Reinventing Decision Making

A thinking process for school leaders to make tough choices and manage conflict by ROBERT A. KLEMPEN
If misery loves company, then any school administrator facing tough decisions would enjoy meeting Thomas Downs of La Crosse, Wis., Robert Slotterback of Wauwatosa, Wis., and Dennis Smith of Orange County, Calif. All three are superintendents, and each faced the kind of challenge that would drive lesser mortals to start surfing the Web for greener pastures.

In La Crosse, Downs had barely gotten his feet wet on his new assignment when his school board directed him to develop a new K-12 enrollment plan for students. In Wauwatosa, Slotterback was faced with the need to cut $1 million from his budget. And in the Placentia-Yorba Linda district, Smith had to wrestle with securing a major new funding source. Mismanagement of any one of these challenges could easily have polarized the community, driven a wedge between the school board and administration, alienated faculty and compromised educational quality.

We use the term “divided decision making” to describe the chaos and division that sometimes occur when a school district faces a hot decision. On the surface, this syndrome can be attributed to a number of factors, from the increased diversity within a school community to participatory decision making to the current financial crunch.

No doubt, all these forces contribute to divided decision making. But in our experience a more subtle, largely unnoticed, insidious factor is at work: Educational leaders, as well as school boards, faculty, community groups and unions, simply do not have a clear, systematic, agreed-upon thinking process for making the tough choices.

Systematic Thinking
A thinking process is a step-by-step approach to organizing the information and making the judgments needed to arrive at a sound conclusion. Consider the job of a school administrator in terms of a repertoire of management tasks, with each task requiring a different thinking process.

Some tasks involve creating a sense of order and coherence, especially in a complex management situation. We use the term “situation appraisal” to describe the systematic thinking process one goes through to identify key issues, separate them so they are clear to everyone with a responsibility for action, and then set priorities.

At other times, the task is to determine why things have gone wrong. Here, the required process is “problem analysis.” At still other times, the key issue involves selecting the best choice among alternatives, and “decision analysis” is called for. Finally, peering into the future to anticipate dealing with future problems or opportunities involves “potential problem analysis” or “potential opportunity analysis.”

In the La Crosse, Wauwatosa and Placentia-Yorba Linda districts, each superintendent and just about everyone on their leadership team responsible for resolving the day-to-day issues have been trained in all four processes. Given the nature of the issues, they used the processes of situation appraisal and decision analysis.

The results speak for themselves. In the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, the bond issue that the school board recommended was passed with the highest approval rating of any school bond issue on the ballot in Orange County. It added a much-needed $102 million to the coffers. In the Wauwatosa School District, the cuts recommended by its budget committee were approved by the school board and, just as importantly, the board, community groups, faculty and union all supported the decision. And in the La Crosse School District, the plan for balanced enrollment is under consideration for final school board review and approval after the first of the new year.

Results aside, what is truly instructive is how the superintendents and their colleagues tackled their respective issues, using the situation appraisal and decision analysis processes to cut through all the clutter, keep everyone focused on the search for information and solutions and tap the best thinking of stakeholders and the larger community to achieve results.

Onward to Coherence
The La Crosse school district has 8,000 students in 21 schools. Twenty years ago, the district was known nationally as a leader in balancing its school population on the basis of socioeconomic criteria. However, by 1998, when Downs was hired as district superintendent, some schools had again become unbalanced, due to large population shifts.

Late in 1999, the school board asked Downs to do something about elementary enrollment and do it quickly. Eight weeks later, Downs and his team presented a recommendation to the board that ignited sparks in the community. Some complained the plan would “create a ghetto.” This was a loaded phrase that prompted a swift rejection of the recommendation by the board. Many reasons for the mess existed, including lack of clear guidance from the board on what it wanted vis-a-vis socioeconomic balance versus neighborhood schools.

In February 2000, the board asked Downs to develop a new recommendation. “The board charged me to develop a K-12 enrollment management plan, one that considered the cultural and dynamic challenges of declining enrollment, fixed revenues and community demographics,” he says. This time, the prospect for success is far greater because Downs and his team had realized that gaining clarity in a situation, becoming rigorous in decision making and securing commitment were next to godliness.

Downs and the district’s associate superintendents, Jerry Kember, Woody Wiedenhoeft and Doug Happel had been trained in the four analytical thinking processes mentioned earlier, as had the 40 members of La Crosse’s administrative leadership team—eight of whom would play an active role in the enrollment management issue.

The second time around, Downs began by putting together an enrollment management task force, a group of 30 people drawn from the ranks of parents, community members, political leaders, teachers and administrators. But rather than risk a free-for-all and to ensure objectivity when this group began its deliberations, Downs retained the services of an outside process facilitator.

Enrollment management is one of those management boulders that can roll over a school district, leaving it in shambles. In June 2001, the facilitator and the local task force conducted a series of four situation appraisal sessions aimed at chipping away at the boulder. This gave the task force the clarity and grounding to move to the next phase: decision analysis.

Before turning over the first meeting to the facilitator, Downs was careful to lay down the ground rules. “We know,” he explained, “that we’ll be involved in an enormously important decision. But before we rush ahead, we must talk through, struggle with, identify and agree on the issues related to enrollment management.”

The situation analysis process proceeds logically and systematically to ask the right questions in order to identify key issues, avoid the trap of lumping issues together and set priorities. For the task force, this meant answering such questions as “What does enrollment management mean?” “What are the concerns or issues that require attention or action?” “How can we be sure that all relevant viewpoints are represented?” “Are the issues clear, or do they need to be further clarified and separated?” “What are the priority issues?”

The process yielded a gold mine of nearly 60 issues, many of which, however important, did not deal with enrollment management. The process of zoning off the relevant issues whittled the number to 30.

Thirty issues is still not inconsiderable. Working in sub-groups with full-group reviews, the enrollment management task force sorted the issues into clusters, such as socioeconomic balance, access to comparable programs, neighborhood emphasis and efficient use of buildings and classrooms.

But the devil is often in the definitions. The clustering revealed the need to define many of the terms, and the team moved to provide “concept definitions.” For example, regarding socioeconomic balance, the group stated, “… a school has socioeconomic balance when students come from a mix of income levels. … [A] school’s enrollment should reflect the average percentage of children in the district receiving free and reduced-priced lunches.”

Through its use of situation appraisal questions, the task force had a clear picture of the parameters for the decision that lay ahead. The facilitator explained, “It became clear to everyone on the EMTF that the core elements of the decision were right in front of us.” Enrollment management was no longer a boulder.

Rational Decisions
At many decision-making meetings, considerable time is spent slugging out the pluses and minuses of one option compared to another. Alternative-driven decision making is not the wisest approach as it leads to endless debate and conflict. It also is incomplete. Effective decision making involves determining where you want to go (objectives), which roads will take you there (alternatives) and what the dangers are along the way (risk assessment).

The decision analysis process followed by our three superintendents involved moving carefully through these steps: developing a decision statement; setting objectives; classifying objectives; weighing objectives; generating and comparing alternatives; assessing risks; and making the best balanced choice.

While a detailed discussion of each step is beyond the scope here, it would be helpful to briefly illustrate the reasoning behind each district’s decisions.

The decision statement frames the decision context. A clear one contains a result and an action. To arrive at their decision statement, each superintendent and group asked: “What is the overall result we want to achieve and with what action?” For the La Crosse team, the decision statement was: “Considering enrollment projections, select the best enrollment plan for K-12 students.” In Placentia-Yorba Linda it was: “Choose which local funding source to pursue for facilities.” And in Wauwatosa the decision statement was “Cut $1 million from the budget.”

Setting objectives, the second step, further defines the decision context. What results do we want to achieve? With what resources? What are the constraints? Objectives can come from many places—the school board, the administrative staff, teachers, community groups and the like. Smith conducted a random survey of the entire Placentia-Yorba Linda community during which he discovered that the citizens would support a bond issue, provided all schools benefited, overcrowding was eliminated and older schools were renovated. These requirements were incorporated into the statement of objectives.

Objectives vary in importance so the three superintendents classified them into “musts”—those that were absolutely critical to the success of the decision and were measurable—and “wants”—those that were merely desirable. Musts are the showstoppers. Any alternative not meeting a “must” was automatically eliminated.

Weighing the wants involves determining the relative importance of the desirable objectives. To do this, the superintendents used a 10-point scale, with the most important objectives receiving a score of 10. In Wauwatosa, the budget committee of school administrators, principals, the buildings and grounds manager and the union president thought through the objectives and decided to separate the decision into a number of budget-cutting scenarios, each one with its own set of objectives. When it weighed objectives for the staff-reduction scenario, the committee concluded, “As little impact as possible on programs” was one of the 10s. Slightly less important were the objectives of “most possible savings,” which received a weight of 8, and “affects least number of students,” which received a 6.

Devising Options
Now and only now it is time to generate alternatives and compare their relative performance against the objectives. Nothing neutralizes the charged emotions of decision makers as well as information.

The three task forces went about generating alternatives, gathering and recording information about each one relative to the statement of objectives, and then asking: “How does this alternative satisfy this specific objective?” Alternatives that failed to satisfy the musts were eliminated. For each want, a score of 10 was assigned to the alternative(s) that best satisfied it, and the performance of the rest of the alternatives was scored relatively.

With this done, the weight of each objective was multiplied by the score of each alternative to arrive at a “weighted score” for each alternative. The weighted scores for each alternative then were added together to get a total weighted score for that alternative. This gave everyone a precise picture of how well every alternative met the objectives.

But life in school districts is no different than in corporations or families. The best alternative often comes with a time bomb. That’s why assessing risk—arguably the most overlooked step in decision making—is crucial. Just asking, “What are the risks associated with this alternative?” would put you light years ahead of most decision makers. But the school superintendents drilled down further to ask, “What is the probability and seriousness of each risk?” At Wauwatosa the alternative, “possible elimination or partial reduction of buildings and grounds,” had a number of risks associated with it, such as increasing the workload of other staff and the erosion of public support. The probability and seriousness of both were rated as high. Risk assessment is the look before the leap.

Finally, the moment of truth—making the best balanced choice. The question here is: “Given the objectives, relative performance of alternatives, and the associated risks, what is the best choice?”

The superintendent and his team in Wauwatosa recommended a phased approach to cutting the budget. In Placentia-Yorba Linda, the team recommended floating a bond issue during the general primary election. In La Crosse, the task force on enrollment separated the decision into elementary, middle and high school decisions. For the middle schools, the task force is considering recommending adjustments between two buildings, along with more effective enforcement of the parental choice policy. For high schools, it is considering recommending adjusting boundaries between two of the schools. For elementary schools, the subgroup is considering recommending the creation of a comprehensive childhood education center. Before presenting the high school, middle school and elementary school recommendations to the school board, the task force will test community sentiment.

Gaining Confidence
Using a rational approach is not about following some lockstep routine or multiplying numbers in a decision matrix. It is about thinking in a logical, systematic way about problems and decisions. As Smith explained, “Once you recognize that you’re confronted by a major challenge, don’t move forward, step back. Zero in on the issues. Understand the objectives, alternatives and risks. Often we don’t recognize these. Spending the think-time upfront helps leaders avoid having to mop up later.”

A rational approach has the obvious advantage of increasing your confidence level in your recommendations. It ensures that you’ve touched all the bases. Less obvious is the trust it can help engender. Whatever apprehension Slotterback and his team might have had about involving the union president as an equal partner in the decision process soon dissipated. “She immediately saw,” says Slotterback, “that the task force wasn’t a group of people secretly meeting to make decisions without taking into account all the factors. She saw that the process was fair and that she was an equal at the table.”

The three superintendents found that a process facilitates communication. Smith’s bond triumph was no cake walk given Orange County’s history, dating back to the 1970s, of voter rejections. He gathered together community leaders in a “Campaign for Kids” to help lead this effort with the larger community. It was easy to energize them. “The process allowed everyone to become part of the solution. They could see our thinking and what we valued,” Smith says.

In La Crosse, Downs and his team took no chance any misunderstandings by the school board and others could arise. Before generating alternatives, he and his colleagues carefully reviewed the objectives, first with members of the community and then with the board members.

Perhaps most importantly, a rational approach enables educators at every level in a school district to improve the problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of those around them. Having a process makes skill transfer possible, which is why students in the three school districts are being trained. Reinventing decision making, it turns out, is also a way of protecting the future.

Robert Klempen is executive director of the Tregoe Education Forum, P.O. Box 289, Princeton, NJ 08542. E-mail: bklempen@tregoe.org