Decisions, bloody decisions

A topic that has been fascinating me for a long time is how people make decisions? I have seen many problems with decisions, like delays, unclearness, insufficiently communication and lack of support. There are ways to improve decisions, let’s look at some of them. So in a similar way as John Cleese has helped us improving meetings, I’ve written this posting to improve decision making. 

Decisions are everywhere

Decisions are taken every day when software is developed. One of the first decisions is to start with the development or enhancement of a product. What will be the scope and required functionality, when does it have to be delivered? There are often lots of architecture decisions to be taken, to ensure that products will be able to work with other products, within the expected environment. Decisions are needed to staff projects and acquire development tools and setup a working environment.  Also, decisions on which processes to use, and what kind of training is needed for the staff. During the execution of a project, there are milestone decisions, whether or not to continue the project? And there will be changes, so decisions are needed if and how they are incorporated in the project. There are hand-over decisions, is the product ready to be function tested, is it ok to start system test, can the product be released?

Why are decisions so important? My impression is that many delays in for instance projects or product maintenance are related to insufficient decision taking capabilities of those involved. For instance, delays occur when activities cannot be done because there is no agreement yet on the requirements, due to a lack of decisions on what has to be developed (and what not). Or if a product cannot be released because the release board has not yet decided if it has sufficient quality. Vital technical activities can be on hold for days, weeks or even months waiting on a decision. The results are often is that the customers don’t get the products that they need, or the companies looses customers when they decide to buy a competitors product that is available. And delays are often also very costly, since even when the project is on hold, a part of the spending will continue, or extra time and money is needed when activities are restarted after being on hold for a longer period.

Quality of Decisions

I also consider the quality of decisions to be very important. Many projects suffer from bad decisions, which are unclear, no specific enough or even dead wrong, caused by not having the right or sufficient information, having the wrong people involved in the decision, or taking insufficient time to make a decision. When people have different understandings of a decision, collaboration can be hampered and as a result, much time is wasted. Also, people can become demotivated if they have not been involved in a decision, certainly when the quality of such a decision is low or when the decision is conflicting with other decisions.

Improve Decision Making

One of the problems that I have seen with decisions, is that they are sometimes not documented, and insufficiently communicated. For instance when a decision is taken in a meeting, is that decision written down in the minutes of the meeting? Are these minutes sent also to people who did not attend the meeting? How are employees informed about the decision? This is something that quite often gets insufficient attention. If you want your people to do something, it helps if you let them know what you have decided ;-). So communicate, communicate, communicate!

Did you ever have to wait for a decision to be taken in your organization? Did it feel like you could not make progress, because you did not know what to do? As explained earlier, decisions that are not taken or taken too late can be a big time and money waster. A Lean approach can be used to analyze the decision chain in an organization, to look where time and money (waste) is lost. For instance Lean Value Stream Maps can help you to picture your decisions in development and delivery activities, and look for places where decisions take too long. Root cause analysis can help you to clarify the causes, and to define actions to improve decision making.

Improving your decision capabilities can help you to gain time and save money. Future postings on this subject will cover aspects like how decisions are taken, how much information is needed to take a decisions, how to communicate decisions and how to improve your decision capabilities. Stay tuned!

(This post was published oct 14, 2010 and updated oct 26, 2011: Added examples to improve decisions)

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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