Friday, March 11, 2011

Some Decision-Making Aids

Executive Summary:
There are a number of reasons why we have difficulty making decisions.  Different causes for indecision sometimes require different decision-making aids.  Below, I provide some tools or techniques that I prefer to use to battle indecision created by several common causes.

The Rest of the Story:
Yesterday, I posted some thoughts on the importance of making decisions and not debating them too long (manhandling them), and the consequences of indecision.  I promised to follow up with some decision-making tools and have selected a few of my favorites to discuss in this post.  First, though, we should examine the causes of indecision so we can discuss which tool to use when.

In my experience there are four common causes for indecision.  I believe them to be as follows.
  • We are intimidated by the responsibility or possible consequences
  • We don’t know enough
  • We know too much
  • We have too many choices

I’ll address each of these and offer some tools or techniques to help in each case.  Read them all, or skip ahead to the one that interests or inhibits you the most.

Too Intimidated to Decide:
There can be any number of reasons why we might be reluctant to declare our decision.  They can range from business consequences, to personal consequences, to the behaviors of our leaders toward us.  In any case, the problem and the solution is basically the same.  We’re afraid.  So, the solution is to address the fear.

The first thing I like to do is move that fear from my subconscious field of nagging doubt to my rational mind by articulating the fear.  I write down what might go wrong and what those consequences are.  Then, I go through the list and wipe out the ridiculous stuff that I recognize shouldn’t hamper my decision.  As a result, I’m left with either nothing to be afraid of, or a short list of things that I can address.  Now, I have two methods that I use frequently to deal with my list.  The first is to go talk with a mentor – someone who is experienced with the issues, but isn’t going to judge me for my apprehension.  Sometimes, talking through it is enough and it can be quick.  Failing that, I resort to my risk management tools and techniques.  Usually, I don’t resort to a full Failure-Modes-and-Effects-Analysis.  I simply take a few minutes to write down some ideas about how to either prevent or mitigate the consequences that scare me.  Sometimes some discussion with others is necessary to assess the viability of mitigation ideas, but generally this exercise doesn’t take very long.  Many times, having a plan to deal with the consequences is enough to remove the fear of making the decision that I know I need to make.  Also, I have a better go-forward plan anyway.  As a last resort, I make the decision knowing that I have done my best to come to the right answer, and actively, vehemently, communicate the possible drawbacks, which I can better do after writing my thoughts and assessment down.

Know Too Little:
This phenomenon is best recognized when we sit quietly trying to evaluate the options and we find that we have more questions about the options or consequences than we have answers.  This, for me, is usually the easiest indecision driver to deal with.  My preferred approach is both obvious and simple (usually).  I find the people who know the most about the problem, issues, or consequences and I talk with them about it.  First, though, it is important to write down all of my questions so that I can identify who I should talk to and can efficiently discuss my concerns.

Know Too Much:
This phenomenon is easily recognized when we find ourselves going in circles debating the possible outcomes.  Sometimes we are too close to the matter, or too experienced and the possible outcomes or directions seem to go on forever, with little distinction between bets or worst.  I have three ways to deal with this one.
First, I can again go to a mentor.  Beware, though, that you use your mentor to help you clarify the priorities or impacts, not that you use your mentor to make the decision for you.  Second, I use a method proposed by Mark Twain or another described by Benjamin Franklin.  Both methods trick our conscious, rational minds into letting our subconscious, intuitive mind make the call.  Don’t be afraid of trying such a trick.  Many times, our intuition already knows the truth and the answer we feel is best and it is not clouded by all of the reasons.  In fact, we generally make our most important life decisions based on intuition, not reason.  I don’t know a single person that chose his or her spouse based on what made the most logical sense.

Mark Twain’s method is great for a binary decision where there are only two real choices.  He recommended that you assign each choice to a side of a coin.  Then flip it.  If you don’t like the result the coin gives you, then you have your answer.  This is a great trick because it only takes a few seconds to clear away the clutter and get an answer.  I do have a few words of caution, however.  At some point, you are going to need to declare your decision and probably explain how you came to it.  Don’t say that you flipped a coin.  Instead, say, “I ran the options around in my head, and examined them carefully.  In the end, I feel that this is the right thing to do.”  You are being truthful by confessing that you “feel” the decision is the right one, but you don’t make it sound like you let the fates decide for you – which will sabotage your credibility.

Benjamin Franklin’s method takes a little more time, but has the advantage of possibly providing a little more insight into your true feelings on the matter.  He proposed that one write down all the pros and cons of each option, assigning a weight value to each.  Once all of the good and bad points are written down and scored, add up the total value of each decision.  If you don’t like the answer the analysis gives you, then you have your answer.  If you do agree with the answer, then you have a reasonable analysis to support your decision.

My third way to deal with too much information works best when there are more than two choices.  It is also useful for determining how the relative benefits or consequences should weigh against each other.  I reduce all of the possibilities to a simple binary selection.  I’ll ask myself questions like, “with which consequence would I rather deal,” or “which do I like better, A or B,” then “which do I like better, B or C,” and finally, “which is better, A or C?”  I use this binary breakdown process for a lot of reasoning.  Which is more likely?  Which is the better result for the business?  It’s quick and it helps to dig through the clutter.

Too Many Choices:
When there are too many options, I, like many folks, prefer to make the decision process one of elimination.  I try to find ways to eliminate options.  First, I will do a quick pass and line out anything that stands out as least reasonable, unachievable, or most risky. 

Once I’ve eliminated the obvious, my preference is, again, to break things down into simple A or B, binary decisions.  Instead of trying to decide between A, B, C, D, or E, which all have their pros and cons.  I’ll compare A with B.  Say B wins.  Then I’ll compare B with C.  If B wins again, I’ll decide between B and D.  Say then, that D wins.  I’ll do a sanity check and make sure that D also beats E and A and C.  If so, then D is my choice.  It only takes a minute or two to do this. 

My third technique is typical for most of us too, but I find that exercising the personal discipline to actually write it all out makes a big difference, and is something that few people will do, unless in a group.  I identify the most important criteria that the solution or decision must address and then score the options against the criteria.  I know, it’s obvious, but few people actually do this in a form such that they can stare at it and see the analysis.  Also, it is important to evaluate consequences as well as important criteria.

Now, each of the above options can be effective, but each also becomes difficult to manage if there are more than 5-7 choices.  The matrixes and possible combinations just become too complex to quickly rationalize.  When this happens, I break out an old technique called an Affinity Diagram.  Simply put, I try to subgroup the options into groups by similarity.  Then I can either decide top-down or eliminate bottom-up.  For top-down, I compare each affinity group and decide which strategy is generally best, then I can decide which option in that group is best.  For bottom up, I pick the best option in each subgroup, and then pick the best option out of each subgroup’s winners.  If I really want to get carried away, I can do both and see if I come to the same answer.  Heaven help me if I don’t.  Naturally, for all of these decisions, I rely on the techniques I mentioned above.

Bonus Tool:
Here is a tool that I use every day to help me quickly decide on what tasks or projects I should be working, without taking long breaks or otherwise procrastinating on starting my next task while I debate which one to do.  If I recall correctly, it is derived from some of Dr. W Edwards Deming’s teachings and the old Total Quality Management techniques.  I’ve been using it for so long, and have evolved it over time, and I can’t truly recall its origin.  Basically, I make a to-do list of my tasks and color code each task.  I then use the color code, in concert with the due date, to help me quickly identify the task I should be working on.

My color code breaks down as follows – the colors are irrelevant, the breakdown is important.
  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Urgent and Not Important
  4. Not Urgent and Not Important

The order in which I placed these criteria above is the order in which I attempt to address my tasks.  Important and Urgent get first priority.  Important and Not Urgent get second.  Things that are Urgent and Not Important (things like status reports) I try to excuse myself from doing, or if I must do them, I put the minimum effort into their completion to make them satisfactory.  Things that are neither urgent nor important I don’t do unless their status elevates.  Of course I communicate to the expectant party that I won’t be doing their task and why.  Sometimes this is when the status changes and my perspective is corrected; or the issue is dropped.  In any case, this method keeps me always focused on what is important and prevents me from doing what is not just because it’s easier.

If you try this tool, you will need to define for yourself Urgent and Important.  For me Important means that it directly furthers my mission or directly impacts the business.  A status report, for example, does nothing to move my mission forward and is not Important.  Urgent means that my mission, or an internal or external customer, is depending upon it’s timely completion; schedules will be negatively impacted if I do not get it done on time.  A status report might be Urgent because my leader’s priorities could be affected if he doesn’t have it.  Make your own, but make the definition simple and easy to determine for each task.

Here is a glimpse of my specific rendition of this tool. 

Try it sometime.  I implemented this tool, reluctantly, at a time when I was very stressed and desperate for some relief from my day-to-day chaos.  I tried the tool for a week, my stress level dropped and my ability to keep up with an increased workload increased greatly.  I don’t recall the numbers anymore, but I pretty well went from working late every day, to going home more-or-less on time every day.  I’ve been addicted to it since.

We looked at four common causes for indecision:  we’re intimidated, too little information, too much information, and too many choices.  For each scenario, I suggested some of my favorite decision-making aids.  I also included my favorite tool for avoiding waste through procrastination, driven by indecision over what to work next.  I hope that by sharing these tools, I have given you something you can use also, or at least given you some ideas to help you out.

Stay wise, friends.

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