Making decisions out of opinions

It’s a common problem in technology companies – people have opinions that they hold strongly because they are passionate about the technology they like, know, or believe is the best. The passion is good, because it drives enthusiasm and engagement, but how do we resolve differences of opinion, when those differences threaten to derail desired business outcomes?

The first step to achieving agreement is to ensure everyone is sharing the same understanding about what the business is trying to do. Without this crucial alignment, there can’t be agreement because people will be pulling in different directions. In organisations where the vision has not been clearly communicated this can be a challenge, but it’s a first principle on which everything else is founded: agree the vision.

So, let’s assume we’ve got the vision, and everyone understands it. Has everyone committed to it? If not, there’s our next problem. If people aren’t committed to the vision, and aren’t acting in accordance with it, then our team is broken. We need to find out why people aren’t committing to the vision and fix it.

Assuming we have the vision and everyone is committed to it, things should get easier from here on. We can now make our decisions based on how well they help us achieve the vision. How do we do that?

Most of us are making decisions daily, based solely on our prior knowledge and our intuition. This is known as the Recognition-Primed Decision making process (RPD). If we understand and are committed to the vision, there is nothing wrong with this – it’s fast and will give us a right-enough answer most of the time. The only caveat is that it does rely on our ability (and willingness) to accurately compile knowledge. Given that we all suffer from “myside” bias, to some degree, the quality of decisions made this way will thus vary proportionally to the degree to which we accurately catalogue and draw upon our experiences.

RPD works well when we have the needed expertise and the decision scope is limited to things we are solely responsible for. Even when responsibility spans multiple people or groups, we may still be able to work this way, so long as there is general agreement to start with (everyone is committed to the same vision), and we are collaborative in how we work. The key here is to make sure that everyone who could be affected by our decisions is kept informed and given the opportunity to speak up with any concerns about the choices we are making. Feedback needs to be sought and considered.

If we are working instead in an environment where communication is not optimal, we may need to engage in a more structured process for making decisions.

One way to do this is to use a decision matrix. A popular version of this is the Kepner-Tregoe decision analysis (KTDA) process, which aims to guide us through steps that are designed to lead us to a rational decision.

The first step in the KTDA is to write a concise “decision statement” about what it is we want to decide. An example is “What sort of pet should I get?”

Next, we will specify the objectives of the decision – what does this decision need to provide in terms of results. Each objective needs to be classified as either a “must” (the decision must deliver this objective) or a “want”. Objectives are then weighted to indicate their importance, eg, if it is very important that my pet have soft fur, I will weight that objective as a 10.

It’s important, when weighting objectives to be as honest as possible about the true importance of that objective, as this is where we will often attempt to “stack the deck” in favour of our preferred option. Get a multi-person consensus on the weightings before you move to the next stage.

Once we have our decision statement and our weighted objectives agreed we can begin evaluating each alternative (eg, cat, dog, turtle). To do this, each alternative is scored, from 0-10, on how well it delivers each objective. Again, this is a moment where our preferences can bias our answers, so it’s important to gain consensus on the scores.

Once you have all your scores in place, the final score for each alternative is calculated by multiplying the score with the weighting for each objective. Alternatives that fail to deliver a “must” objective are excluded. The alternative with the highest score is the one that, rationally, best delivers the objectives and is the one that should be chosen.

Here’s a worked example:

In this example, even though the dog rates very highly on home security and companionship, because I didn’t weight home security as highly as I did soft fur the cat ended up with the highest score. Because I considered soft fur a must, the turtle had to be excluded.

Here, kitty kitty.

Crucial to any decision-making process is its ability to minimise the influence of unfounded beliefs and prejudices. It should also aim to remove emotional heat from the process by allowing everyone to see that their preference has been evaluated fairly and objectively.

Of course, humans aren’t always rational and objectivity is hard, so even with the best of intentions any rational process can be subverted. By following the processes here we can at least provide a paper trail as to how decisions were made. Later, if we find we made the wrong call we can always go back and see how we arrived at the wrong conclusion and learn from it.

Hm, perhaps I should have gotten a hamster.

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