Decision Making in Uncertain Times

Decision Making in Uncertain Times

Education depends on tradition.  Making change is hard work and time consuming.  As one famous quote says “Change has as its enemy all those who have done well under the old system and has as lukewarm friends those who might do well under the new.”

Reopening School

With COVID-19, change in schools has become constant, almost daily.  When school reopens:

  • How many students can we serve with social distancing?
  • How many students will return and how many will remain at home for safety?
  • Can we offer both in person and on-line options?
  • What safety precautions and PPEs will need to be in place?
  • How many of our employees will return?
  • How do we accommodate those most at risk due to age or pre-existing health conditions?

The list seems endless.

You know you are in trouble when the time between crises is less than the time needed to resolve each one.  – Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Guidelines for tough and timely decisions

1. Start now

Assign someone to start a briefing paper (link) that outlines what you know (and need to know), the core values/objectives (returning students to school safely), the alternatives (with pros and cons), and next steps forward (who else to involve, ask). Keep this draft going; as you learn more add more; don’t keep starting over a ground zero.

2. Sort the issues

Which issues are mostly timely? Make some decisions early if you can.  Buy time for addressing tougher issues.  Make a timeline. Let people know when issues are likely to be addressed.  Give target dates for updates; and stick to the schedule.  In the absence of information, rumors prevail.

a. Call the meeting – Who will be impacted by your decisions? Give them a spot at the (virtual/digital) table.  If you leave an important partner out you will hear about it.  Ask intentionally, Who else can help us with this? The more divergent the group, the better the decision making.

b. Revise and update – During each meeting, revise the briefing paper – add pros and cons, new options, and next steps. Use exact words where possible so people know they were heard.  Post the briefing papers electronically so that all can see and add to the information, ideas and potential solutions.

c. Radical middle – The goal is to find the best available decision in the least amount of time. And do so in a time of great UN-certainty.  We know we will not make perfect decisions.  What we want is the best information and the best thinking available.

3. Communicate –

Keep sharing what you know … and what you don’t know.  Say when you might know more. Share the process.  Let everyone know: We are here working hard for you – looking for best optionsPlease help share your thinking.  We won’t please everyone, and we won’t get this perfect.  But we are putting your safety first and seeking the best possible information and decisions. 

Four Phases: 

For each of the issues we face, there are four phases:

Mess Finding ♦ Problem Finding ♦ Solution Finding ♦ Deciding

Go BIG with the first three. Involve everyone. Learn all you can. Be creative

Go NARROW when deciding. Seek the most viable options – not perfection.

1. Mess finding

We face immense problems and uncharted territory.  Take time to map the territory.  Reach out widely to quickly learn as much as you can.  Chart what you know AND what you don’t know.

Known Knowns:

Aware of and understood

School will restart at some point

Known UN-knowns:

Aware of but not understood

# of staff and students is unknown

UN-Known Knowns:

Seek out those who may know

Major concerns of parents about return

UN-Known UN-knowns:

Not aware and not understood

Ask, What are we missing? 

Avoid blind spots and group think by looking at all four categories. Listen to every person. Ask specifically, What might you know that the rest of us might not?

2. Problem finding

A problem well defined is half solved.  What problem are we trying to solve?  What is the real concern here?  What are we most fearful of?  One function of the leader is to climb the tallest ladder and say ‘wrong building.’  Focus on key values.  The ladder of inference says seek common values before zeroing in on an answer.   Nationally, we have lost our way.  We started out to flatten the curve. Then we switched to prevention.  Now we can’t decide whether health or the economy is most important.

3. Solution finding

Life requires trade offs.  Seek third and fourth alternatives to make better decisions.  You are still in the exploration phase.  Develop those ideas. List the pros and cons.  Often the best ideas come when we can see more clearly the complexity of what we face.

4. Deciding

This is the narrowing phase.  Use an accordion process when you can within time limits.  Vet the better options with stakeholders.  Ask for feedback.  Make it clear this is not a vote.  You want best ideas.  You are balancing competing demands.  And keep updating the briefing paper.  No plan survives first impact.  Be prepared to pivot, to monitor and adjust.  And when needed, go to plan B.


Communicate constantly.

Give updates on progress, even when you don’t have anything new to report.  Report on process – not just content.  We will not get every decision right.  Let everyone know we were diligent.  We reached out. Together we made the best decisions possible  We used the best information available.  This is not the time to go it alone.  Now is the time to be thoughtful and empathetic.  Convey calm, confidence and assurance that good thinking and decision making is underway. Click for more on Connections and Communications


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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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