Agile decision-making

For many of us, making decisions is an important part of our job.

Sometimes you can make the decisions in isolation, but on other occasions it seems important to consider the views and opinions of other valued colleagues. Often the nature of the circumstances are so complex that it can be difficult to gather all the relevant information ready to make the right decision. And waiting for these people or this information can delay the point when you are in a position to make the actual decision.

But, after all, it is important to make the right decision…

…or is it?

Not according to Percy Barnevik’s “7-3 formula”! The man who ran Swiss engineering giant ABB for a decade insists that you can still be successful if you make nearly half as many wrong decisions as you make right decisions!

Speed vs. accuracy

The main reason why Barnevik advocates you aim for only 70% accuracy is to avoid wasting time. The days or weeks you while away, honing your decision until it is a shiny example of perfection, steal valuable time from executing the outcome of the decision. And given the speed at which the modern world revolves, delay can be tantamount to failure. If you’re lucky you might find yourself in second place on the podium, or worse you could be knocked of the medal roster altogether.

You might try to defend this resource drain, and delays to peoples starting activities, by saying it’s counter-productive to march too far in the wrong direction. But in reality much of the post-decision progress could apply to several different choices. Plan B might actually be able to use some of the work that Plan A generated, and it will actually be a head start because you got cracking on with Plan A as soon as you were allowed.

Best of all worlds

There are some principals that you can apply to increase your chances of benefiting from early decisions, even if they do turn out to have been mildly inaccurate:

  • Publish the outcome immediately

The sooner everyone knows what you’ve decided, the sooner they can start to act upon it. Whether this activity abides by the decision, or stimulates a challenge to the decision, the main goal is to avoid wasting everyone’s time with uncertainty

  • Trace what took the decision into account

If you make a simple note of every time an activity or deliverable considers a given decision, it makes it so much easier to reverse the decision. You have a list of exactly what you need to alter if you change your mind. Also, because you can measure the impact of changing your mind, this can be another factor that can help your next iteration of the decision.

Decision chains

There can actually be a chain of knock-on effects from your decision – your decision is a kind of mini design process weighing up input factors and producing “your choice” as the output. This can then be the input to someone else’s downstream decision, and so the chain continues. As long as everyone make’s their choices public, and refers to any other choices they took into account, everyone can trace the impact of their decisions and it becomes far more acceptable for people to change their minds, and as everyone still retains as much of the progress as possible.

Making dubious decisions work

There are other fringe benefits of placing less importance on getting the outcome of the decision perfect. Dispassioned decision-making avoids emotional bias  – this reduces the risk of following a bad decision with another just to avoid loosing face.

However people need to learn to judge decisions considering the information available, the timescales and the momentum from swift choices. There may be a merit in comparing outcomes, if it helps to improve the facts available for future decisions, but it people are scored on how many they got “right” then it might encourage dithering.

At the end of the day, even if the scenario of the question is stuffed full of facts, making decisions based on intuition is not as silly as it might first sound.


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