Explore, Evaluate, Execute

Explore, Evaluate, Execute is a systematic approach for solving problems effectively. Explore the options available to you, Evaluate the best ones, and then set up systems in place to Execute effortlessly on the vital few. Following this process means that we accomplish a few things well, rather than do many things poorly.

Take a common example. You and your partner decide to go to a restaurant for dinner. First, you’ll figure out all of the restaurants you can go to (explore). Then, you might filter restaurants (evaluate) based on proximity, cuisine, mood, comfort, experience, etc. Based on that, you’ll come up with a short list of restaurants that you might consider going to, and then you pick one (execute). Any/all of this can happen in your head and/or verbally with your partner.

This process is based on the principles of divergent and convergent thinking. We naturally use this process all the time without even thinking about it. Once you’re aware of the process, you can apply it in all kinds of ways in your personal and work lives.

Explore all the possibilities first while deferring all judgement until later, then evaluate those possibilities based on criteria (also defined by you) — keep the ones you want and eliminate what you don’t want. Finally, execute on the few things you want to do.

There are a couple reasons why this process works:

  • It’s naturally aligned to the left and right sides of our brain; right (emotional) = explore, left (logical) = evaluate, execute.

  • This is the way we naturally think when we make choices about things. We’re just not consciously aware that we go through this process.

Diverge or explore all the choices you can think of. This is where you’re engaging your right brain to imagine all of the possibilities. You see things not just as they are, but also what they can be. It’s about asking, “What if…?”.

When you’re in this divergent/exploratory mode, you’re truly exploring and not concerned with judging or critiquing your ideas. You’re using your right brain for generating possibilities. You’re deferring all judgement until later.

Exploring can be similar to brainstorming in many ways, but most knowledge workers associate brainstorming and “thinking outside the box” to generating ideas. Contrary to popular belief, brainstorming is a type of ideation for groups (not individuals) to explore ideas about their projects. The number one reason why most groups can’t make the brainstorming process work as a way to generate ideas is because they tend to explore ideas and evaluate them at the same time, which never works. I wrote about this in meetings don’t work and in thinking and doing.

Being divergent/exploratory is a key skill to practice in order to be more creative. That’s when you connect disparate ideas together and create something new. It’s about bending your mind for thinking laterally to create the unfamiliar. Process determines the outcome.

Your right brain cannot visualize negative statements, which is why when you tell kids not to do something, they don’t understand. Because of their divergent/exploratory minds (which is their default state), nothing is impossible to them, as opposed to default convergent state of minds in adults. But, that’s a different conversation altogether.

Once you think you’ve explored enough and exhausted/captured all possibilities, then it’s time to figure out a set of criteria based on which you’ll judge or critique what you have captured so far. You’ll probably keep some, and filter others out. You can apply another round of advanced criteria to filter out even more things until you’re left with everything you want and nothing you don’t.

Once you have your final set of things, then it’s a matter of setting up a system to execute them effortlessly. For instance, when you’ve figured out your goal, then it’s a matter of setting up a system (or plan) to reach your goal. You don’t have to worry about setting deadlines or priorities. Then, it’s a matter of showing up and doing the work. Of course, you can always modify your system on a weekly basis to account for changes based on your progress or momentum. I wrote about this in goals and systems.

In order to truly explore a “fuzzy problem/situation”, you have to create the mental space in your head first. That can only happen when you’re current and clear with your commitments. Having and maintaining a trusted system can help.

Warm-up is a great way to get into the Explore state. I wrote about warming up individually and in groups in Morning Pages.

When you’re ready to explore, I suggest you use analog tools to engage your right brain to generate ideas. Computers are great for finishing/executing, but less-than-optimal for doing this kind of thinking. Typically, analog tools work great for doing divergent thinking. You need thinking/moving tools such as whiteboards, paper, sticky notes, etc. to facilitate this thinking. They help you bring your whole body into the work process. When you move, your brain dominance shifts from left to right. I wrote about using these tools in tools for knowledge workers.

Ideation tools (such as mind mapping, visual thinking): These are what I call “divergence” tools. They are also your “thinking” tools. They’re great for project planning, idea generation and discovery, and getting clarity on ideas. These tools also help you understand ideas/concepts, help you understand the relationships between those ideas/concepts, and help you see those ideas as part of a larger system.

Here are a couple of ways you can evaluate:

  • One way is to create a Criteria Grid, where you identify the criteria and give each choice a number rating. Then, you add it all up to determine the most popular choices.

  • Another way to evaluate is to use the process of elimination as a group to eliminate the ones you don’t want. Then, use additional criteria to cut it down even further.

Once you’ve explored and evaluated and you have a final set of things you’ve decided to execute on, then you want to create a system/plan to do those things effortlessly. For example, this could mean putting those things in your calendar so you have the time blocked in your calendar. Then, all you do is show up and do the work. I wrote about setting up systems in goals and systems.

The practical applications for this problem solving process are endless. Here’re a few examples:

  • Writing Morning Pages is a great example of exploring things that have your attention and seeing beyond those things. Unless you first know what has your attention, you can’t explore what doesn’t exist. You have to be current and clear with your commitments first before you can be truly creative.

  • Design your life. For more on this, read doing what matters.

  • Do weekly planning. Figure out all the things that you have on your plate (explore), decide what you want to work on in the following week (evaluate), schedule those work activities in your calendar, and do the work (execute).

  • Doing daily review to plan out your day in advance.

  • I use Spotify to discover (explore and evaluate) music. I use iTunes to buy music I like (execute) for my personal collection. It’s a continuous process.

Remember, we can either accomplish a few things well or do many things poorly. Once you understand the Explore, Evaluate, Execute process, you can think of all kinds of ways to apply it in your personal and work life. In summary, it is a systematic approach to solving problems effectively.

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