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  • Writer's pictureAllan J. Mucerino


Updated: Feb 26

If you’re not relying on decision science to make tough choices, you’re setting yourself up for failure. In an era of transparency, marked by culture wars, control over school boards, and a blame culture looking to apportion varying degrees of fault and criticism, a highly refined decision-making toolbox provides leaders with a clear path back to the source of the decision.

Organizations that seek effective strategies for handling complex issues and divergent opinions are savvy for recognizing the defensible properties of deliberate decision-making methodologies in today's politically charged decision-making environment.

A reality all educators must accept is that many people believe in conclusions before they accept arguments. In recognition of this new normal, leadership teams should employ a sophisticated set of research-based methods and strategies to make decisions with confidence.

The archetype of the effortless decision-maker exercising good judgment based on years of experience and practice is an artifact of the past. Decision-making rooted in heuristics still has a place, but not when the stakes are high.

In my current district and in my two prior districts, I have built individual and collaborative decision-making capacity by implementing a systematic approach to decision-making based on the pioneering research in rational problem solving and decision making by Benjamin B. Tregoe and Charles H. Kepner. Analytic Processes for School Leaders (Richetti & Tregoe, 2001) is on the reading list for my education doctorate students at CSU, Fullerton as an example of how to translate theory into practice.

My current team and I utilize the four rational-thinking methodologies developed by Kepner-Tregoe to ensure that the complexity of each issue is thoroughly examined and understood. Equally important, we’re able to effectively communicate our rationale to internal and external actors. The methods foster collaboration through strategic inquiry that transform participants from passive recipients of information to engaged decision-makers proactively seeking and using data.

Each of the four processes serves a purpose and are utilized as follows:

Decision Analysis: When we need to make a choice.

Potential Problem Analysis: When we need to implement a change.

Problem Analysis: When something has gone wrong.

Situation Appraisal: When we need to better understand and resolve a complex issue.

While each process stands alone, there is a logical flow that connects them. For example, my team and I are currently utilizing Decision Analysis with a 7-11 District Advisory Committee, per Education Code Section 17388, to advise the school board on a surplus property. Decision Analysis is designed to establish a clear set of criteria with which to evaluate possible choices or courses of action. Those criteria are then used to identify what choice or course of action best meets the goals for a particular decision. Once a decision is made, we then ask, What can go wrong? And analyze those potential risks.

Decision Analysis is an effective tool for textbook and program adoptions, facilities master planning, bell schedule modifications, hiring decisions, and any other decision-making process that requires choosing the best option among alternatives. Use Decision Analysis when budget cuts are forcing you to examine programs more closely.

Among the other three decision-making strategies, I routinely use Problem Analysis as my go-to cause-finding tool. It's effective for examining cause-and-effect relationships. For example, during our MTSS development process, it served as the primary tool in search of the root cause of student outcomes. For novice decision-makers, Problem Analysis keeps the focus centered on the cause-unknown deviation. Use Problem Analysis to study achievement gaps as well as opportunity and equity gaps.

Potential Problem Analysis is not about eliminating a future consequence of an action taken in the present. It's about minimizing the impact of that consequence. Even the best and right decision may have unintended consequences. The objective of this rational-thinking process is to identify actions that can be taken when and if the potential problems actually manifest at some point down the road. For example, Potential Problem Analysis was useful when implementing new secondary school starts times per Senate Bill 328. We used it to identify all of the potential problems that would likely arise from starting high schools 30 minutes later. By anticipating what could go wrong, we were able to prepare for it.

Potential Problem Analysis is the tool I most frequently rely on since change is inevitable and superintendents and other change agents must live on its cusp or risk extinction.

Use Potential Problem Analysis to ensure implementation of all programs, processes, and policies are sustainable. It's also a useful tool for planning for WASC, Federal and State Program Monitoring, and any process that you want to anticipate what may go wrong so that you can prevent it. Extrapolating from the original Murphy's Law, which stated, "If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it," I arrive at Murphy's Law of Education Leadership: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong at the worst possible moment unless we are thoughtful, thorough, and intentional when we make decisions."

The last of the four rational-thinking methodologies I use, Situational Appraisal, shouldn't be an event. It should be a fundamental core value practice in our search to understand the circumstances in which we find ourselves in as leaders of a complex system. Situational Appraisal is a precursor to a theory of action. The process helps us sort out complexity. Use it to frame a problem. I adopted it to help me untangle webs of divergent elements, opinions, priorities, and possibilities. I've used it to assess hundreds if not thousands of situations, from addressing school safety to negotiating labor contracts.

The ultimate aim of Situational Appraisal is to develop a Theory of Action. The aim of a theory of action is to identify a manageable number of high leverage strategies and focus on implementing them with fidelity.

As a framework to design, develop, and evaluate the links on the chain of change, a theory of action can keep districts focused on implementation processes for continuous improvement. The rational thinking methods I've described above bring clarity to the interconnectedness of each change elements. All of the processes require decision-makers to engage in "If...., then...." inquiries, which lie at the core of theories of action.

My purpose in standardizing decision-making processes in my districts has shifted from empowering decision-makers to protecting them too. But there’s a personal reason too. Life-altering professional or personal choices often touch the lives of others. Skilled decision-makers possess the capability of either maximizing or minimizing the impact of their decisions. When people ask themselves what could go wrong and effectively analyze the options before deciding on a course of action, they likely will be able to live with their decision.

Read my follow-up to this piece titled, Bounded Rationality, Theoretical Frames, and Defensible Decision-Making.

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