Archive for the ‘Decision mapping’ Category

In his recent post “To accept or to decline: mapping life’s little dilemmas using IBIS“, Kailash Awati provides a nice case study of using mapping to make a significant personal decision.   Interestingly, the “little dilemma” in the case study is just the same kind of issue that was facing Joseph Priestley when he wrote to Benjamin Franklin asking for his advice, resulting in Franklin’s famous letter describing his “moral algebra”.   Like most people, when reading Franklin’s letter I didn’t bother to ask what exactly was bothering Priestley so much that he would beg for Franklin’s advice.  As described in Steven Johnson’s excellent book The Invention of Air, Priestley was deliberating over whether to accept a particular job offer.  And as I discuss here, Franklin’s two-column pro/con method, for all its virtues, is just too simple to accommodate the true complexity of deliberative decision making.  Awati’s case study illustrates how the moral algebra can be extended to embrace this complexity while retaining clarity by using the IBIS methodology and supporting software such as Compendium or bCisive.


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I’m currently working on a book on decision mapping (and more generally, deliberative decision making), tentatively called Draw the Right Conclusion!.  I’ll be periodically releasing draft chapters.   First cab off the rank is the Introduction.

Comments and suggestions most welcome.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

In late 1772 Joseph Priestley was wrestling with a mundane problem.

Over a period of just a few years, Priestley had transformed himself from a little-known minister and teacher in towns of northern England into one of the most important scientists of his day.  He had published the History and Present State of Electricity, the first compendium of scientific knowledge in this new field, and the dominant textbook for the next hundred years.  His recent investigations had revealed one of the most profound aspects of life on earth: that plants make the air fit for us to breathe.  This work earned him the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, the Nobel Prize of his day.  Soon he was to isolate the substance that plants were providing, thereby playing a crucial role in the discovery of oxygen.

Yet the dilemma causing him so much anxiety was of a kind any of us might recognize.  Should he move with his young family from Leeds to Wiltshire?  He had been offered a kind of patronage by William Petty, the controversial Earl of Shelburne.  Shelburne would house the Priestleys at his estate, Bowood, and provide Joseph with a laboratory and time for research.  In return Joseph would be required to act as tutor to Shelburne’s sons and advisor to Shelburne himself.  Priestley had to resolve a personal conundrum laced with unknowns and incommensurabilities.  Would he be sufficiently free to pursue his intellectual passions?  Would his experimentation continue to bear fruit in the new environment?  Did he owe it to his family to accept the greater comfort and security attached to the new position?

Eventually Priestley turned for help to his friend and scientific colleague, the great American scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin replied in a letter which has become a classic in the theory of decision making:

My way is to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then, during three or four days consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different times occur to me, for or against the measure. When I have thus got them all together in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two reasons con, equal to three reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies; and if, after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly. And, though the weight of the reasons cannot be taken with the precision of algebraic quantities, yet when each is thus considered, separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less liable to make a rash step, and in fact I have found great advantage from this kind of equation…

Franklin called this method a “moral algebra”: a kind of calculation, but one suited to human affairs, where often the stakes are large, the alternatives many, the considerations diverse and uncertain, and where your choice will be a test and reflection of your character.

Such as whether to get married, and in particular whether to marry your cousin…

Read the whole draft chapter…

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Two recent publications have important implications for how Boards make decisions.  One is an academic treatise on how information is shared in teams.  A Board is a kind of team, working together to (among other things) make major decisions.  The practice of having a team make the big decisions is based on the idea that teams will, generally, make better decisions than individuals.  This is founded in turn on various assumptions:

  • Good decision making depends in part on taking into proper account relevant information;
  • Teams collectively possess more relevant information than individuals; and
  • Teams share and make use of that information in their deliberations.

    The authors of Information Sharing and Team Performance: A Meta-Analysis focused on this third issue.  They did a comprehensive review of existing studies on how teams share information, making a number of interesting findings.  If we extrapolate those findings to Boards, we can infer:

    • That sharing of information in Board meetings will indeed improve Board decisions.
    • However, Boards will generally not share information as effectively as they could.
    • In particular, Boards will tend to spend their time talking about what everybody already knows, rather than sharing important information that only a few people know.
    • In fact, the more there is a need for information sharing, the less information sharing will actually happen.
    • The more time the Board spends talk, the more they just rehearse what they already know.
    • Boards will share better if they think they are solving some kind of factual issue as opposed to making a judgement requiring consensus.
    • Boards share information better if they use a structured discussion process, rather than just indulging in the usual kind of spontaneous conversation.

    In short, there should be scope for Boards to improve their decisions by changing the way they conduct their discussions so as to promote better sharing of critical information.

    As it happens, a recent piece from McKinsey makes much the same point.  In “Using the crisis to create better boards” in the October 2009 issue of McKinsey Quarterly, the authors zero in on information sharing using structured techniques:

    “Chairmen can expose their boards to new sources of information – such as new performance benchmarks, new customer demands, or new financial perspectives – in many ways.  One involves tapping into the rich experience of nonexecutive and executive directors who also hold external appointments.  Each board member can be asked to share one fresh idea as part of a discussion about the company’s future…”

    The idea of going around the table asking everyone to contribute an idea is hardly very profound or original, and it is curious that leading management consultants, in the pages of the journal of one of the top shelf consulting firms, would be encouraging Boards of top organizations to make use of such a simple technique.   The fact that such a suggestion is seriously being made actually suggests that the issue of poor information sharing, discussed in abstract terms in the academic meta-analysis, is in fact a very real problem at the highest levels.

    Later in their piece, the authors get a little more specific about some of the information that needs to be shared and how to do it:

    Chairmen ought to help their boards…by requesting that all significant proposals come with a “red team” report presenting contrary arguments…the chairman would merely request that the board hear arguments for and against any important proposal.  The CEO would therefore have to think deeply before submitting the proposal, undecided board members could insist on a fuller discussion, and a rival paradigm might see the light of day.

    This suggestion is very much in line with our proposal that organisations improve Board deliberations, and hence decision making, by adopting decision mapping.   Decision maps, by their nature, include “the arguments for and against any important proposal,” though they include such arguments in a wider framework encompassing the overall structure of the decision.

    The McKinsey authors seem to be suggesting – and we would agree – that Boards don’t need more information thrown at them, in the form of door-stopping Board reports or dense PowerPoints.  Rather, they should look to benefit by more effectively sharing with each other the critical information and insights which they may already have, and understanding what difference that information makes to the issue.

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    Julie Garland Mclellan has posted another of her Director’s Dilemmas.  This time I had the interesting task of coming up with one of the three “answers” or commentaries, and used decision mapping to derive my recommendations.   Here is the map:


    Click on the image or here to view the zoomable pdf file.

    Transcribing the map into prose yields the commentary:

    Donna’s immediate issue is whether to accept the request to take the Chair….

    Donna has three main options: accept the Chair, decline, or escape the issue by resigning. On moral grounds she should accept, given that she is the most appropriate person – the other Directors have chosen her – and it would satisfy her sense of responsibility to the majority of shareholders. Greater demands and stress would be offset by increased remuneration and status.

    Once Chair, she would have at least three courses of action with regard to the troublesome Director. First, she should try to convince the trustee to replace the Director. Her “awareness” that the trustee would not support replacement sounds vague and may be ill-founded. Removing the troublesome director would resolve the crisis unless the trustee appoints another ill-suited person.

    Failing that, second, Donna should attempt to manage the situation. One option is to try to moderate the Director’s behaviour. The previous Chair’s failure suggests this is unlikely to succeed; however a fresh approach may work better. Donna should bear in mind the “fundamental attribution bias”, whereby we exaggerate the extent to which other peoples’ behaviour is driven by supposed personality traits rather than contingent circumstances. Another option is to contain the misbehaviour by meeting with other Directors and senior management to establish strong Board processes and norms.

    In blocking the troublesome Director’s ambition to be Chair, the Directors were accepting the risk of his forcing an EGM. Perhaps the situation will only be resolved in this manner. Consequently Donna must, third, prepare for the EGM so as to try to ensure the best outcome for the company.

    How does my commentary compare with the two others, which were by people with considerably more board experience?

    • There was a large overlap in the range of options that were considered across the three commentaries.
    • Julie’s commentary tended to offer more detail and nuance with regard to a selection of options that we both considered.

    These observations suggest (very anecdotally of course) that a systematic approach to decision making can to go a fair way towards making up for lack of domain knowledge; and more generally that there is such a thing as relatively generic, domain-independent expertise in thinking for decision making.   Of course, the best decision maker would combine both generic expertise and detailed domain knowledge.

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    Now available: Enhancing Board Decisions with Decision Mapping (pdf)

    Boards can improve their effectiveness by refining their decision-making processes.  To this end we recommend adoption of decision mapping to assist individual Directors to appreciate the logical structure of Board decisions, thereby enabling them to participate more effectively in Boardroom debates.  Specifically, Management create decision maps as an integral part of preparing Board papers, and the maps are included in the materials provided to Directors.

    This is a compact (6 page) version of the full white paper, which is currently under revision.

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    Print version (pdf)

    Simply put, decision mapping is drawing a map of the thinking involved in a deliberative decision.

    Making a decision is essentially trying to choose the best thing to do from a range of options.  Each of those options may have various advantages and disadvantages, and these in turn may be supported by further arguments and evidence, or subject to dispute.  Decision mapping displays this complex structure in an easy-to-follow diagram.

    There are two main aspects to it.  First, there is making fully explicit the various decision ingredients – the questions, options and sub-options, pros and cons, arguments and evidence – and their relationships in a systematic, disciplined way.

    Second, there is producing the map, i.e. laying all this out in visual form.  Following a set of diagramming conventions, and using purpose-built software, we produce a map showing what we’ve got and how it all hangs together.   The map can be displayed on screen or printed out, sometimes in the form of a large chart or poster.

    Here is an example: a map based on a Harvard Business Review case study (click to see larger image):


    Benjamin Franklin famously recommended that, to make a difficult decision, we should list the Pros and Cons of a course of action on a sheet of paper, and “cancel out” those of equal weight.  Decision mapping is really just Franklin’s “Moral Algebra” extended to handle more complex deliberative decision structures and modified so as to take advantage of contemporary information-processing technologies.

    But why would you do this?

    Fundamentally, decision mapping helps us make better decisions.  It helps improve “hit rate,” i.e. the proportion of decisions we get basically right.  It does this by improving the thinking leading up to the decision.

    The process of decision mapping, properly followed, makes the thinking more clear, rigorous and complete.  Following the decision mapping guidelines, we can articulate and organise our thinking more effectively.  Then, when it comes time to make our choice, our judgement is more well-founded.

    The map itself helps us get our minds around the decision.  The reality is that decisions, especially important ones, are often quite complicated.  By default we try to hold and process that complexity in our heads.  The trouble is that our cognitive capacities are limited in crucial ways, and can be quickly overwhelmed.  Relevant considerations get ignored, and cognitive biases kick in.   A decision map helps address this problem by storing the thinking outside the head in an easily-surveyable form.   In effect, working with decision maps is like adding RAM to our minds, allowing us to devote more cognitive resources to the really hard task of evaluating the arguments and choosing the right option.

    Any other reasons?

    Well, yes… for one thing, it can reduce the stress associated with decision making.  It helps dispel some of the anxiety which inevitably arises while making an important decision.  When we can quite literally see that the thinking has been done properly, then we can be more confident that our choice is going to be well made and will turn out well.  If things nevertheless turn out badly, we’ll have fewer regrets about our choice.

    Decision mapping also creates a clear record of the core thinking behind a decision.  This is useful if we need to make more decisions of a similar nature, or if at some point we need to look back and review the thinking behind a particular course of action.  This can be especially handy if fate conspires against us and our well-made decision goes wrong.  When the Inquisition comes knocking, we can show our map.

    Decision mapping can help us communicate the thinking behind a decision.  We can show the map itself, so others can then quickly see what options and arguments were considered.  Alternatively the map can be the roadmap for some other form of communication such as a document or a PowerPoint presentation.

    Better communication is important when a team is trying to work together on a decision.  An emerging decision map helps keep everyone “on the same page,” with a shared understanding of the issues and considerations in play.  Contributions can then be more productive, and everyone on the team ends up with a stronger sense of ownership of the eventual decision and the outcome.

    What sort of decisions is it good for?

    At a theoretical level, decision mapping is designed for deliberative decisions.   These are the decisions we make by weighing up the arguments bearing one way or another on our various options.

    Deliberative decisions contrast with intuitive (or “blink”) decisions which involve little if any conscious consideration of options and their merits – for example, choosing to swerve when a cyclist suddenly enters our lane.  They also contrast with technical decisions.  This broad category encompasses all decisions made via some kind of formal or technical decision procedure, usually quantitative in nature.  Multi-criteria decision analysis and its numerous kith and kin are the central examples.

    In practice, most important decisions are made deliberatively.  To take a dramatic case, transcripts of conversations among President Kennedy and his team during the Cuban Missile Crisis show that they were exploring options and trading arguments – in short, deliberating.  At a more personal level, consider what you would do in deciding whether or when to have a serious surgical operation.

    So decision mapping, as an enhanced form of deliberative decision making, will be suitable for a wide range of major decisions.

    Such as?…

    Many business decisions are made deliberatively, and a great deal can turn on making these decisions well.  This makes decision mapping particularly relevant to business.   For example, Board decisions typically involve weighing up the case presented by Management for a particular course of action in the light of various potential objections and alternatives.

    Every month the Harvard Business Review provides a case study describing a realistic business scenario in which a senior figure is called to make some kind of hard call.  Decision mapping, it turns out, fits these case studies very well.

    This is not to say that decision mapping is the “one true way” for making business decisions.  Intuitive and technical decision methods certainly have their place.  Different decision techniques are appropriate for different types of decisions; the ideal is to be expert in each, and to choose the right tool for the job.

    Isn’t this just mind-mapping?

    There is certainly a family resemblance between decision mapping and other mapping techniques such as mind mapping and concept mapping.  All involve displaying complex structures of information using “node and line” diagrams.  However decision mapping is tailored specifically for decision making, and so has its own unique set of rules, visual conventions and procedures.   Also decision mapping tends to be more rigorous and demanding than its more well-known cousins.

    Decision mapping is closely related to the Minto Pyramid Principle, a set of concepts and techniques widely used in management consulting to clarify and discipline thinking.  The similarity or overlap is inevitable since both reflect fundamental principles of good thinking and use simple diagrams.   However while decision mapping is focused solely on decisions, the Pyramid Principle emphasizes preparation of thoughts for written presentation.

    Who else is using it?

    In one sense, the answer is – everyone.  All of us are on occasion involved in making weighty decisions by articulating the options and the pros and cons and associated arguments.  We may lay these out in a document or PowerPoint presentation, or just try to hold them in our mind’s eye.  This is decision mapping, but usually done in a relatively haphazard manner and using an inferior mode of presentation.  We all count as decision mappers because decision mapping, in the full sense described here, is really just making what we all naturally do more systematic and visual.

    Decision mapping “as such” is a new development and is only just starting to spread.  Austhink has been using decision mapping to facilitate decision processes in a number of large companies, government departments and non-profit organisations.  And since the release of the bCisive software, decision mapping is starting to be picked up around the world, with users applying decision mapping to diverse issues in their organisations or their personal lives.

    bCisive? What’s that?

    bCisive (“be decisive”) is software designed to support decision mapping.  It also supports related activities such as argument mapping and hypothesis mapping.

    In theory, decision mapping does not require any particular technological aids.  A decision map could be drawn using a whiteboard, Microsoft Visio, or even in the sawdust on the workshop floor.  However, as with carpentry, so with decision.  Difficult tasks are made easier, and the results are usually much better, when you use the right tool for the job.   Currently bCisive is the only (and hence the leading) software solution for deliberative decision making.

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    It is well known that every issue of the Harvard Business Review includes a case study, an interesting business situation calling for a decision, with three expert commentaries.  The decision mapping methodology fits these case studies very well, as I illustrated in a previous post.

    Every month Julie Garland McLellan, an Australian consultant to company directors and Boards, provides a case study quite similar to the Harvard exemplars, though focused on challenges arising in the Board arena.  She says: “I advise Boards and Directors on complex and challenging issues which can be resolved in a variety of ways. Each way has different pros and cons for the individuals and companies concerned. Every month this newsletter considers three responses to a real issue. Which response would you choose?”  (My emphasis.)

    The current Director’s Dilemma describes a situation in which the Chairman is behaving indiscretely, and a director, Ashleigh, is concerned about this.  But what should be done?  The three commentaries, one by Julie herself, are rich in advice.  I took some time today to map it all out.   These maps (a) merge ideas from both the case itself and the three commentaries; and (b) don’t attempt to add any options or arguments of my own into the mix.


    Click here or on the image for a zoomable pdf version.

    Some observations:

    (1) The three commentaries provided advice in three different categories: things that should be done by the Board in general, things that the Board should do specifically with regard to the Chairman, and things that Ashleigh specifically should do.  In the maps I’ve separated these out.

    (2) Between them, the commentators make lots of suggestions.

    (3) Cursory inspection of the maps makes it obvious that the commentaries are long on advice and short on arguments.  The maps are dominated by yellow (options, i.e., “possible things that might be done”) and have very little green and red (pros and cons, reasons and objections, evidence).  In other words, the commentators suggest lots of things that may or should be done, but provide very little by way of  justification for any of these.  This is despite the case being prefaced by the remark that “Each way has different pros and cons…”

    (4) If the commentators are not providing much (if anything) by way of explicit grounds for accepting or rejecting any of the canvassed options, why would the reader be inclined or obliged to endorse any of them?   Implicitly, I think, the commentators expecting readers to do two things.  First, readers should fill in the missing arguments themselves, as much as they are able.  Second, the commentators are relying on their status as authorities.  It is as if they had said “Trust me on this; I’m a knowledgeable expert; this is what should happen.”

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