If you are interested in making better decisions, then this post is for you. In particular, if you are a middle or senior leader within a school this post will help you to look at the challenges in undertaking high-quality problem solving processes. Recent research by Robinson, Meyer, Le Fevre and Cinema (2014) suggests that many leaders go about solving problems with little or no explicit testing of both underpinning assumptions or causal reasoning. Rather leaders assumed the the validity of their causal assumptions and offered or sought ideas about how to fix the problem-at hand. The rest of this post will review the study's theoretical framework, methods and data sources, findings and significance of the study. The final section of this post will consider some of the practical implications for leaders - at all levels within a school - in their attempts to engage in high quality problem solving processes.
So what was the purpose of the study?
Leaders are operating in an increasingly turbulent world, with a need to generate solutions to complex problems. However, many such problems are wicked in that they are difficult if not impossible to solve - with no ideal solution, few if any measures of success and with more than more than cause - and require the participation of others in problem-solving process. As such, the purpose of Robinson et al's research was to .. examine the quality of leaders’ real-world problem- solving as they initiate conversations with those whose cooperation is essential for resolving problems of equity and excellence (p2)
Robinson et al argue that the quality of leaders’ problem-solving is important because leader's decisions have ethical and educational consequence for others. For example, decisions may lead to a waste of resources which may impact upon the availability of resources for some pupils. Alternatively, decisions may be taken about staff, which are based on an incomplete problem-solving process.
So what was the study's theoretical framework?
Robinson et al draw on theories of interpersonal effectiveness (Argyris, 1991; Argyris & Schon, 1974) and theories of negotiation, so as to identify behavioral indicators of when leaders tested and checked, instead of assuming the validity of their assumptions, with it being argued that such behaviour are likely to increase the quality of inferential reasoning. Information is sought about the other party's perspective through a process of summarising and checking and the use of genuinely open questions. The research focused on whether the leaders tested three types of assumptions: first, assumptions about the presence of a problem, and this in critical in engaging others in the problem-solving process; second, assumptions about the cause of the problem and associated causal reasoning; third, assumptions about the solution to the problem.
So what methods and data sources were used?
Twenty-seven aspiring and experienced educational leaders, who were enrolled on a graduate course in educational leadership, participated in the study. . They were asked to identify an important issue which was important to them and having gained the consent of the other party involved, record a conversation that sought to address the issue . The leaders then transcribed their own conversations and annotate the transcript with any unarticulated thoughts and observations, which had occurred during the conversation. The researchers then annotated the scripts to identify each main assumption and any attempt to check the validity of such assumptions. These analyses were then subject to further analysis both, quantitative and qualitative and subsequent validation.
So what are the study's findings?
Leaders were much more likely to assume rather than test the validity of the main assumptions they made about their selected problem. As Robinson et al state : Leaders’ problem-solving typically involved gaining agreement about the existence of a problem and moving straight to a discussion of how it could be fixed, with little if any inquiry into its causes. (p7)
Robinson et al identify two reasons why this might be the case. Leaders tended not to reveal their underpinning assumptions, particularly if these assumptions involved criticism of the other party, which suggests a link between interpersonal skills and the quality of problem-solving. Second, given current conceptions of 'heroic leadership' maybe the leaders thought it was their responsibility to find a solution and fix the problems. Some of the unexpressed thoughts of the leaders suggested that they felt under pressure to find solutions of the other party within the discussion.
So what is the scholarly significance of the study?
Robinson et al argue identify three reasons why the the study is of scholarly significance.
- Despite the current 'fashion' for evidence-based inquiry, the study would suggest that there appears to be little evidence that such inquires are taking place, with conversations focussing on solution development rather than the testing of underpinning assumptions
- Although leaders often thought that the other party's behaviour or actions had contributed to the problem at hand, this was very rarely raised directly in the conversations. This suggests a close relationship between the inter-personal skills and the problem-solving skills of the leader. In other words, an unwillingness by leaders to raise issues with the other party - be it for reasons for a lack of skill or a concern for maintaining relationships - will have an impact on the quality of the problem-solving process.
- Questions remain about the extent it is possible to manage some of the cognitive processes involved in such conversations, particularly vis a vis System 1 reasoning processes. On the other hand, research is being undertaken to see whether it is possible to support the development both cognitive processes and behaviours in order to improve the problem-solving process.
Now bearing in mind the relatively small sample of school leaders involved in the research, it is important that only provisional implications are drawn from the student. That said, for me, there would appear to be three implications of the study for leadership practice at all levels within a school.
- Leaders many need to change their stance, from heroic problem-solver to that of the facilitator of the conditions that allow the development of genuine partnerships for problem-solving. The role of leader may well be about developing the skills to help others unpack their assumptions and causal reasoning rather than 'selling' the leader's own answer to a problem.
- Given the time commitment required for high quality problem solving processes, leaders will need to learn the skill as to when deep and genuine problem-solving processes are required. As such, the leader's focus will need to be in the first instance in a deep understanding of the nature of the problem, in particular checking out the assumptions about the problem, before working how to proceed.
- And to misquote Daniel Kahneman -it may well be a case of Thinking Once, Thinking Twice and Acting Fast
Argyris, C. (1991). Teaching smart people how to learn. Harvard Business Review, 69(3), 99- 109.
Argyris, C., & Schon, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Robinson, V. , Meyer, F. , Le Fevre, D. and Sinnema, C. (2014) Leaders' Problem-Solving Capabilities : Exploring the 'Quick-Fix' Mentailty Paper submitted to the AERA annual meeting 2015