[Draft of a piece written for an IT weekly magazine]
“In the affair of so much importance to you, wherein you ask my advice, I cannot for want of sufficient premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.”
So began some of the best advice on decision making ever given.
It was 1772, and the great Benjamin Franklin was advising his scientific colleague Joseph Priestley. But his advice is just as relevant today, when critical business and IT decisions must be made under conditions of great uncertainty and time pressure.
Recently, his insights have been incorporated into software packages which can improve and accelerate organisational decisions, including IT decisions.
His counsel, briefly, was take a sheet of paper, divide it into two columns, and write down all the advantages of a certain path of action in one column, and disadvantages in the other. Then, by “cancelling out” items in one column with items in the other, assess which column is the more weighty.
Simple but powerful, Franklin’s “Moral Algebra” has given great service over the decades. Research has shown that such methods reliably produce better decisions than ordinary unstructured deliberation. Even Charles Darwin deployed the method, using it in deciding whether to get married. Balancing considerations such as “terrible waste of time” on one hand with “object to be beloved and played with” on the other, he drew the clear conclusion that marrying was the right option, resulting in a long and happy union and thirteen children.
A method good enough for Franklin and Darwin is not to be dismissed lightly. But we must also acknowledge that, in its classic form, it can’t do justice to many business decisions.
Most obviously, the Moral Algebra frames the problem as whether to undertake a particular action. But most decisions are not yes/no or go/no-go; rather, they involve choosing from a range of possible actions. For example in a hiring situation, the decision problem is likely to be not whether to hire Jones but rather which of Jones, Jiminez or Jagonski to hire. Moreover, the options may form a kind of hierarchy; at one level the decision is whether to hire an accountant or a tax lawyer; at the next level, if an accountant is to be hired, which one?
Another problem is that the method focuses on only one part of the decision problem, which is how to do the overall “weighing up” of the various considerations. But in business decisions, much of the work goes into determining the validity or strength of those considerations in the first place. A claimed advantage of hiring a tax lawyer is that she can manage certain difficult issues to do with complex tax structures. But is this really true? Perhaps the issues are too complex for any one lawyer, and external advice would have to be obtained anyway.
Recognizing that we need something more than a simple pro/con approach, many textbooks, professors and consultants will prescribe moving to some technical, usually quantitative methodology such as multi-attribute utility theory or decision analysis. These certainly have their uses, but the reality is that most decision makers do not use these technical methods for the bulk of their decisions, even if they were taught how to use them in business school. And those decision makers are not just being lazy; often these sorts of complex analytical tools just don’t get a grip on the distinctive texture of business decisions. Real problems often can’t be reduced to numbers, algorithms and decision rules.
There is an alternative, one that works better for a wide range of decisions, whether in IT, strategy, or even in one’s personal life. Rather than discarding Franklin’s method, we can extend and adapt it to handle more of the complexities of business decision making.
Business Decision Mapping is such an extension. It preserves Franklin’s essential insight, that deciding usually involves weighing up of diverse, usually qualitative considerations. But it elaborates his method to handle multiple options and lower-level arguments and evidence. But it keeps the complexity under control by laying all this out in a special kind of diagram – a decision map.
Here, briefly, are the most basic steps in decision mapping. (1) First frame the decision problem using an open question. Not “Should we hire Jones?” but rather “Who should we hire?” – or even better, “What should we do about our tax accounting needs?”
Put the question in a box, preferably with a Question icon so its status is always immediately apparent.
(2) Canvass the major actions you might take in response to the problem. Write these down in boxes, connected by arrows to the question.
For each action, write down the most salient pros and cons. Draw arrows to the relevant option boxes. (3) Consider the major arguments bearing on the pros and cons. Add them to the map. (4) Consider the detailed pieces of evidence supporting the major arguments. Add them also.
(5) When this has been done as exhaustively and rigorously as circumstances allow, evaluate the evidence, arguments, and the pros and cons. (6) Choose the most strongly supported options. In making these assessments, you might use Franklin’s “cancelling out” approach.
Compared with standard informal deliberation (e.g., arguing around the boardroom table), business decision mapping takes some extra effort but offers many advantages.
First, it improves the clarity and rigour of thinking behind the decision. With the thinking laid out in front of us, we can more easily survey the full range of considerations and take proper account of them.
Second, it improves collaboration. A decision map is an easier way to communicate a complex structure of options, argument and evidence. With better sharing, team time is spent more productively.
Third, the decision mapping process automatically results in a concrete record of the thinking behind the decision. This is useful if – as often happens – the decision needs to be revisited at some later point in time. It also helps the decision makers be accountable. Once a decision is made, things might still turn out badly for other reasons; but at least the decision maker can easily show that the decision was well-grounded at the time.
Business decision mapping can be done on paper, whiteboard, or computer screen, using markers or generic software packages. However, like most things, it can be done better and faster with dedicated tools. In recent years, dedicated decision mapping software has emerged, making creating, modifying and sharing of decision maps relatively simple and fast. Decision mapping, supported by such software, deserves a place as a standard part of the toolkit of IT analysts and executives.