Improving decision-making in projects (and life)
Note: This post is based on a presentation that I gave at BA World Sydney on 26th June. It draws from a number of posts that I have written over the last few years.
Introduction – the myth of rational decision making
A central myth about decision making in organisations is that it is a rational process. The qualifier rational refers to decision-making methods that are based on the following broad steps:
- Identify available options.
- Develop criteria for rating options.
- Rate options according to criteria developed.
- Select the top-ranked option.
The truth is that decision making in organisations generally does not follow such a process. As I have pointed out in this post (which is based on this article by Tim van Gelder) decisions are often based on a mix of informal reasoning, personal beliefs and even leaps of faith. . Quoting from that post, formal (or rational) processes often cannot be applied for one or more of the following reasons:
- Real-world options often cannot be quantified or rated in a meaningful way. Many of life’s dilemmas fall into this category. For example, a decision to accept or decline a job offer is rarely made on the basis of material gain alone.
- Even where ratings are possible, they can be highly subjective. For example, when considering a job offer, one candidate may give more importance to financial matters whereas another might consider lifestyle-related matters (flexi-hours, commuting distance etc.) to be paramount. Another complication here is that there may not be enough information to settle the matter conclusively. As an example, investment decisions are often made on the basis of quantitative information that is based on questionable assumptions.
- Finally, the problem may be wicked – i.e. complex, multi-faceted and difficult to analyse using formal decision making methods. Classic examples of wicked problems are climate change (so much so, that some say it is not even a problem) and city / town planning. Such problems cannot be forced into formal decision analysis frameworks in any meaningful way.
The main theme running through all of these is uncertainty. Most of the decisions we are called upon to make in our professional lives are fraught with uncertainty – it is what makes it hard to rate options, adds to the subjectivity of ratings (where they are possible) and magnifies the wickedness of the issue.
Decision making in projects and the need for systematic deliberation
The most important decisions in a project are generally made at the start, at what is sometimes called the “front-end of projects”. Unfortunately this is where information availability is at its lowest and, consequently, uncertainty at its highest. In such situations, decision makers feel that they are left with little choice but to base their decisions on instinct or intuition.
Now, even when one bases a decision on intuition, there is some deliberation involved – one thinks things through and weighs up options in some qualitative way. Unfortunately, in most situations, this is done in an unsystematic manner. Moreover, decision makers fail to record the informal reasoning behind their decisions. As a result the rationale behind decisions made remain opaque to those who want to understand why particular choices were made.
A brief introduction to IBIS
Clearly, what one needs is a means to make the informal reasoning behind a decision explicit. Now there are a number of argument visualisation techniques available for this purpose, but I will focus on one that I have worked with for a while: Issue-Based Information System (IBIS). I will introduce the notation briefly below. Those who want a detailed introduction will find one in my article entitled, The what and whence of issue-based information systems.
IBIS consists of three main elements:
- Issues (or questions): these are issues that need to be addressed.
- Positions (or ideas): these are responses to questions. Typically the set of ideas that respond to an issue represents the spectrum of perspectives on the issue.
- Arguments: these can be Pros (arguments supporting) or Cons (arguments against) an issue. The complete set of arguments that respond to an idea represents the multiplicity of viewpoints on it.
The best IBIS mapping tool is Compendium – it can be downloaded here. In Compendium, the IBIS elements described above are represented as nodes as shown in Figure 1: issues are represented by green question nodes; positions by yellow light bulbs; pros by green + signs and cons by red – signs. Compendium supports a few other node types, but these are not part of the core IBIS notation. Nodes can be linked only in ways specified by the IBIS grammar as I discuss next.
The IBIS grammar can be summarized in a few simple rules:
- Issues can be raised anew or can arise from other issues, positions or arguments. In other words, any IBIS element can be questioned. In Compendium notation: a question node can connect to any other IBIS node.
- Ideas can only respond to questions – i.e. in Compendium “light bulb” nodes can only link to question nodes. The arrow pointing from the idea to the question depicts the “responds to” relationship.
- Arguments can only be associated with ideas – i.e in Compendium + and – nodes can only link to “light bulb” nodes (with arrows pointing to the latter)
The legal links are summarized in Figure 2 below.
The rules are best illustrated by example- follow the links below to see some illustrations of IBIS in action:
- See or this post or this one for examples of IBIS in mapping dialogue.
- See this post or this one for examples of argument visualisation (issue mapping) using IBIS.
The case studies
In my talk, I illustrated the use of IBIS by going through a couple of examples in detail, both of which I have described in detail in other articles. Rather than reproduce them here, I will provide links to the original sources below.
The first example was drawn from a dialogue mapping exercise I did for a data warehousing project. A detailed discussion of the context and process of mapping (along with figures of the map as it developed) are available in a paper entitled, Mapping project dialogues using IBIS – a case study and some reflections (PDF).
The second example, in which I described a light-hearted example of the use of IBIS in a non-work setting, is discussed in my post, What should I do now – a bedtime story about dialogue mapping.
Benefits of IBIS
The case studies serve to highlight how IBIS encourages collective deliberation of issues. Since the issues we struggle with in projects often have elements of wickedness, eliciting opinions from a group through dialogue improves our chances arriving at a “solution” that is acceptable to the group as a whole.
Additional benefits of using IBIS in a group setting include:
- It adds clarity to a discussion
- Serves as a simple and intuitive discussion summary (compare to meeting minutes!)
- Is a common point of reference to move a discussion forward.
- It captures the logic of a decision (decision rationale)
Further still, IBIS disarms disruptive discussion tactics such as “death by repetition” – when a person brings up the same issue over and over again in a million and one different ways. In such situations the mapper simply points to the already captured issue and asks the person if they want to add anything to it. The disruptive behaviour becomes evident to all participants (including the offender).
The beauty of IBIS lies in its simplicity. It is easy to learn – four nodes with a very simple grammar. Moreover, participants don’t need to learn the notation. I have found that most people can understand what’s going on within a few minutes with just a few simple pointers from the mapper.
Another nice feature of IBIS is that it is methodology-neutral. Whatever your methodological persuasion – be it Agile or something that’s BOKsed – you can use it to address decision problems in your project meetings.
The best way to learn IBIS is to map out the logic of articles in newspapers, magazines or even professional journals. Once you are familiar with the syntax and grammar, you can graduate to one-on-one conversations, and from there to small meetings. When using it in a meeting for the first time, tell the participants that you are simply taking notes. If things start to work well – i.e. if you are mapping the conversation successfully – the group will start interacting with the map, using it as a basis for their reasoning and as a means to move the dialogue forward. Once you get to this point, you are where you want to be – you are mapping the logic of the conversation.
Of course, there is much more to it than I’ve mentioned above. Check out the references at the end of this piece for more information on mapping dialogues using IBIS.
As this post is essentially covers a talk I gave at a conference, I would like to wrap up with a couple of observations and comments from the audience.
I began my talk with the line, “A central myth about decision making in organisations is that it is a rational process.” I thought many in the audience would disagree. To my surprise, however, there was almost unanimous agreement! The points I made about uncertainty and problem wickedness also seemed to resonate. There were some great examples from the audience on wicked problems in IT – a particularly memorable one about an infrastructure project (which one would normally not think of as particularly wicked) displaying elements of wickedness soon after it was started.
It seems that although mainstream management ignores the sense-making aspect of the profession, many practitioners tacitly understand that making sense out of ambiguous situations is an important part of their work. Moreover, they know that this is best done by harnessing the collective intelligence of a group rather than by enforcing a process or a solution
- Jeff Conklin, Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, John Wiley, New York (2005). See my review of Conklin’s book here
- Paul Culmsee & Kailash Awati, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations, iUniverse: Bloomington, Indiana (2011).