As the company’s management team meets to review the state of the business, it is hard not to notice that a particular division has been under-performing for the third quarter in a row. The leaders take almost no time agreeing that they need to turn the situation around and make a quick decision to re-organize the division, merging it with another division, moving around teams of employees under new leadership. Seems like a straightforward move, right?
Except, this decision represents the eleventh such re-organization that the company has done in the past 12 months. At the same time, the company is seeing a groundswell of changing customer expectations, new competitors, and a surge of M&A activities consolidating all the smaller players across their industry.
As leaders and employees, we are counted on to make decisions that are based on our experience and expertise. We align our thinking and actions based on what we’ve seen before and what’s worked for us in the past. Confronted by ever-growing workloads and complexities of day-to-day business, we frequently lack the time necessary to properly define the problems we face. Decision-making and problem solving have become somewhat automated as we are increasingly pressured to just “check the box” and move on to the next burning issue and therefore, we are increasingly failing to address larger, more critical long-term problems or opportunities.
American scientist and Noble-laureate Herbert Simon coined the term “satisfice” in 1956. The theory commends the idea that we are best served overall by accepting the “good-enough” solution rather than searching indefinitely for the best solution (which is called Optimizing or Maximizing). Jeanne Liedtka, Professor of Management at the Darden Graduate School of Business puts satisficing in yet a better context by defining it as “picking the least worst solution we can all agree on, lowering everybody’s game to the least common denominator”.
Undoubtedly, satisficing keeps us productive. This is because aiming for the optimal solution may necessitate needless expenditure of time, energy and resources. We also satisfice to avoid arguments, or perhaps for concern of being perceived as inhibitors of progress. However, given the vast changes that are hitting organizations externally and internally, can we really afford to continue to avoid addressing the elephant in the room? Could we persist resolving problems with a “good enough” mindset?
The answer can be mixed. There are indeed some decisions and problems that we have to quickly solve without dwelling on them too much. Perhaps there is a best practice could be applied, or perhaps the solution is so obvious that any additional time or resources spent would indeed be a waste. But as we encounter new landscapes and situations we have not experienced in the past, satisficing is but a temporary and risky option. Even optimizing, the polar opposite of satisficing, isn’t always the better strategy as it can lead you to dwell too much while throwing away real-world considerations, such as deadlines and implementation.
Instead, you need to fine-balance the two approaches using divergent and convergent thinking. It is critical to start by reframing the problem. Looking at a problem through a different lens (e.g.: How do our customers feel about buying from us?) reveals new insights and leads you to the right questions to ask. Once you’re asking the right questions, push for an optimization approach. That’s where you’re actively looking for new answers, no matter how realistic or non-realistic they are. The goal is to get you and your team out of your comfort zones and exploring new ways as you slowly converge towards answers that are viable, feasible and desirable.
The next time you are solving a problem or making a decision, check yourself against the criteria of picking the least worst solution to see if you can truly change the game.