,” the chances of effective problem-solving are unlikely.
We see this every day in political debates. The debate is between Republican vs. Democratic proposals not over how to accomplish certain objectives. Whether we are talking about building a border wall on the Republican side or providing “Medicare for All” on the Democratic side, the debate centers on a Republican solution or a Democratic solution. It can get even worse when the focus of the debate is on one party’s solution vs. not implementing that solution without an alternative being offered.
The conflict/problem-solving situations in most of our colleges and universities do not reach the level of dysfunction of Congress. If they did, we would all be out of business. Nonetheless, we often suffer from similar challenges. Dominant and aggressive individuals put their solutions out quickly and typically before there has been much discussion of the nature of the problem itself. Introverted individuals are often reticent to talk about either their understanding of the problem or possible solutions that they have in mind. If two or several dominant/aggressive individuals get behind competing solutions, all chances of finding an agreeable and workable solution may be lost.
Strategies for Improving Problem-Solving
How can we short-circuit these problems? Are there strategies that can lead colleges and universities to more effective problem-solving? Fortunately, the answer is “yes.” If you can alter the problem definition, search for solutions, and solution evaluation processes, there is an excellent chance that you can improve problem-solving effectiveness.
As was identified earlier, that problems often get defined in terms of alternate (potentially opposing) solutions is a serious barrier to effective problem-solving. Several strategies can help workgroups avoid this problem-solving pitfall:
- Define the problem in terms of goals, not solutions. If the workgroup discussion begins with a discussion of the problem and its elements prohibiting anyone from talking initially about a way to solve the problem, problem-solving can be facilitated. Often individuals whose initial ideas of the “right” solution are totally incompatible can find significant areas of agreement about problem-solving goals. Asking group members to identify what they want from a solution, whatever that solution is, is a technique that identifies areas of agreement as opposed to disagreement.
- Get individuals to identify the characteristics of an ideal solution. This takes the strategy of asking individuals to identify what they want from a solution to the next level. Talking about the “perfect” solution can again identify areas of agreement among individuals who might otherwise be in conflict.
- Divide the problem into sub-problems. Often problems are so large, so complex, so apparently intractable that they overwhelm the discussion. Group members just don’t know where to start or cannot imagine a solution that would deal with all of the issues of the situation. In these instances, there is often benefit in breaking the problem down into sub-problems/issues. These smaller issues may be more amenable to problem-solving. Furthermore, if the group chooses to work first on smaller more easily solved elements, the process can become self-reinforcing with success breeding success and allowing the overall and initially foreboding problem to appear less daunting.
Searching for Solutions
Sometimes just developing an effective definition of the problem is sufficient to yield an effective solution. I have often seen groups who, after defining a problem in terms of goals, has a participant laughingly say “Oh, that’s what you want! I know an easy way to accomplish that.”
Unfortunately, however, groups typically spend way too little time searching for solutions. Often, they adopt the first “minimally acceptable” solution that is presented. Also, as I noted earlier, solutions get attached to individuals and, when that happens, the discussion can easily become personal as opposed to analytical. Also noted earlier was the difficulty that individuals with certain personalities have in exposing their ideas to the group for analysis or criticism. Thus, we need to utilize techniques that will generate lots of solutions without allowing or requiring individuals to associate themselves with the solutions.
- Use a technique that will generate lots of solutions. Typically, we rely on brainstorming to generate ideas in a group. This approach is subject to all of the problems identified earlier. The good news is that there are many techniques that will avoid these problems. From an electronic perspective, a tool like Survey Monkey can solicit ideas from members of a group providing the team with an overall list that does not identify the source of individual ideas. This can also be accomplished by having individuals submit ideas anonymously to a neutral team member who then compiles an overall list for the group. To force individuals to provide more than what are to them the “obvious” ideas, it is often helpful to ask for a specific number of ideas—a number that is beyond what will be easy to generate that thus will force individuals to come up with less obvious ideas.
- Use a technique that forces team members to think “outside of the box.” A useful “stage two” idea generation technique is to ask individuals to develop “crazy” ideas or solutions—solutions that they do not think would be workable or otherwise desirable. The goal here is to get individuals to suspend “self-censorship”—only presenting an idea that they think acceptable to the group. Self-censorship can often stop individuals from presenting truly creative solutions. Furthermore, parts of these “crazy” solutions can actually be creative and, while not necessarily being practical in and of themselves, can stimulate the development of ideas that actually are practical.
It is probably obvious at this point that the process of evaluating solutions needs to minimize the ability of some individuals to dominate the discussion and for others to feel like the criticism of their solutions is personal. Thus, maintaining initial anonymity is critical.
- Have individuals identify anonymously the advantages and disadvantages of each potential solution. The same techniques that were described earlier can be used here. It can often be helpful to ask individuals to list advantages first separately and to have everyone identify advantages to each solution before identifying disadvantages.
- Have the group separate out solutions that they “couldn’t live with.” These solutions probably offer little opportunity for compromise or success.
- Have individuals rank the solutions. Hopefully, you will have generated so many solutions that the group cannot conduct a thorough discussion of all of them. Ranking can begin to pare down the group to allow for a more productive discussion.
- During the discussion of solutions that follows, look for ways to combine solutions and find tradeoffs that offer a common ground between individuals with different perspectives.
At the end of the day, the best problem definition, search for solutions, and solution evaluation processes cannot eliminate disagreements or eliminate the need for a leader to push the group to a decision. Furthermore, the search for the “perfect” solution is the enemy of the implementation of a “good” (and sometimes “very good”) solution. And the worst solution is the failure to make a decision leading to a continuation of the issues that necessitated the problem-solving process in the first place. I have worked in several universities that exhibited what I jokingly call a “bias for inaction.” The work experience was less than satisfactory and the outcomes for these institutions, their students, and their faculty members were suboptimal. On the other hand, I have also been a part of other universities where the organizational dynamic was clearly a “bias for action.” The difference in success between the two types of organizations was marked. The challenges posed by the financial crisis that have been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic demands action on the part of academic institutions. Manage that action effectively.
At Optimal, we help colleges thrive! Institutions face severe issues threatening their ability to survive. Which students to recruit, how to retain them, and how to deliver a high-quality education at a reasonable cost must all be part of the institution’s “systems thinking” approach. Learn more about our strategy consulting solutions tailored specifically to your institution’s needs.
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