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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Three-Deep Decision-Making

Three-Deep Decision-Making

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

My intentions were sincere … to provide for the education of children. 

I needed to get my son and daughter to school, as I do each day, yet in peering from the front porch, I noticed the load of 20 bags of mulch that I forgot to remove from my P.T. Cruiser during a weekend of constant rain.  My hope had been that the skies would part and I would be able to drive them directly to my back yard landscaping project.

With 20 bags, there was barely room for a driver, let alone two elementary students, so I had to take action. 

The prudent route would have been to unload the bags into the garage for later transport.  Instead (and thinking about “me”), I drove them directly to the backyard worksite, inspecting the ground every few feet for signs that I was making an indentation on the gentle slope.  Satisfied I was not, I then unloaded quickly and began my return. 

I didn’t get too far.

As forward movement slowed, I found myself without adequate weight to make the slight uphill trek.  I then became “stuck,” tires spinning, mud building, and car rocking as I worsened my plight … with two children who needed to get to school looking on in disbelief, wonder, and a bit of amusement. 

Thoughts drifted to leadership, as they always do when life greets me … particularly, three-deep decision-making.  Three-deep decision-making involves careful analysis of three factors of reality before taking action:  The WHAT, the HOW, and the UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS that are involved with present circumstance. 

The WHAT involves a clear examination of the goal or desired result that we want; the HOW involves careful consideration of the people and resources needed to accomplish it, and the UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS involves consideration of the contextual variables in play, so that it all plays out smartly.

In my case:

WHAT:  The goal was to clear the car, so that I could get my children to school.

HOW:  By unloading the mulch, either in the garage or at the worksite.

UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS:  In the midst of rain and a well-soaked lawn.

In my situation, it would have been more prudent to spend a bit more time considering the latter two.

Onward to leadership -- How would this play-itself-out?  In schools, the WHAT’s present themselves often. We’re never short on them. 


The WHAT of addressing an issue of staff tardiness to school.

The WHAT of handling an issue of graffiti in the student restrooms.

The WHAT of mitigating conflict between two staff members.

The WHAT of navigating an issue of micromanagement by a local board of education member.

Three-deep decision-making would in the first instance, help us think through whether or not we mention staff tardiness in a staff meeting or by having an in-person conversation with only those tardy, so as not to burden others with the message.  As colleague Todd Whitaker shared a similar example with doctoral students earlier today, handling this improperly could result in those guilty believing they have sufficient “cover,” as your best staff member, who might have been tardy once in 1993 (because she helped an elderly man fix a flat tire and called to let you know from a pay phone), will share the burden of the message. 

Three-deep decision-making doesn’t take long; it only demands a prudent pause to more clearly reflect upon options and consequences.

In my instance (which lacked a good deal of three-deep decision-making), getting out of the jam included asking my wife to take time off work so that she could race our children to school and tow me from the yard to the driveway … all the while I played mud wrestler, hooking a tow rope to the axle of a P.T. Cruiser buried deep while ruining my lawn.

Three-deep decision-making might have offered two images as I first looked at that bags of mulch filling my car-- one of a pilot who knows that the shortest distance between two points isn’t necessary a straight line and another of a race car driver, who knows that the quickest path to a finish line isn’t always the inside lane.  Three-deep decision-making would have offered the “Duh!” that I needed.

More importantly, with three-deep decision-making, I would have better understood that if my decision were to be “all about me” (which it was), then it could result in my placing a burden upon everyone (which it did).  A very important thing to consider in leadership.

Literally, with three-deep decision-making, I would have kept myself out of the mud, without the time and expense of patchwork. 

That is time that I won’t get back.


Dr. Ryan Donlan sees leadership through life and loves better to understand how you see it through yours.  Please consider dropping him a line every once in a while by calling (812) 237-8624 or by writing him at 

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