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With the right prescription lens in our eyeglasses, we can see better. Similarly, with the right decision-making lens, consultant Stephen Shapiro believes you will do your job better. It can help you break away from the familiar, and see your problem in a new way. It will open the way to questions that can set you on the right path.

These days, he often uses what he calls the “variations lens” because it fights against the tendency in these pandemic times to embrace one-size-fits-all solutions, which are often ineffective. Instead, think about the exceptions to your one-size-fits-all tendencies. Where might they go wrong?

At that point, however, you could go wrong again by just reworking your intended approach to handle the exception. “When designers try to create a standardized process that covers every situation, no matter how rare or unusual, the result is usually greatly increased complexity and diminishing returns,” he warns in his book Invisible Solutions, which shares 25 decision-making lenses.

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Exceptions don’t have to all be treated the same or as efficiently. But they each have to be addressed and tackled in some way. So ask yourself when dealing with a marketing issue, human resource issue, or any other issue: How can we create multiple variations in our approach that serve different needs differently?

Two other go-to lenses for him lately are called resequence and reassign. Resequence deals with the tendency to be rigid in determining the order in which activities – including decisions – will be tackled. He advises that by shifting the sequencing of events you can potentially unleash new opportunities.

So ask: How can we delay a decision until later in the process when we have more or better information? If you sense your problem is that you are unduly postponing action, try the reverse resequencing question: How can we make a decision earlier in the process, before we have necessary information?

Paint manufacturers, Shapiro notes, used to try to predict the colour of paints customers might need, leading to huge inventories and wastage. Then they postponed the decision by asking: How can we mix the colours in the store?

The reassigning lens deals with who does the work – be it an employee, a department, or a supplier. Ask: Who else could perform the work we are discussing other than the usual suspects?

Sometimes, you need to pull back on your thinking, making it more generic. In focusing on customer issues, you might ask, how can we improve the way marketing targets customers? But that is narrow, assuming only marketing does the work. Reassigning would change the question to, how can the organization as a whole target customers? A final form of reassignment, Shapiro notes, is reassigning to something other than a human being by automating a task. It’s more likely to happen if you broaden your thinking and ask: How else might this task be accomplished?

He uses the analogy lens to spur looking for solutions beyond your normal bailiwick. Reframe the situation by looking at others who solved similar (but not identical) challenges to the one you are facing. Ask: What else is this like? Who else has solved a problem like this? It may not even be a person or industry that solved the problem. Shapiro points to the gas pipeline industry, grappling with sealing cracks in pipelines, opting to create an inert coagulant that might echo the cardiovascular system’s clotting mechanism.

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And when everyone is reacting negatively to a situation – clamouring that “we tried this before and it didn’t work” or “we don’t have the resources to do what we’re promising” – try his “concern” reframe. Take the complaint and reverse that negativity, as one consumer goods company did when it asked, how can we do what we’re intending with fewer resources?

In some cases, you’re reversing thought. In other cases you are becoming more abstract, or more specific. But in each, you are putting on a metaphorical lens that can help you see – and think – better.

Quick hits

  • If a decision is reversible, the biggest risk is moving too slowly, says author James Clear. If a decision is irreversible, then the biggest risk is moving too fast.
  • Don’t come back from vacation and really try to crush it, working at superhuman levels, warns Alex Turnbull, founder of Groove customer support software. It will quickly drain your recharged batteries and return you to your prevacation slump. Vacations should power your long-term work-life balance and a sustainable level of productivity.
  • Much critical feedback stems from difference in working styles, notes executive coach Ed Batista. In some cases, therefore, we may be best served not by seeking to change the other person’s behaviour through feedback but by letting go of our preferences and accepting the value of a wider range of working styles.
  • Web pages stating privacy policies or other terms of service often have unreadable language that is either too vague or too complex, the Nielsen Norman Group’s research found. Write in plain language whenever possible. If a legal version is required, present the plain language account first. Also often missing in policy statements is a high-level summary of important information
  • The most dangerous mistake in sales, according to consultant Colleen Francis, is only dealing with a single decision-maker in the client company. If that person leaves, you can be in deep trouble. Build a supporting cast of influencers underneath the decision-maker who can support you if change occurs.

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