I guess that most of us know situations, in which we wonder why our partners, colleagues, friends, family, etc. take decisions which we consider really bad choices.
In this post I’d like to examine if those decisions are really that bad or if it’s possible we simply use different measures when judging them.
As a side effect this post shall support you in taking better decisions by making sure you answer all relevant questions.
Definition of Decision-Taking
Before we check a decision for its quality, we need to make sure we have a common understanding of what a decision is and how we can make sure our decisions are good ones.
When you have more than one option of doing something, you have to select one option. I would say that many people think selecting an option is the whole decision-taking process.
I think, though, that taking a decision comprises many additional steps, which take place before you select one of your options:
- Identify that you can take a decision.
- Find out when the decision is needed.
- Identify the purpose of the decision.
- Figure out who your decision’s stakeholders are, what their interests are and who can take the decision.
- List, prioritize and weigh your requirements.
- Identify your options.
- Assess the collected options.
- Select the option which best matches your requirements.
The order of the steps above might vary slightly, but all points need to be considered, so I would say that the decision-taking process is described by the list above and a decision is the result of this process.
The Decision-Taking Process
Let’s look at the process in more detail and see what the individual steps actually mean.
Room for Choice
It sounds simple: before you consider taking a decision, you must be aware that you can take a decision.
Without knowing that you can choose, you would simply act without deciding.
Let’s look at an example. You ride your bicycle down the street and watch the birds fly around some trees. You don’t see the parking car in front of you and bump right into it.
You have not decided to bump into the car.
If you had seen the car early enough, you would probably have considered other options –like driving around the car– but you have not seen any option, therefore you have not willingly decided to crash into the car.
Another example would be that you have seen the car a few seconds before you crashed into it, but you’ve been so fast, that you could see the crash coming, but could not prevent it anymore. Still no room for choice, and therefore no decision.
In both situations you could argue though, that you have decided to accept risks when you drove too fast or watched the birds in the sky while riding a bike. But you have not decided to crash into that car.
As trivial as it sounds: you need to be aware that you can now take a decision, so that you can start the decision-taking process.
Sometimes you have to take an immediate decision. Sometimes though, it‘s better to postpone a decision until you have more information. Many people adhere to the saying „A good decision now is better than a perfect decision tomorrow.“ That can be right, but sometimes the opposite is true, too.
Let‘s say your company has built two new product prototypes, but you can only produce one of them, so you have to decide which product you will produce and sell.
You have no idea, yet, which product your customers would prefer over the other. If you choose the wrong product, this might be the end of your company.
Taking a decision now without any relevant information would mean a high risk of 50% if you can only guess.
If you spend another week to do some customer research, you can get much more information and reduce the risk of taking the wrong decision to maybe 20% (it can be very impressive how much you can find out about your business ideas within a single week: https://www.thesprintbook.com/). Depending on your market situation postponing the decision by one week to reduce the risk from 50 to 20% can be very reasonable.
On the other hand, if you have to either sign or not sign a contract, there might be a deadline which simply requires you to take a decision immediately.
For which purpose do you take your decision? The quality of a decision can be measured by its effect on its purpose. Let‘s say you want to go home quickly and and have to choose one of three buses. You talk to the drivers to figure out where they go.
If the first bus does not bring you home at all, choosing bus number one would be a bad decision. Buses number two and three bring you home. Number two takes 20 minutes, number three 80 minutes. So both option two and three address the purpose “going home“, while option two addresses the second criteria “quickly“, too, and therefore is the best decision in regards to the defined purpose.
If the purpose was “I want to have a long bus ride without knowing where I‘m going“, the same decision could actually be the worst option.
Therefore knowing the purpose of your decision is an important starting point as it sets the stage for the evaluation of your decision.
Decision-Takers and Stakeholders
To find the best option you need to know who‘s interest a decision shall serve, which interest each affected person has and if it’s you or someone else who can take the actual decision.
Let‘s say you plan your next family vacation. Maybe you can plan the trip alone, but your partner and your kids want to be involved and actually have certain wishes. Your son wants to spend time at the beach, your daughter wants to meet other kids, and your partner controls the budget.
You need to consider their wishes and find a solution that addresses your stakeholders‘ interests if you want everyone to enjoy their vacation.
You also need to find out who can take the decision and who needs to be involved. Maybe you need a decision at work, which can only be taken by your boss or a certain committee. Or you can formally take a decision on your own, but the decision will affect other people‘s work, and if you want them to commit to the decision, you might want to involve them early into the decision-taking process.
Making sure you know your decision‘s stakeholders and involving them as much as needed, but not more, is a crucial aspect of any good decision.
Knowing your stakeholders’ interests and wishes is a good starting point. Transforming them into requirements is a discipline of its own, called requirements engineering (there‘s a great book available in german at https://www.hanser-elibrary.com/doi/10.3139/9783446438620.fm).
Basically, when someone tells you e.g. how she wants her new car to be like, she might tell you about an electric engine, the speed, or anything that makes it different from other cars. She might not tell you about the number of wheels, that she wants to lock the car when she‘s not using it, and other features everybody considers standard features. In addition, some features might be standard in the near future, but no-one knows them today. You need to think of these things, too.
Long story short: figure out what your stakeholders need.
In many cases you will find out that with multiple stakeholders some requirements are contradictive and you need to weigh their importance and find a solution which addresses the interests of all your stakeholders. That was a complicated way to say you need to find a compromise if not all requirements can be fulfilled.
Once you know what you and your stakeholders are looking for, search for solutions.
Let‘s say you want to manage a list of your company’s applications and their license states. You can build a solution on your own, purchase a standard application or buy a service provided by a third party. List all options which are candidates to serve the purpose of your decision.
Once you have collected a list of options, take a close look at each option and compare it to your requirements. You can use a spreadsheet with all requirements listed in one column on the left and all potential solutions listed in the following columns, where for each requirement you enter if an option fulfills it.
For some requirements you will not be able to say if an option will be able to fulfill it. This is true if a software vendor tells you a feature is on the roadmap or if you don‘t know, yet, if a technical challenge can really be solved or if you need to work around it. In these cases, guess the chance of success and figure out a plan B.
If multiple solutions look like candidates to serve your decision‘s purpose and address your requirements, think about what would happen if you find out you want to change your decision later on.
If switching from plan A to plan B is easy and switching from B to A is hard, plan A gives you more options and would be the better choice if otherwise both options are comparably good.
The assessment of your options has shown which options support your decision‘s purpose and meet your requirements.
As already mentioned: if you can not predict how an option is going to develop over time, the risk assessment shall be weighed in. If two or more options seem to be equally good, consider how easy it would be to change the decision if you find out that your initial decision was not that good. The question here would be how much flexibility your option provides.
As you see, taking good decision can be a very structured process which is easy to follow.
Yet, answering the questions can take some time, which sometimes you don‘t have. If you have little time and therefore lack good information, risk of being wrong can increase. Or you pick the solution which gives you lots of flexibility so that you can still navigate through the unknown.
As an Enterprise Architect I would add that all decisions in a company shall be aligned with the goals and the strategy of the company. Requirements need to be collected reasonably and all solutions shall be designed with a 360 degree view on the problem. Think well, plan, fail fast, learn and adapt.