Framing decisions or how Michelangelo sculpted David

On many occasions, we start making decisions to solve a problem long before we really understand why we want to solve it and what we want to achieve. By doing so, and without spending the necessary time in the first part, we may brilliantly solve the wrong problem.

Michelangelo Buonarroti stood in front of a block of marble. Every day, he went to his workshop and stayed there for hours, silently observing that block, or sketching drawings on paper. Occasionally, a collaborator would come up and ask if he was feeling all right. To which the teacher replied: ‘I’m working.’

Months passed and he finally got down to sculpting. Two years later, the famous David was born, perhaps the best sculpture of the Renaissance. Michelangelo’s stillness in front of the inert block of marble did not mean he was wasting his time. He was planning. He was attempting to frame the problem to be solved, in order to turn that piece of stone into a work of art.

But, if Michelangelo had been a modern corporate executive, he would probably have never gotten to pick up the chisel. How many bosses would have tolerated watching him immobile and ‘not working’ for so long?

The intrinsic speed of corporate life biases us towards action. We are supposedly paid to act, not to think. So very often, we make decisions concerning problems we have not framed correctly yet. This means that on occasions, we resolve issues that were not relevant or did not add value to the business in a technically impeccable manner.

Planning a decision

The way in which a problem has been framed directly influences the solution we will finally find. Therefore, the first step is to properly frame the problem at hand. That is, understand what we are deciding and why.

Frames are mental structures we create to simplify and organize our lives. They control the way we react to the situations we encounter. They help us reduce complexity, which is very good. But the problem is that these frames are given. We are not aware of the trimming we make of reality. And this can lead to difficulties when making decisions, such as finding the perfect solution to a problem that does not exist. As Peter Drucker once said, ‘There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.’

However, when we are able to challenge that first glance and consciously define our frame, we gain a lot of value in the decision. The quality of this framing will have direct impact on the options that we perceive as possible and, ultimately, on the quality of our final decision.

In general, when we make a decision, we immediately focus on the search for alternatives. Many times, we even define the decision by the alternatives we imagine, and not by the objective we pursue. Thus, because we did not clearly understand our objectives, we embark on a back-and-forth process that may waste time and sometimes even be frustrating. To avoid this situation and correctly frame our problem, there are several methods that can help us think, to steer clear of the problem and thus be able to see it more broadly.

Why do we decide?

All decisions pursue a goal. If there is no goal to be met (or several), there is no decision to be made. So, a method to correctly frame the situation begins by asking ourselves why we are about to make a decision.

Suppose we have the following question on our hands: Do I buy or not buy a new truck?
This decision leaves practically no margin of freedom. It only presents us with two alternatives, and places us in a situation of ‘yes or no’, ‘I do it or I don’t do it’, ‘all or nothing’. And this usually causes us anxiety.

Let’s try an exercise asking ourselves: Why do we want to buy a new truck? One possible answer would be: to expand the distribution fleet. But, why do we want to expand the fleet? A possible answer would be, ‘To reduce delivery times to the customer’.

We could continue asking ourselves, ‘what for’, but let’s stop at that goal and now let’s try to go down the steps we just climbed by proposing different ways to achieve this. In fact, expanding your fleet may not be the only (or the best) way to lower your delivery time. So, let’s ask ourselves: how can we lower delivery time to customers?

Hence, other options could arise, such as outsourcing logistics, improving the efficiency of routes or implementing a new technological solution. Buying a truck is still a valid option, only now, it is one of several.

This way, moving up the chain of similar means to the same end, we have managed to broaden our perspective and consider new alternatives we had not considered.

In short, the time we spend at the beginning of the process to correctly frame the problem and define the objectives will save us a lot of headaches later.

To perform a good framing, we must:

1) Understand well the problem/opportunity on which we are going to decide (there are many tools to do it depending on the type of decision).

2) Clearly define the objectives pursued and the relationships between these.

3) Generate alternatives for evaluation in order to make the decision.

Many errors arise because we have not posed the problem correctly at the beginning. In Michelangelo’s case, his patience saved several blocks of marble from being wasted by sculpting without a specific plan. And you, how much will you benefit from spending a few more minutes to think before you act?

Ernesto Weissmann
Partner at Tandem.

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