To accept or to decline: mapping life’s little dilemmas using IBIS
Last weekend I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. He looked a bit preoccupied so I asked him what the matter was. It turned out he had been offered a job and was mulling over whether he should accept it or not. This dilemma is fairly representative of some of the tricky personal decisions that we are required to make at various junctures in our lives: there’s never enough information to be absolutely certain about the right course of action, and turning to others for advice isn’t particularly helpful because their priorities and motivations are likely differ from ours.
The question of whether or not to accept a job offer is a wicked problem because it has the following characteristics:
- It is a one-shot operation.
- It is unique.
- One is liable to face the consequences of whatever choice one makes (one has no right to be wrong)
- Since one can make only one choice, one has no opportunity to test the correctness of ones choice.
- The choice one makes (the solution) depends on which aspects of the two choices one focuses on (i.e. the solution depends on ones explanation of the issue).
Admittedly, there are some characteristics of wickedness that the job dilemma does not satisfy. For example, the problem has a definitive formulation (specified by the choices) and there are an enumerable number of choices (accept or decline). Nevertheless, since it satisfies five criteria, one can deem the problem as being wicked. No doubt, those who have grappled with this question in real life will probably agree.
Horst Rittel, the man who coined the term wicked problem also invented the Issue-based Information System (IBIS) notation to document and manage such problems (note that I don’t use the word “solve” because such problems can’t be solved in the conventional sense). The notation is very easy to learn because it has just three elements and a simple grammar – see this post for a quick introduction. Having used IBIS to resolve work related issues before (see this post, for example), I thought it might help my friend if we could used it to visualize his problem and options. So, as we discussed the problem, I did a pencil and paper IBIS map of the issue (I didn’t have my computer handy at the time). In the remainder of this post, I reconstruct the map based on my recollection of the conversation.
Developing the map
All IBIS maps begin with a root question that summarises the issue to be resolved. The dilemma faced by my friend can be summarized by the question:
What should I do (regarding the job offer)?
Questions are represented by blue-green question marks in IBIS (see Figure 1).
There are two possible responses to the question– accept or decline. Responses are referred to as ideas in IBIS, and are denoted by yellow lightbulbs. The root question and the two ideas responding to it are shown in Figure 1.
An IBIS map starts with the root questions and develops towards the right as the discussion progresses.
The next step is to formulate arguments for and against each idea. These are referred to as pros and cons in IBIS, and are denoted by a green + and red – sign respectively (See Figures 2 and 3 for examples of these).
We focused on the “accept” option first. The pros were quite easy to see as the offer was generous and the new role a step up from where he was now. I asked him to describe list all the pros he could think of. He mentioned the following:
- Better pay (30% more than current)
- Greater responsibility compared to current job.
- Good learning opportunity (new domain)
- Better career prospects
These points have been depicted in Figure 2.
I felt the second point needed clarification, so I asked him to elaborate on what he meant by “Greater responsibility.” Now, any node in IBIS can be elaborated by asking appropriate questions and responding to them. He mentioned that he would be managing a bigger team which was responsible for a wider range of functions. I broke these up into two points elaborating on the “greater responsibility” point. The elaborations are on the extreme right in Figure 2.
“Do you see any downside to taking the job?” I asked.
“A big one,” he said, “there are all the unknowns that go with a new working environment: the need to build relationships from scratch, greater pressure and possibly longer working hours until I establish my credibility.”
I mapped these points with “New working environment” as the main point and the others as elaborations of it.
I then asked him if there were any other cons he could think of.
“Just one,” he said, “From what I hear, the company may not be as stable as my current employer.”
I added this in and asked him to check if the map was an accurate representation of what he meant. “Yes,” he said, “that’s a good summary of my concerns.”
The map at this stage is shown in Figure 3.
He seemed to be done with the “accept” option, so I suggested moving on to outlining arguments for and against staying with his present employer.
Tellingly, he outlined the pros first:
- He was in his comfort zone – he knew what was expected of him and was able to deliver it with ease.
- The working environment in his company was excellent.
- The company was doing very well and the outlook for the foreseeable future was good.
I mapped these as he spoke. After he was done, I asked him to outline the cons of staying. Almost right away he mentioned the following:
- No prospects for career advancement; the job was a dead end.
- After five odd years, he was getting a bit bored.
The map at this stage is shown in Figure 4.
Through the conversation, he was watching me sketch out the map on paper, but he hadn’t been looking too closely (perhaps because my handwriting is pure chicken scrawl). Nevertheless, at this point he turned the paper around to have a closer look, and said, “Hey, this isn’t bad – my options and reasons for and against them in one glance.”
I asked him if the analysis thus far suggested a choice.
“No,” he said shaking his head.
To make progress, I suggested looking at the cons for both options, to see if these could be mitigated in some way.
We looked at the “stay with the current employer option” – there was really nothing that could be done about the issue of career stagnation or the fact that the work was routine. The company couldn’t create a new position just for him, and the work was all routine because he had done it for so long.
Finally, we turned our attention to the cons of the “move to the new employer” option.
After a while, he said “The uncertainty regarding a new work environment isn’t specific to this employer. It applies to any job – including the ones I may consider in future.”
“That’s an excellent point,” I said, “So we should disregard it, right?”
“Yes. So we’re left with only the stability issue.”
“Perhaps you can search the Web for some information on the company and may be even ask around.”
“I think things are a lot clearer now,” he said as I added the points we’d just discussed to the map.
Figure 5 shows the final result of our deliberations.
A few days later he called to tell me that he had accepted the job, but only after satisfying himself that the company was sound. He had to rely on information that he found on the web because no one in his network of accquaintances knew anything about the company. But that’s OK, he said – absolute certainty is impossible when dealing with life’s little dilemmas.