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.

The importance of honesty

This year I’ve been learning a lot about organisational behaviours, based on the Human Synergistics “Circumplex” model. The program from Global Mindset leverages this model to improve our understanding of what creates a productive and positive work environment.

In this model there are three overall behavioural styles that are winningly described as Snail (defensive), Hippo (aggressive) or Dolphin (collaborative). The three behavioural mascots are a useful way of thinking about types of behaviour, and the impact they have on others.

Hippo behaviours tend to use aggression to shut down collaboration and cooperation. Snail behaviours leverage manipulation or appeals to authority to preserve the status quo. Dolphin behaviour, on the other hand, is open, constructive and collaborative.

Research shows it is these Dolphin behaviours that are likely to lead to high productivity and staff morale. So, the theory goes that by helping people overcome any Snail or Hippo behaviours they have, we improve our working culture. In time, we all become Dolphins and everyone lives happily ever after…

Except change is never that easy.

The reality is there is an important prerequisite for this kind of change program, and that is that people need to be willing to be honest and open with each other. Without honesty, people will merely assume the superficial trappings of change. They’ll parrot the language of it, but distort it to suit themselves, knowing that most won’t notice. Without openness there is no trust, and change is hard enough when you do have trust. It’s nigh-on impossible without it.

So, like the old psychologist joke goes, the lightbulb has to want to change. If people don’t want to change, this program, like any other, will face an uphill battle.

Dishonest people are time wasters

People who cannot be honest do enormous damage to the human organisations they occupy. They undermine confidence, by making people unsure about what is true and what is not. When people are unsure, they spend mental energy on wondering what to think, instead of being productive and focussed.

People who cannot be truly open to others do not create trust in others. Trust requires sharing. It requires risk, that if I am open with you, you will not abuse that trust.

If we don’t have trust, we can’t be honest. If we can’t be honest, we can’t change.

Where to from here?

So, if you find yourself in a working relationship with someone who cannot be honest and open, what can you do?

Well, not much, but then change is never something we can make happen in other people; we can only change ourselves. There’s that lightbulb joke again.

What you can do is focus on the change you want for yourself. Try not to invest time in worrying about the people who you don’t feel you can trust, or who you don’t feel can be honest with you. They can’t help you, all they can do is drag you down.

Unfortunately, dishonest, untrustworthy people are unlikely to change because they’re so busy keeping track of their “alternate realities” and controlling narratives they’ll never find the time for it. These are people that, for your own sanity, are best left behind.