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What makes a good decision?


A good decision?

Its easy just to think that a good decision is one that has the right outcome but that’s magical thinking and assumes we make no mistakes. Good decisions are taken when we bring together knowledge, accountability and the views of the people who are most effected by the decision in a timely and transparent way. A good decision is one which we can live with even if the outcome is not what we wanted because everyone connected can see that the decision taken made sense at the time that is was taken. Good decisions are not taken in isolation they are taken in context and as part of a wider system and this is what I am exploring here.

21st Organisations are training themselves out of the habit of HPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) decision making and instead learning much more heavily into the decision making power of the expert — the idea being that the people who are doing the work are in the best place to make decisions about it. This is a Good Thing as your average HPPO is far removed from the coalface and is unlikely to be on top of professional best practice. Its one of the reasons why agile is such an effective development approach — it empowers the people with the knowledge to take the decisions. But to simply let the pendulum swing back towards the experts ignores three important issues:
— the need for system knowledge beyond the immediate work being decided on
— the need for wider accountabilities to be considered
— the role that the stakeholder can and should take in decision making

Accessing your system knowledge
I’ve written elsewhere about the need to see organisations as systems and not simply as structures. Its the system knowledge that helps you put a decision in context, helps you prioritise between different needs and also helps understand the need to negotiate between different parts of the system in order to make sure the system is in balance. For an individual team, or node in the network, we need to know what decisions can live within that team and what decisions need to be negotiated with the wider system. Senior stakeholders are valuable in this context not because they are senior but because they often have better and more varied knowledge of the wider system than the team doing the actual work. Other people can play this role as well but while organisations are still set up in hierarchical silos senior stakeholders often hold unique system knowledge.

Managing accountability
Delegation is a pretty scary thing. Its even scarier when accountability stays with you — its your signature on the contract and its you that will be on the hook if things go wrong. This is as it should be and as a leader the only way to deal with it is to work with great people and support them when they need it. But we shouldn’t take the idea of accountability for granted. As someone who is spending supporters money in order to provision technology I take my personal accountability very seriously — I want to be able to look a supporter in the face and be confident that we are making best possible use of their investment in us. I can only do that if I think we are making good decisions. It just feels wrong not to involve the accountable people in the decision making process but this only works well when they know their role is to bring the system knowledge and not necessarily the detailed knowledge of the work in hand.

User research is not stakeholder engagement
User centred design and insight led development is such a huge leap forward from a time when a bunch of engineers locked themselves in a room and tried to code stuff for other people based on their own predilections. But we need remember that user research is not stakeholder engagement. Co-design is not co-production and while user centred design is better informed we are still doing things to people and not with people. If one of the consequences of a more networked and connected world is the degradation of boundaries between ourselves and our audience then we really need to make sure that we are taking decisions with our stakeholders. Think about the backlash that twitter got for the changes it made to its feed algorithm last year or the criticism that snapchat got for its latest build — all done with the very best intentions — and consider the power of the network.

So what?
People know a good decision when they see one — it feels right — and part of that ‘rightness’ comes from knowing that its the right decision in that context. Being technically right in a way which doesn’t fit with the environment you are working in is in many ways works than being technically ok but in keeping with the time and place. Sometimes that yearning for a perfect decision — or a single ‘right’ answer — stops us making an ok decision and moving forwards.

Deliberative decision making can bridge the gap between the experts who are deep into the problem and the senior stakeholders that hold the system knowledge and accountabilities (I’ve been writing about this as full stack decision making). I am not suggesting we add citizen juries to the roster of organisational governance but there is perhaps a case for something that sits between the agile stand up and the high ceremony of a formal steerco that can create a better conversation between the different parts of the system that need to collaborate to make good decisions.

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