Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Some Notes About Decision Making

Some of this material appears in my chapter in Applied Space Systems Engineering: Space Technology Series, which I wrote a few years ago. While originally aimed at making mission-critical decision in a complex engineering environment, some of the ideas are more generally applicable.

“A decision,” wrote author Fletcher Knebel, “is what a man makes when he can’t find anybody to serve on a committee.”

Committees and teamwork are often an essential part of decision-making, but even in that framework, each of us must sooner or later take our stand, knowing full well the range of potential consequences. In an organization, a decision-making process must often be open and auditable. We must know not only the decision we make, but also the process that led us to that decision.

Decisions often require tradeoffs. A perfect solution may not exist. Each potential choice may have a downside, or may be fraught with risk. In some ways, making the least bad choice out of a set of poor alternatives takes greater skill and courage than making a conventionally “good” decision. Napoleon Bonaparte observed, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than being able to decide.”

The outcome of a decision, whether positive or negative, is not in itself proof of the decision’s quality, especially where probability is concerned. The odds may be dramatically in favor of a positive outcome, yet the dice may come up boxcars. Equally, if someone makes a stupid decision but gets lucky, the decision is no less stupid in spite of a good outcome. A good decision process improves our odds and results in the desired outcome the majority of the time.

Decision-making is tightly woven into the risk management process, but one does not follow automatically from another. An engineering evaluation might tell us that there is a 42% probability of an event happening, and that the consequence involves the loss of $20 million and three lives. What the evaluation does not tell us is whether the risk is worth running. Values—organizational values, mission-related values, ethical values—address the consideration of worth.

There are two types of complexity in decision-making. The first, and most obvious, is the technical complexity of the issue and the tradeoffs that may be required. The second, though not always openly addressed, is the organizational complexity: the number of people involved, the number of departments or workgroups that must be consulted, the existing relationships that shape communication among people and groups, the organizational culture, and the pressure of the political process.

Decisions also vary in their importance. Importance can be measured in terms of the consequences of the decision and the constraints imposed on the decision process.

There are two slogans about decision-making: “Don’t just stand there, do something!” and its reverse, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Both can be worthwhile pieces of advice; the trick is deciding which philosophy applies to the decision at hand. The first question is whether an actual problem exists, and, if so, the nature of that problem. The second is whether an action should be taken, and if so, the nature of that action.

At different times in the decision-making process, consider the opportunities as well as the negative consequences that can result both from the decision to act and from the decision to wait. If the consequences of a missed opportunity are greater, then the appropriate bias is in the direction of action. If an inappropriate decision could cause greater harm, the bias should fall in the direction of delay: gather more information and reassess.

Threats and opportunities both require proactive management, but opportunities even more so. Good luck and bad luck operate differently. If a person, say, loses $100, it’s gone, and all the consequences of that loss flow automatically. If, on the other hand, there’s a $100 bill somewhere in the area, it’s possible to miss it, there is no requirement to pick it up, and no obligation to spend it wisely. Exploiting opportunity requires observation, initiative, and wisdom.

A good process does not necessarily result in a good consequence. Predicting the future is never an exact science, especially when probabilities are involved. Evaluate the decision process separately from the decision outcome. Hindsight is a useful tool, though teams must remember that what seems so clear in light of actual events looked different to the decision-makers.

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