What’s worse—a flawed decision or no decision? That’s easy. Decisions keep a business moving. An imperfect decision might move your business slightly in the wrong direction, but at least it will be moving. Make a few adjustments, and you’re back on track.
Making no decision brings business to a halt. Even if you make a great decision during the delay, the time needed to regain momentum will leave you far behind. Like boulders and trains, groups of people have inertia. It takes great effort to get them going, so it’s better to keep them moving forward and adjust, rather than halt progress and restart.
Unfortunately, leaders often don’t have enough information to make a clear decision. What do you call leaders who are indecisive when dealing with ambiguity? Incompetent, ineffective imposters. They are losers, not leaders. If you want to lead, you better know how to make good decisions with partial data.
I’m the decider
Before discussing making decisions with incomplete data, I should point out that being a decisive dunce is no better than being an ineffective imposter. Decisive dunces make decisions quickly (good), but without clear thinking or cause (bad). This results in random or backward progress and an exasperated team. Having too little information is no excuse for being arbitrary or clueless.
Instead, you want to inform yourself as much as time will allow, and then make your decision based on context and experience. How much time do you have? Only until the point your team becomes blocked. How do you apply context and experience? Develop a consistent framework for making your decisions that helps you spot patterns, and then rely on your well-informed intuition to make the best choice.
This is easier to describe with examples. Let’s talk about hiring decisions, product tradeoffs, and triage decisions.
If you want more time to make decisions, then plan ahead. Map your business rhythm to a calendar, and begin your decision making early in anticipation of events.
If you want better data to make decisions, then put measurements in place, utilize business intelligence, and be better informed.
Both strategies for better decisions require forethought. Don’t like a vacuum? Fill it.
To hire or not to hire
I’ve been an “as appropriate” for a decade, meaning that I am the last interviewer on an interview loop. My role is to make the final hiring decision about the candidate. Sometimes that decision is very easy because the prior interview comments are compelling in one direction or another and they fit my personal assessment of the candidate well.
However, the hiring decision is often difficult. The prior interview feedback is mixed and inconclusive. For an interview, I have at most one hour to gather information directly from the candidate. In addition, the recruiting team and hiring manager are blocked immediately after my interview, so I have only an hour or two to decide.
To make the best possible decision, I follow the same routine each interview. I prepare before the interview by reading the candidate’s resume, checking out any online content it references, and reading the prior interview feedback. I look for patterns in the comments that might indicate the root cause(s) of concerns. Then I interview the candidate with the goal of confirming the root cause(s) and whether or not the concerns can be overcome.
Now, I’ve collected all the facts I possibly can without significantly delaying the offer. I’ve done the analysis, and my intuition is informed. How do I put this all together? I step back and let my intuition guide me. After all the analysis, and all my years of experience, what decision seems right?
As Malcolm Gladwell points out in Blink, an informed intuition is an exceptional instrument. I’m not talking about judging a candidate from a quick glance. I’m talking about learning all I can and then, instead of focusing only on the individual details, I take a step back and looking at the candidate as a whole with everything I know about her and the other candidates I’ve met. That’s hard to do consciously—your informed intuition can be your guide.
Even if I did take time to call every reference, bring the candidate back for more interviews, and do a background search online, my decision might not be much better. As Gladwell also points out, sometimes the extra analysis and second guessing is worse because you start to ignore your overall assessment and cumulative experience in favor of individual facts.
If I’m still undecided about a candidate, the decision is easy—don’t hire the candidate. You always want to feel confident about the candidate’s potential for success for the sake of the candidate, the team, and the company.
Now consider the alternative
Product tradeoffs can be very difficult to make. There are often many opposing viewpoints and rarely conclusive data. Great data from telemetry and web services can make a huge difference, but data informs—it doesn’t decide (necessary, but not sufficient). You must make the call quickly based on the data and your collective experience or risk losing your market position.
The individual decision may be about a user story, an architectural approach, or even a development tool. Regardless, there will be pros and cons for each choice. First, use your value proposition, architecture principles, or other relevant framework to clarify your options. If you still have a number of valid choices, you can quickly analyze your tradeoffs using one of my favorite tools, Pugh Concept Selection—a fancy name for a simple technique. (I described it briefly in My experiment worked!)
In Pugh Concept Selection, you make a table where the rows are choices and the columns are decision criteria. (Excel® is perfect for doing this.) The result is like a pros and cons table with a twist. Instead of indicating which choices meet the criteria best on some absolute scale, you pick one choice as your default and give it zeros for all criteria. Then you rate all the other choices relative to your default choice. If a choice is better than the default for a criterion, you put a +1 in that row and column. If a choice is worse, you fill in -1, and if it’s about the same, you fill in 0. Add up all the columns, and you have the rating for each row. Now you can see how all the choices compare.
You can weight criteria (columns) differently to indicate what’s most important. Typically, people use power series for weights (1, 3, 9). To determine the sum a row, you multiply its ratings (-1, 0, +1) by their associated weights and add them together. The Excel SUMPRODUCT function does this nicely.
Filling out the table of choices as a group can be fun and insightful. You learn a great deal about what the tradeoffs between choices really are and what you care about most. However, Pugh Concept Selection won’t make your choice for you (though it could reject a bunch). While one option might get the best score, there are likely several top options worth considering.
Once the table of choices is complete and you’ve talked through the results and insights gained, it’s time to make a decision. That’s when you throw out the table and rely on your newly informed intuition. The analysis is necessary and instructive, but it’s your experience and overall context—your intuition—that can take that analysis and sense the right decision.
Tell me why
When you are managing product issues toward the end of a cycle, there are many issues to cover, so decisions must be made quickly. In addition, you are usually making those decisions in a group of at least three people representing different interests, so you must reach a consensus in which no one objects.
At Microsoft®, this decision-making process is called triage. It can be one of the most divisive activities in the development cycle if done improperly.
How can you quickly convince three or more people to agree with confidence about important issues? You need three things:
§ The root of the issue—without knowing the root cause, you can’t apply your past experience to the problem with confidence.
§ The scope of the issue—without knowing how many customers and partners are impacted and how are they impacted, you can’t judge the benefit of acting.
§ The risk of the issue—without knowing the risks involved, you can’t balance the costs against the benefits.
Once you’ve understood these three things, which every late-stage issue report should contain, you’ve informed your collective intuition. Now, the group decision makers can depend upon their visceral reaction to a suggested resolution. Of course, that’s no guarantee you’ll agree. For more on my framework for these kinds of tense group decisions, read my column Are we having fun yet? The joy of triage.
Wait, there’s more
“But what if more information arrives later that significantly changes your thinking?” No problem. We want to make a decision that lets us move forward, not a perfect decision, necessarily. The way we gain insight and experience is to try, receive feedback, adjust, and try again.
That’s no reason to change decisions constantly, however. To maintain your forward momentum, you should iterate, making slight adjustments as you go. Yet, occasionally there are enough new internal insights or external expectations to suggest a substantial course correction. That’s okay—it’s what makes our lives interesting and our business engaging.
Each time you analyze new information, your intuition becomes smarter. You get more experience and a better perspective. You make better decisions. Keep an open mind, listen well to customers and contrarians, apply a consistent framework, and trust your well-informed instincts. Don’t wait to be certain. Decide, iterate, and constantly lead your team closer to its goals.
Interesting as always. Relying on Malcolm Gladwell is a little dangerous though, time and again he has demonstrated that he doesn't get the difference between correlation and causation. His broken windows hypothesis was a great example.
Also be careful of visceral reactions, they are very likely to have been influenced by some deep rooted psychological tendencies. For example we humans are very predisposed to acting in a way that is consistent with our previous public statements and engineers are not immune. How many technical arguments have you seen from the outside where the participants are basically arguing for a course of action that matches their previously stated position as opposed to debating things on their own merits.
On the hiring side watch for making decisions that confirm your previous statements, whatever they may be. For instance you may have hired a bunch of people from a particular school or you may have said that you think the team needs more diversity. Be careful that your desire to fulfill those statements doesn't take priority over whether or not somebody is a good hire on their own merits.
Consistency is just one psychological force driving decisions, the book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" by Robert Cialdini (4.5 stars on Amazon) is a great look into the five others.