A better way to manage dilemmas


Chapter 2


In Chapter 2, the Ethos team works to understand the nature of a problem, conducts primary and secondary research, and makes a recommendation about whether to continue to pursue the case.

The ability to frame a problem well involves exploring an issue from multiple viewpoints. Clear and well-considered framing helps problem-solvers develop diverse and creative solutions. However, all too often, the urgency of risk prevents us from exercising patience necessary to really understand a problem. It is human nature to react to a new threat from an emotion-packed place—in fact, from the amygdala, often referred to as the lizard brain. But the lizard brain is a poor place to begin developing creative resolutions for complex problems.

Frame illustration
Frame: The Ethos Team works to understand the nature of a dilemma and decide whether to launch an Ethos case.

The goal of the Chapter 2 is to help the team thoughtfully and creatively do four things:

  1. Surface and intake problems that might meet the criteria of a dilemma and require the Ethos process.
  2. Provide a criteria for assessing what is an issue versus what is a dilemma.
  3. Build the process and technology to help people feel heard, while also helping the organization feel that a threat is being addressed.
  4. Clearly articulate the dilemma statement.

In order to adequately frame a problem, it is important to examine three sides of it: the issues, the dilemma, and the higher level dilemma category.

Step 1: Problem

Identify the problem.

A stakeholder or staff member identifies a potential problem and initiates the intake process, a set of actions geared at learning more, framing the problem, and defining whether the Ethos process is necessary.

Step 2: Issue vs. Dilemma

Describe the problem.

A designated staff member (who could be anyone on the team) makes a copy of the Ethos Problem Definition Template and fills it out in order to clarify for themselves and others the nature of the problem. They can use the Dilemma Categories and Examples tool to see if the problem falls within one of the eight major dilemma categories, which can help you understand the problem.

Prepare illustration
Issue vs. Dilemma

Step 3: Confidentiality

Review the Confidentiality and Transparency Framework.

Review the Ethos Confidentiality and Transparency Framework and consider what actions need to be taken in order to maintain the appropriate level of transparency for the case.

Chapter 2: Frame

People Involved

Staff are people who you consider internal to your organization. People within your organization may be the ones to identify and escalate an Ethos dilemma.
The Decision-Maker is often a member of the Executive Team and holds accountability for attending every major meeting, including the Framing Meeting, and the Ethos Council.
Ethos Team
The Ethos Team are the primary point people who own and manage dilemmas. They may be part of your product or program team, legal team, strategy team, or learning team.
Case Team
The Ethos Case Team represents internal stakeholders who are affected by a case. They are tasked with helping at specific points in the process.

Step 4: Vote

Invite the team to vote on whether to open a case.

Invite input from whatever group of stakeholders makes sense for your team. GlobalGiving has a confidential Slack channel where we post the five problem definition questions, and invite all staff members to vote on whether to pursue further action or to de-escalate.

It’s important to consider the costs of taking on a new Ethos case. It could require extensive time for the Ethos team, and could take the organization months to move through all the steps. (On the other hand, it might be exactly what’s necessary to help prevent risks and move the organization closer to achieving its mission). This is one of two opportunities to pause and ask, are we ready to take this on? The second opportunity is the Launch meeting.

If 51% of staff vote that a case should be pursued, then it’s time to move on to the next step: begin research. If the problem does not get 51% vote, it is delegated to other relevant teams for managing. At GlobalGiving, this could mean delegating to our business development or marketing team to address the problem.

These are the criteria for staff to consider. The objective is to determine whether continued action and further research are warranted at this point:

  • The problem is more than an isolated or one-off issue.
  • It has high stakes for your organization’s integrity (in other words, it could impact your business model and social impact).
  • There’s potential for internal and external value creation if it is addressed.
  • There’s an opportunity to contribute to a global conversation (in other words, your decision could help another organization facing something similar or it could position your organization as a thought leader on an exciting new topic).
  • There’s a portfolio of related symptoms or issues which point to systemic or root problems, which you hope to address.
  • Your team is willing and able to carve out time and space to address the case.

Step 5: Survey

Survey staff to learn more about the case.

If 51% of your staff vote to elevate a problem, the next step is to gather staff intelligence about the problem and its important stakeholder groups. Once you read the Ethos Staff Survey Instructions, you can make a copy of the Ethos Staff Survey Template to get started. The survey is sent to all staff, with 3-5 days to complete.

Step 6: Analyze Survey

Analyze and synthesize the primary data from the Staff Survey.

When you have collected enough survey responses from staff, read through each response and add data points as notes in the Analysis and Synthesis Tool (under the Staff Survey section). Place each sticky note into a quadrant of the empathy map, referring to what a respondent said, did, thought, or felt. It’s fairly easy to record what a respondent said and did; however, determining what they thought and felt should be based on careful observations and analysis of the language (generalized, vague, combative?) they used and how they responded to questions.

When you are done transcribing data points, use the pattern grouping section below the empathy map to support your analysis. Pattern grouping is a form of analysis that breaks data into patterns to form themes. Begin by grouping the patterns together based on broader themes. Then write a small description of each group as a factual statement of what is happening. Capture the item appropriately in the Analysis and Synthesis Tool.

Things to look out for during analysis:

  • There will likely be internal drivers of the dilemma as much as external drivers. Internal drivers often arise from personal experiences and values. External drivers often arise from organizational responsibilities.
  • Patterns will inform important areas of convergence for data analysis; be sure, however, to look for outliers and consider what they tell you about the nature of the dilemma.
  • Look beyond the specific suggestions of ideal outcome; you are not looking for solutions during this Ethos phase. Consider instead the characteristics of the ideal outcomes and translate these into a Job To Be Done.

Finally, review the various patterns, interpretation, and analysis to combine and recombine data points to develop new insights and understanding. This becomes your synthesis at the bottom of the section. Synthesis is a generative process. Gather all groups of data: patterns, interpretations, and other forms / outputs of analysis and research. Play with these data sets. Consider how they might form a narrative. Combine different elements, and consider whether this gives you new meaning or understanding. After you have played with the data sets, identify what insight this gives you about the nature of the dilemma or the problem. Capture this as an insight statement—describe what it tells you that is new about the nature of the problem.

Sample Insight Statement about the College going experience:

For many families, the total cost of going to college includes more than tuition advertised; includes lost revenue, family support systems, the costs of being socially active.

Chapter 2: Frame

Tips and Tricks

Create pause

Humans' immediate interaction with a risk (or something new generally) will come from an emotion-packed place (also known as fight / flight response, or lizard brain). It is important to create space for a pause, which will ensure that reactions are reflective and thoughtful. A pause can look like time to research an issue, or a day or so for reflection only.

Keep asking why

Issues are often the symptoms of a dilemma; and the dilemma is often the root cause of multiple issues. The best way to parse this out is through the five whys framework, continuously asking why until you truly understand the inherent nature of a problem and what is at stake.

Find the beauty in the and

In addition to asking why, dilemmas can also be best framed when synthesizing one or more issues. For example, if we combine Issue A and Issue B, what does that tell us about the nature of the dilemma? If we combine Issue A and Issue C, what does that tell us?

Search your opposable mind

Ground yourself in the reality of opposable thinking—remembering that two opposing views can be true at the same time. For example, sweet and savory work together in a flavor profile.

Step 7: Background Research

Conduct Key Facts Research and Popular Media Scan.

In the next step, the Ethos team articulates the facts, as well as its understanding of the case, in preparation for a Framing Meeting. The meeting will be the opportunity for the key decision-makers to make a call about whether to continue to pursue the case and to decide on stakeholders. The information prepared for this meeting will also form the foundation of the case brief later on.

Step 8: Analyze Research

Analyze and synthesize secondary data from the Key Facts Research and Popular Media Scan.

The Ethos team then translates the data points from the Key Facts Research and Popular Media Scan into sticky notes with corresponding sections of the Analysis and Synthesis Tool. Use the same pattern grouping analysis and synthesis process from Step 6.

Step 9: Recommendation

Develop a recommendation for key decision-makers during the Framing Meeting.

Based on all the research, the Ethos Team makes a recommendation to key decision-makers in the Framing Meeting. The recommendation should including the following:

  • The problem description
  • Research insights (from Staff Survey, Key Facts Analysis, and Popular Media Scan)
  • Determination about whether the problem is an issue or dilemma, and under which category it falls
  • Recommendation about whether to continue pursuing the case

Make a copy of the Framing Meeting Deck Template created in Google Slides to use in the meeting. The Framing Meeting Facilitation Guide will help you facilitate the meeting.

Use the Ethos Interviewees and Ethos Council Participants Template to record the recommendations of the interviewees and Ethos Council members.

The decision-makers will review and accept / reject the recommendation in the meeting. If accepted, an Ethos case is named and the process is set into motion. Key stakeholders will be named in the meeting. If rejected, it is important to note that it might simply qualify as a single issue at the moment, but one worth keeping an eye on. The issue should be sent to an appropriate team for their oversight. Any internal / cultural issues should also be acknowledged and handed off, as well.

Step 10: Write Up

Document the decisions / next steps in the Case History Master Deck.

The Google Slides deck from Step 7 will become the foundation for your Case History Master Deck. Once you’ve made decisions about stakeholders and next steps, fill out the dates in the Mid Case Next Steps slides of the Case History Master Deck. Then, continue to build on this deck so at the end of the case you have a complete case history (for communication purposes and for documentation).

Congratulations! You’re ready to move on to the next step.

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Ethos was created and tested over two years by a collaborative team of platform leaders, nonprofit staff, and other social sector professionals led by GlobalGiving. We’ve made it free and easy to use so your team can benefit from our trials and errors.

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