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Atomic Problems: How to Make Better Decisions at Work
Learn how you can solve complex problems
Last week saw the release of Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated epic Oppenheimer. It’s the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb. I’ve yet to see the movie, but did watch a popular documentary about his extraordinary life story. Whilst we all have to make decisions on a daily basis, thank goodness they aren’t of the same magnitude as the one made by Oppenheimer to proceed with the invention of one of the most devastating weapons ever made.
So today’s newsletter is themed on the topic of how we can make better decisions at work by dissecting large atomic problems.
Beware of the Cobra Effect
During the British Raj in India, the local government had concerns with the large number of venomous cobras in Delhi. There are very few venomous animals in England so it’s understandable why the British saw this as a major issue. The British Government made a decision to reward anyone who caught the snakes. On the face of it, this sounded like a sensible strategy. But in reality, something very different unfolded. The British had underestimated the entrepreneurial spirit of the locals. Soon they were breeding cobras in order to maximise their bounty. When eventually they were found out, the British stopped paying the reward. This led the locals to release the cobras they had been breeding since they were no longer able to trade them for the bounty - this left Delhi with more cobras than they had before.
There are many similar examples of decisions that led to unintended results. Whether it’s the rat bounty in Hanoi in the early 20th century or police departments implementing ticket quotas to incentivise officers to enforce traffic laws - leading to officers issuing unnecessary or unjustified tickets to meet the quota.
From colonial India to modern workplaces, this phenomenon highlights the importance of thoroughly analysing a problem before jumping to a solution.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them - Albert Einstein
Problem-solving using Neurological Levels of Change
A few years ago my good friend Kerry Nichols introduced me to The Neurological Levels of Change. It’s a model developed by Robert Dilts, a prominent figure in the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). It offers a structured way to understand and solve problems by examining different levels of human experience and behaviour.
In order to conduct problem-solving using the Neurological Levels of Change, follow these 7 steps:
1. Identify the Problem
Clearly define the problem you want to solve. This will set the scope of our analysis.
2. Explore the Levels
It’s recommended to conduct these steps with a diverse group of team members in a facilitated workshop. Examine the problem from each neurological level. Start from the bottom and work your way to the top, considering how each level may contribute to the issue at hand.
3. Ask Questions at Each Level
To gain a deeper understanding, ask specific questions related to each level. For example:
Environment: What external factors are contributing to the problem?
Behaviour: What actions or reactions are causing or perpetuating the problem?
Skills & Knowledge: Are there any skills or abilities that need improvement to address the problem?
Values & Beliefs: What values and beliefs might be influencing the behaviour or decision-making related to the problem?
Identity: How is the problem connected to an individual's self-image or sense of identity?
Spirituality: Is there a deeper purpose or higher meaning that could guide the resolution of the problem?
4. Identify Key Factors
Based on your exploration of the different levels, identify the key factors that seem to have a significant impact on the problem.
5. Develop Solutions
Now that you have a comprehensive understanding of the problem, brainstorm and develop potential solutions. Consider solutions that address the identified factors at various levels.
Choose the most appropriate solution(s) and implement them, keeping in mind the insights gained from examining the neurological levels.
7. Evaluate and Adjust
After implementing the solution(s), assess their effectiveness and be prepared to make adjustments as needed. Revisit the different levels to see how changes at one level may impact other levels.
I have personally used the Neurological Levels of Change to troubleshoot many Atomic problems during my time as an Agile Coach. One of the most common problems I see is how to make an organisation more Agile. Hopefully, through the levels of change, we can appreciate training alone is not the answer.
I find it fascinating how this simple tool can help dissect the most complex of problem statements leading to a set of actionable statements that we can then start to implement. Give it a try and let me know how you get on.