Sunday 11 January 2009

Making Decisions

I thought I'd start with this as my first 'proper' post of the year, mainly because decision making isn't usually considered a skill in it's own right, despite being deceptively simple and so commonly done poorly.

Making a decision isn't a stand alone task, when you make one, you really do a small collection of things together. You make choice from some options, you make a plan and delegate it, and then you follow up and review. Most people think that once they've picked their option they're done, but like Drucker says, you haven't made a decision until you have an action plan - you've only made a choice.

So let's talk a little more about effective choosing, as that's the first hurdle to trip over. The behaviors you want to avoid here are essentially procrastination. How many times have you been staring an obvious course of action in the face (or been presented with a fantastic opportunity) but instead of making progress, you're taking bets on which is growing faster - your number of choices or the list of data points people want to see for each one! You have to reduce your number of options to a manageable amount (3 is a magic number if you're stuck for inspiration), and while you should never ignore great last minute ideas just for the sake of rules, most business don't fully appreciate the cost of inaction. The point marked "doing anything is better than nothing" creeps up a lot quicker than you think.

The next thing you have to worry about is the ballooning amount of information on each of your choices. Too many and you risk it being treated like a smorgasbord (can we have this from option A, and that from option B) or being paralyzed by the sheer volume of statistics and technicalities. Try removing things that are the same for all choices - for example, if A, B, and C are all similarly expensive, why compare cost? And how about things you don't feel strongly about? I don't know how many times I've seen stakeholders agonize over details like the difference in reusability between 2 choices in a decision, and then when asked where else they plan to use the technology, answer "nowhere". If it's an attribute you don't feel strongly about, then it's unlikely to influence your decision, so why clutter the process with it?

We've talked a lot about paring things down, and now here's something to add in. Don't forget that for every choice you're comparing you need to know what you don't get if you don't pick it. Most people are generally pretty good at stacking up the costs and benefits, but opportunity cost is often neglected.

Hurdle number 2 is action plans and delegation - the behavior you want to avoid here are those deja vu meetings where you all sit around and 'review' the decisions you made, wonder at the lack of progress and then agree to 'update next week' all over again. Once you've made your choice, don't let yourself off the hook until you've agreed who is actually going to do the work, and by when. Follow the usual rules on delegation - make sure whoever you're going to hold accountable clearly understands their obligations, is empowered to do the work, and has the available resources.

Don't forget to follow up. You spend your time on the things that are important to you, and you're not making unimportant decisions, are you? The things that you focus on will get done - keep track of what's happening, make major milestones public, and use your sponsorship to see it through. And once whatever it is has been delivered (or has crashed and burned), you're still not quite finished. Now comes the feedback loop - what did you learn? How can the experience improve the rest of the organization? What pitfalls can you now help others avoid?

And finally, you shouldn't be afraid to revisit your decisions and change your mind. You should be keeping an eye on your customers, your portfolio, and your team, and continually assessing what any changing circumstances may mean for you. That said, you must resist being flighty as you need to show commitment, but keep in mind that "because we said we would" isn't a business benefit to completing a project - it's a sleepwalker's justification for not being in touch with the market.

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