Decision Making, Problem Solving, and Crisis Management

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
— Paul Romer (World Bank's Chief Economist and Senior V.P.)

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions. Recent science regarding decision-making (including the new field of behavioral economics) is extensive and can effectively be applied in practice.  Unfortunately, because much of the evidence-based conclusions are counter-intuitive, the tools of decision-making science often are overlooked.

Having an objective, intelligent, and confidential thought partner is invaluable in the decision-making process because very few of us consistently make the optimal decision on our own.  Although we think we made the optimal decision because it was the best selection among our conscious choices, we may not have contemplated additional alternatives or considerations.  Moreover, as research recently has established, we are not aware of the subconscious cognitive biases that may lead us astray.  These decision-making biases are both universal and the logical result of human evolution; but, they predictably lead to irrational decisions.  An effective thought-partner doesn’t need to suggest specific alternatives or direction.  Rather, he or she needs to listen carefully to the decision-maker, ask probing and follow-up questions, and identify potential cognitive biases, all of which ultimately reveals a solution that already was available within the decision-maker(s), but not fully constructed or conscious.  Effective decision-making, particularly when creating something new, often requires periods of percolation - breaks in the formal decision-making process.  A coach can help institute that break.

Research over the past few decades has established that we humans often are not naturally rational decision-makers.  That is, we and the clients or customers we serve often make decisions or take actions that are contrary to our own desires, goals or intentions.  These mistakes are based on heuristics and biases developed for evolutionary purposes – purposes that no longer exist.  Becoming and remaining aware of these decision-making biases helps us to minimize the risk of poor decisions or mistaken actions.  Additionally, we can capitalize on an understanding of these human biases by designing choice architecture for our employees and clients/customers that nudge them to make the best decision or take the best course of action.  One of Partners in Thought® interactive workshops focuses exclusively on effective decision-making.  Related to making tough decisions, Partners in Thought® processes are extremely helpful in making major life decisions, such as finding purpose and happiness, and making or planning for major transitions.


Problem Solving.  The most challenging problems to solve usually constitute “insight” problems, which require a shift in perspective and a novel way of viewing the problem.  Simply pushing forward or working around the seemingly intractable insight problem does not solve it.  Research leads to a multi-step process for solving insight problems:

  • Step 1:  Preparation and Getting Stuck.  Identify and understand the specific problem and the resources and clues available to solve it. Then wrestle with the problem until all ideas are exhausted and you are “stuck.”  With a thought partner, the options and data made available and conscious will be much greater than if working on the problem alone or with those who interfere with the open and vulnerable problem-solving process.  Before moving to Step 2, one must have reached a genuine impasse.
  • Step 2:   Subconscious Incubation. For a half hour, or so, or maybe overnight, put aside the problem, which allows the mind to work on the problem off-line.  The mind will reorganize the information and likely add some additional information stored in the brain as well as assemble, take apart, and reassemble the data.  Generally, incubation is most effective while engaging in a mild activity unrelated to the problem, such as playing a videogame, watching TV, playing cards, etc.
  • Step 3:    Illumination and Verification.  Reconvene to discover the “aha” moment, when a solution to the insight problem is revealed. The proposed solution can then be tested intellectually with a thought partner to verify that it indeed optimally solves the problem.


Dispute Resolution.  The default option for resolving disagreements in the U.S. has been litigation, which is costly (in time and money), emotionally taxing, available for public display, and divisive.  Filing a lawsuit generally terminates the pre-existing personal or business relationship.  (At least litigation is a better way to solve a problem than by duel or by physical battle leading to death or serious bodily injury.)  

Our favorite resolution process for a dispute that arose between two businesses was an arm-wrestling match between the CEOs of Southwest Airlines and Stevens Aviation, who disputed which company owned a trademark.  From a more practical perspective, mediation is the optimal formalized method of resolving disputes.  Not only can it be inexpensive, confidential, and quick, but a successful mediation always constitutes a win-win.  Neither party would agree to the resolution if it were not in its interest to do so.  Mediation facilitates communication that otherwise may be prevented by the seriousness of the dispute and the assumptions and attributions made by each party about the other.  An effective mediator not only facilitates healthy productive communication between or among the disputants, but also helps the parties narrow the issues of disagreement and hear an objective third-party’s perspective.  Unlike arbitration, a mediation is not resolved by a third party.  It is resolved by the disputants themselves, often in creative and mutually beneficial ways.

Most mediators are retired judges or lawyers with little experience or skill in the most important aspects of disputes: people and their perceptions.  Moreover, most mediations heavily involve the parties’ lawyers.  Alternatively, “touchy feely” mediators may focus only on communication processes and make no objective evaluation of the respective merits of the parties’ positions, leaving the parties unsure and unsatisfied.  Partners in Thought® mediation services are different, exploiting the beauty and flexibility of mediation: the specific dispute need not be resolved if the parties can brainstorm novel win-win solutions.  In fact, a successful mediation not only can resolve an existing dispute or set of disputes, but also prevent future disputes or establish appropriate mechanisms for resolving future disagreements.  Partners in Thought® mediation tools include systems thinking, design thinking, positive psychology, mindfulness and self-awareness, social and emotional intelligencebrainstorming and other collaborative techniques, and empathy.  We attempt to eliminate or minimize the involvement of lawyers in the mediation process and maximize the flexibility, efficiency, and humanity of the process.  


Group Decision Making.  In addition to individual coaching for tough decisions, Partners in Thought® facilitation services address optimizing group decisions through collaboration, brainstorming, and mind-mapping, while protecting against “groupthink,” cognitive bias, rush to judgment, and other limiting group dynamics.  For major organizational decisions, it may be helpful to assign a "red team" to poke holes, show the downsides, or even “defeat” the proponent team.  Recent research indicates that effective group decision-making and problem-solving processes require significant social and emotional intelligences, and that the collective intelligence of a team is unrelated to the average cognitive intelligence (IQ) of the team’s members. An example of applying simple evidence-based techniques to an important organizational decision is Partners in Thought® approach to helping clients get out of their own way to generate innovative and powerful trademarks and branding.


Crisis Management.  Effective crisis management requires an additional layer of defense against poor decisions or responses that often follow because of the physiological interference that arises out of moments of crisis.  Partners in Thought® crisis management interventions help to shift the crisis response processes from brain networks that generate counterproductive thoughts, statements, and actions, to brain networks that optimize rational and mindful responses. 

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is specifically your own.”
— Bruce Lee