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Posts Tagged ‘Alternate Futures’

Frequently in my work at Decision Lens, I am asked the following question in number of different ways by prospective clients and customers, so I’ll paraphrase it generally;

How can I measure the value of using your decision making methodology and how much will it improve my decision making?’

This is an absolutely loaded, or at a minimum a complex, question.    Have you thought about this question?  My immediate reaction, emotionally at least, triggers an internal dialog that goes something like this…

“Argh-Ughhh (or other guttural utterances) Are you freakin’ kidding me?!, how in the world do I answer this question!?? I mean c’mon, we’ve all seen Back to the Future or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, right? Who do I look like Doc Brown? Oh wait, where’s my Flux Capacitor? let me get the DeLorean and I’ll tell you… or we can wait a few months and we’ll get Sherman and Peabody, and hop in the Wayback machine and do a post morten.  I mean, what are we talking about??, are you worried about Godwin’s Law of Time Travel in the present moment? Do you want me to tell you if you’re Eckles stepping on a butterfly in Bradbury’s, “A Sound of Thunder“?  I mean, really!  Alternate futures and contradictory pasts!? You want me to solve that riddle!!?? Never mind the 19 social, 8 memory, 42 decision making and 35 probability biases that slightly complicate your question!!!…OK, breathe, snap out of it, SNAP OUT OF IT!

This all takes place in a fraction of a second or so upon hearing the question (each time), and then I calmly do the prudent thing, Jujitsu! Respond with a question!  “How do you measure your decision making today?” to which the typical response is – “Well, we don’t really…”

Resume internal dialog – “%@#*!”

At this point I usually need to excuse myself for a moment for a quick catharsis, that looks not at all unlike this…

All kidding aside, it’s a challenging question.  Let me illustrate why by way of an example.  Take the example of a company working to implement a collaborative, process based, decision making methodology back in 2005.  The members of the Board want to make better strategic decisions about which product development efforts to allocate funding to in their business planning process.  The agreed measure of portfolio value is based on a third year in market revenue projection for the proposed products.  The company has approximately a 12-18 month expected project cycle time to get new products to market.  That means the potential value created by those decisions in 2005 should be coming to fruition, oh, just about now! (Summer 2005 + 18 months development and launch + 3 year market penetration = ~2010).  So this is why I struggle with the question of how to show the “value” for improved decision making after a 3-6 month process change effort.   Not only that, but as time elapses post-decision, we usually find ourselves and our world in a very different place than the one we imagined.  Sometimes most (nearly all) of the members of that board will have moved on to other professional opportunities. The economy has been interesting, I hope they made good choices.  Neither of these things were remote considerations in the 2005 decision process.

This can’t help but remind me of the wisdom of the old story about the civil war farmer and his son.

One day while working the field, their only horse got spooked and ran off over the hill. The son said, what bad luck, what do we do now? to which his father replied “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell”.  A few days later their horse came back over the hill with another three horses!  They greeted him and his friends and the son said, “What good luck dad, now we have all the horses we need” to which his father replied, “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell”.  While breaking some of the new wild horses, the tables were turned and the son was thrown and broke his leg.  While complaining, “Dad, what bad luck, and now more burden on you!’  To which he replied, “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell”  The war broke out, and all the able body were called.   The severity of his broken leg left the son compromised and unable to serve.  The father was one of few farmers with help, and horses and he prospered – His son said, “What good luck we had dad”. The father wisely reflected “Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell”…

Believe me, I understand the angst in our decision making, and experience it all the time myself.  Sometimes those snap decisions that shape the moment have a shorter feedback loop, but many of our decisions have this “good decision, bad decision, too soon to tell” element to them.  How about the family that was planning to move into their dream house in two days, only to have it consumed in fire while they wait.  How many scenarios can you think of where decisions could have been made that would have swung their occupancy date 48 hours sooner only to have them present when the fire broke out?  How about the numerous stories of people making decisions to cancel a flight to find that they somehow avoided an ill fated journey?  Nothing makes the message of our parable above clear more than the story of the woman who missed a tragic flight, only to be killed in a car crash a day later.  Good luck, bad luck, too soon to tell.

If you think about this stuff too much, it could make you mental.  So what was that question again?

Oh yeah, here is what I think.  Not I, nor anyone else can tell you if you are making better decisions, that’s too loaded a question and may be overrated anyway.  What we can do is ask ourselves what makes us uncomfortable about the run up to making decisions and how can we mitigate some of those factors.

Here are my three equilateral measures, uncomfortably soft as they may be.  Common sense (not all that common) as they may appear, I believe them very relevant.  Without getting all Peace, Love and Understanding on you, my inseparably linked triumvirate of good decision making are

  • Understanding, Trust and Commitment.
  1. Do I believe I/we have grown in our understanding of the issues?, and are they structured and/or organized in a way that helps me understand my priorities and values in this context?  Has the amount of asymmetric information been reduced?  If the answer is “no” (watch out), and if the process approach you are considering moves you closer to “yes”, then it is immensely valuable.
  2. Do I believe the decision process is transparent enough and provides a means of incentivizing those advising and consulting or providing options to be open, candid and forthcoming about the stakes and their motivations?  If the answer is “no” (it’s a problem) anything you can do that moves you along the continuum toward “yes” is hugely valuable.
  3. Do I believe the process of getting to the decision has engendered commitment from those impacted by or essential to following the decided course of action? Have we disarmed the pocket veto and passive aggressive behavior because voices were heard and the issues were drawn out and confronted head on?  If the answer is “no” (Danger), anything in a proposed process that moves you toward answering “yes” is immeasurably valuable.

I suggest using a survey technique posing questions related to these measures to establish a baseline of shared understanding, reciprocal trust and levels of commitment.  Take a risk on a process that you believe can move the needle toward more positive measures against this baseline.  If you do, you have made a very big difference in the process of getting to that jumping off point where we are all unfortunately required to let events unfold – good decision, bad decision, it’s too soon to tell.  It’s worth the risk, and it may turn out better than you think – especially given that hindsight bias is so insidious.  Please share any thought you might have on measuring good decision making, it’s a fascinating topic.

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