In a previous post, I’ve argued for the Need of Facilitation in the sense that — if designers want to influence the decisions that shape strategy — they must step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make good decisions that are critical in the business world.
That said, my opinion is that facilitation here does not only means “facilitate workshops”, but facilitate the decisions regardless of what kinds of activities are required.
- Good Decisions versus Chance
- How to Make Good Decisions
- Good Decisions, Roles and Responsibilities
- Systematic Approaches for Making Good Decisions
- Good Decisions and our Commitment to Action
- Good Decisions and the Cost of Changing Your Mind
- Recommended Reading
- It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.
- A compelling vision should be easy to explain to everyone, specific enough to provide guidance for decision-making and flexible enough to allow for individual initiative as well as changing conditions (Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making, 2015).
- (Don’t) Trust Your Instincts: limitations in our thinking (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017) easily produce problem-solving approaches that are implicit, narrow, and flawed, they tend to create an insular mindset that discounts other people and their alternative points of view. And they tend to produce bad decisions.
- Sometimes the simple act of setting out your problems, objectives, alternatives, consequences, and trade offs will fully clarify the decision, pointing the way to the smart choice (Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H., Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions. 2015).
- What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things.
- Priorities Make Things Happen (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).
- What is your prioritisation policy and how is it visualised? How does each and every item of work that has prioritised helps get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals? (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017)
- Without action, the value potential in a decision cannot be realised. And so we need a commitment to action and a mental shift from thinking to doing. Thinking and doing are two different mindsets.
- The mindset of deciding must embrace uncertainty; the mindset of action must replace uncertainty with certitude of purpose: “Let’s get on with it.”
- It can be frustrating (and expensive) to make changes in projects after execution has begun. And the closer to the end of the project, the more expensive — or less room for — changes can be.
- By building, measuring and learning, designers are able to get closer to great user experiences sooner rather than later (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, 2021).
- Don’t make the mistake of executing business ideas without evidence; test your ideas throughly, regardless of how great they may seem in theory (“How to Get from a Good Ideas to a Validated Business” in Testing Business Ideas: A Field Guide for Rapid Experimentation, Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., 2019).
Good Decisions versus Chance
In the second post of this series, I’ve mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.
Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood — as my colleague Anton Fischer usually says — it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.
How to Make Good Decisions
We all want to believe that all decisions are made with care and consideration, even though we know it can’t possibly so. There is limited time and limited brain power, and not all decisions can be made equally well (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).
The first step to making good decisions is to stop relying (too much) on instincts and challenge our own biases. Are you aware of your own biases? Let’s find out!
(Don’t) Trust Your Instincts
Humans tend to place a lot of value on instinct. Especially as the pace of modern life forces us at times to think quickly on our feet and make immediate decision, we believe that having superior instinct helps us get along. That’s certainly true to an extend. But the problem is that sometimes we confuse instinct as a substitute for good judgement. Instincts — otherwise knowns as gut feeling or hunches — are probably wrong the vast majority of the time (King, P., The Art of Clear Thinking, 2019).
Creating great choices start by recognizing that (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017):
- our thinking is implicit and rarely questioned.
- our models of the world can be influenced by forces we are unaware.
- we default to simplistic models of world and rely on basic heuristics to get through the day.
- we tend to seek out the single right answer to any given problem.
These limitations easily produce problem-solving approaches that are implicit, narrow, and flawed, they tend to create an insular mindset that discounts other people and their alternative points of view. And they tend to produce bad decisions.
Many psychologies and neuroscientists have been converging on a description of the brain’s functioning that helps us make sense of our implicit, narrow and flawed thinking. The approach involves a distinction between two kinds of thinking, one that is intuitive and automatic, and another that is reflective and rational (Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein,.”How We Think” in Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, 2009):
- The Automatic System: Uncontrolled, effortless, associative, fast, unconscious, skilled.
- Reflective System: controlled, effortful, deductive, slow, self-aware, rule-following.
Most of us are prone to decision making using the automated system rather than the reflective system. Too much reliance on reactive thinking tips us into (Griffiths, C., & Costi, M., The Creative Thinking Handbook: Your step-by-step guide to problem solving in business, 2019):
- Acting on an idea in the heat of the moment be cause we want to be a first mover. Recent history shows that being first into a market orto launch a new product doesn’t guarantee success, and can even be destructive (note: business is a marathon run in a series of sprints, nota single sprint).
- Mindlessly copying what others are doing rather than consciously creating our own futures. We become followers, not leaders!
- An over-reliance on ‘listening to our customers”. This cheats us into making reactive so-so changes and improvements, and we miss out on designing those breakthrough innovations. Most of the time, customers don’t know what they want until we show it to them.
- Non-stop access to information is on the one side wonderful and on the other utterly overwhelming. Before we know it, we’re in a stressed-auto frenzy trying to keep our head above the flood of e-mails, reports, projects, blog posts, updates and sundry that add up to information overload. Watch out for the tendency to react instantly and automatically to information. A quick decision is seldom the best decision.
Sizing up Decisions
A critical initial step of decision making is to determine the significance of the decision at hand (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):
- What problem is at the core of the decision? Decisions often arise in response to new information, and the initial way the issue is raised focuses on the acute and narrow aspects of the problem? It’s important to ask probing questions. For example: the problem might be defined initially as “we don’t have time to fix all 50 known bugs we’ve found”, but the real issue is probably “we have no criteria for how to triage bugs.” Redefining the decision (or problem reframing) into a more useful form improves decision quality. Being calm in response to a seemingly urgent issue helps make this happen. Ask questions like “What is the cause of this problem? It is isolated or will it impact other areas. Whose problem is it? Which goals in the vision doesn’t it put at risk? Did we already make this decision in he space, if so, do we have good reasons to reconsider now?”
- How long will this decision impact the project? How deep will the impact be? A big decision (such as the direction of the vision) will impact the entire project. A small decision (such as what time to have a meeting or what the agenda should be) will impact a small number of people in a limited way. If it’s a long-term decision (and the impact is big) patience and rigor are required. It’s a short-term decision with shallow impact, go for speed and clarity, based on a clear sense of the strategic decision made in the vision.
- If you’re wrong, what the impact/cost? What other decisions will be impacted? If the impact is small or negligible. There isn’t much to lose. However, this doesn’t mean you short start flipping coins. For aspects of the project such as usability or reliability, quality comes from many small decisions being aligned with each other. The phrase “death by a thousand cuts” comes from this situation, whether it’s not a one big mistake that gets us: it’s the many tiny ones. So you must as least consider whether the choice is trully isolated. If it isn’t, it’s best to try and make several choices at once.
- What is the window of opportunity? If you wait to make the decision, it can be made for you – routes will close and options will go away. In this universe, big decisions don’t necessarily come with greater amounts of time to make them. Sometimes, you have to make tough strategic decisions quickly because of the limited window of opportunity. Sometimes, the speed of making a decision is more important than the quality of the decision itself (specially in competitive environments). Quick action can shift what in military terminology is called “the burden of uncertainty”: by taking early action, you force the competitor (or partner) to respond.
- Have we made this kind of decision before? This is the arrogance test. If someone where to put you in an emergency room and asked you to perform heart bypass surgery, how confident would you be? There is no shame in admitting arrogance: it generally takes courage to do so. There will be times when you have no idea how to do something. Don’t hide it or let anyone else hide it. Instead, identify that you think the team, or yourself, is inexperienced with this kind of choice and needs outside help (or more time). If a leaders admits ignorance, she makes it OK for everyone else to do the same.
- Who has the expert decision? Is this really my decision? Just because someone asks you to decide something doesn’t mean you are the best person to make the call. You are better at some decision than others, so don’t relay on your own decision making limitations. Never be afraid to pick up the phone and call the people who know more than you about an issue. At least ask for their consultation and bring them into the discussion. Consider delegating the choice entirely to them: ask whether they think it’s their call to make or yours.
- Whose approval do we need? Whose feedback do we want/need before we decide? The larger the organization, the ore overhead costs there are around decisions. A trivial decision can become complex when the politics of stakeholders come into play. A good test of your authority is how often trivial decisions require approvals or the formation of committees. The more processes there are around decisions, the more you must work through influence rather than decree. There are political costs to decision that have nothing to do with technology, business, or customer considerations, and the impact of a decision includes them.
Instincts and Biases
In part, we fail to make good decisions because of glitches in our thinking , including deep-seated biases that produce troubling lapses in logic. Each of us fall prey to these glitches to some degree, no matter how logical or open-minded we believe ourselves to be (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017).
These glitches in our thinking — most often than not — makes you pay more attention to information that supports what you already believe or want to be true, while at the same time snubbing information that would challenge your current thinking. This type of thinking error leads you to (Griffiths, C., & Costi, M., The Creative Thinking Handbook: Your step-by-step guide to problem solving in business, 2019):
- Go into denial and ignore blatant facts. You avoid asking tough questions and discount new information that might put your favourite ideas or theories to the test (confirmation bias).
- Stop at the first ‘right’ answer and so miss out on a multitude of possible answers you could find if you bothered to look.
- Get overly attached to pet ideas, even if they don’t turn out to be all that great.
- Be made a fool of by your own expectations. You interpret the future based on what you expect to happen – and are caught off guard by what actually happens!
- Avoid taking risks owing to fear of losing (loss aversion). Rather than being driven by what you can gain, you’re more worried about what you might lose. As a result, you sidestep exciting opportunities and rebuff innovative suggestions.
One way to avoid such traps is — obviously — beware of such biases and keep asking questions.
With regards to biases, here are a few to be aware of (Hammond, et al. The Hidden Traps in Decision Making, 2013):
- The Anchoring Trap lead us to give disproportionate weight to the first information we receive
- The Status-quo Trap biases us towards maitaining the current situation – even when better alternatives exist
- The Sunk-Cost Trap inclines us to make choices in the way that justifies past choices, even when these were mistakes
- The Confirming-Evidence Trap leads us to seek out information supporting an existing predilection and to discount opposing information.
- The Framing Trap occurs when we misstate a problem, undermining the entire decision-making process
- The Overconfidence Trap makes us overestimate the accuracy of our forecasts
- The Prudence Trap leads us to be overcautious when we make estimates about uncertain events.
- The Recallability Trap prompts us to give undue weight to recent, dramatic events
With these biases in mind, you should ask yourself some questions before making any big decision (Berger, W., The book of beautiful questions, 2019):
- What am I inclined to believe on this particular issue? Start by trying to articulate your beliefs/biases.
- Why do I believe what I believe? The “jugular question” per Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arno Penzias, forces you to consider the basis of these beliefs.
- What would I like to be true? A “desirability bias” may lead you to thinking something is true because you want it to be true.
- What if the opposite is true? This question is inspired by “debasing” experts and Seinfeld’s George Contanza.
In a group context, trigger team discussions before they make any big decision (Kahneman, D., Lovallo, D., & Sibony, O., “The Big Idea: Before You Make That Big Decision” in HBR’s 10 must reads on making smart decisions, 2013):
Questions that decision makers should ask themselves
- Check for the self-interest bias: is there any reason to suspect the team making the recommendation of errors motivated by self-interest. Review with extra-care, especially for overoptimism.
- Check for the affect heuristic: has the team fallen in love with its proposal? Rigorously apply all the quality controls on this checklist.
- Check for groupthink: were there dissenting opinions within the team? Were they explored adequately? Solicit dissenting views, discreetly if necessary.
Questions that decision makers should ask the recommenders
- Check for salience bias: could the diagnosis be overly influenced by an analogy to a memorable success. Ask for more analogies, and rigorously analyse their similarity to the current situation.
- Check for the confirming bias: are credible alternatives included along with the recommendation? Request additional options.
- Check for availability bias: if you had to make this decision again in a year’s time, what information would you want, and can you get more of it now? Use checklists of the data needed for each kind of decision.
- Check for anchoring bias: do you know where the numbers came from? Can there be unsubstantiated number? Extrapolation from history? A motivation to use a certain anchor? Reanchor with figures generate by other models or benchmarks and request for new analysis.
- Check for the halo effect: is the team assuming that a person, organisation, or approach that is successful in one area will be just as successful in another? Eliminate false inferences, and ask the team to seek additional comparable examples.
- Check for the sunk-cost fallacy, endowment effect: are the recommenders overly attached to a history of past decisions? Consider the issue as if you were a new CEO.
Questions that decision makers should ask about the proposal
- Check for the overconfidence, planning fallacy, optimistic biases, competitor neglect: is the base case overly optimistic? Have the team build a case taking an outside view.
- Check for disaster neglect: is the worst case bad enough? Have the team conduct a premortem: imagine that the worst has happened, and develop a story about the causes.
- Check for loss aversion: is the recommendation team overly cautious? Realign incentives to share responsibility for the risk or to remove risk.
Questions and Assumptions
Risks never disappear, but the sooner you can recognize and evaluate your team’s assumptions and questions, the more quickly you can act to reduce the risk they pose. When your team needs a “reality check,” identify your assumptions and the best ways to address them (IBM Enterprise Design Thinking, Assumptions and Questions, 2018).
- Collect assumptions: Diverge, with each team member writing one assumption or question per sticky note. Withhold judgement or discussion until later.
- Set up the activity: Draw a two-by-two grid with High-risk on the top, Low-risk on the bottom, Certain on the left, and Uncertain on the right.
- Identify high-risk uncertainties: Evaluate each idea quickly and individually. Roughly plot them on the grid where they make most sense. Once many items are on the grid, begin to discuss with your teammates and re-position them in relation to each other.
- Build an action plan: Pull high-risk and uncertain items from the upper-right quadrant into a new space. For each item, diverge on many different ways to validate or invalidate these assumptions and questions. Is there someone you can talk to directly to get an answer? Could you validate an assumption through direct observation? Could you build a prototype to test a hypothesis?
Good Decisions, Roles and Responsibilities
Decisions are the coin of the realm in business. Every success, every mishap, every opportunity seized or missed is the result of a decision that someone made or failed to make. At many companies, decisions routinely get stuck inside the organization like loose change. But it’s more than loose change that’s at stake, of course; it’s the performance of the entire organization. Never mind what industry you’re in, how big and well known your company may be, or how clever your strategy is. If you can’t make the right decisions quickly and effectively, and execute those decisions consistently, your business will lose ground (Rogers, P., & Blenko, M., Who has the D? How clear decision roles enhance organizational performance, 2006).
Cultural Aspects of Decision Making
Have you ever made a decision by asking for advice from your friends or by observing what others are doing? Have you picked the clothes to wear to a party based on what your friends were wearing? Can you think of a time when you changed your beliefs or behaviors because a person in authority, such as a teacher or a religious or political leader, gave you ideas about new ways to think or new things to do? Or perhaps you started smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, even though you didn’t really want to, because some of your friends were doing it.
Your answers to at least some of these questions will be yes because you, like all people, are influenced by those around you. When you find yourself in situations like these, you are experiencing what is perhaps the most basic of all social psychological processes—social influence, defined as the influence of other people on our everyday thoughts, feelings, and behavior (Hogg, 2010).
Understanding the culture and principles behind how teams and stakeholders make decisions becomes critical for designers to know when, what and how to influence in order to drive design vision forward. If some team members are using principles-first logic and others are using applications-first logic to reach a decision, this can lead to conflict and inefficiency from the beginning.
While leaders have always had to understand personality differences and manage how people interact with one another, as globalisation transforms the way we work we now need the ability to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with clients, suppliers and colleagues around the world (Meyer, E., The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business, 2014).
When these cultural differences collide, it leads members of global teams to respond emotionally to what they see as ineffective behaviors of others on the team. Worse still, most of us are not even aware of the system of our own culture uses to make decisions. We just follow the patterns without thinking about it.
Clearing Bottlenecks with Clarity of Roles and Responsibilities
Execution is the result of thousands of decisions made every day by employees acting according to the information they have and their own self-interest. A compilation of the work with over 250 about how companies learn to execute more effectively identified four fundamental building blocks executives can use to influence those actions—clarifying decision rights, designing information flows, aligning motivators, and making changes to structure (Neilson, G., Martin, K., Powers, E., The Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution, 2008):
- who owns each decision
- who must provide input
- who is ultimately accountable for the results
- how results are defined
The most important step in unclogging decision-making bottlenecks is assigning clear roles and responsibilities. Good decision makers recognize which decisions really matter to performance. They think through who should recommend a particular path, who needs to agree, who should have input, who has ultimate responsibility for making the decision, and who is accountable for follow-through. They make the process routine. The result: better coordination and quicker response times (Rogers, P., & Blenko, M., Who has the D? How clear decision roles enhance organizational performance, 2006).
Coordinating roles and responsibilities is inherently more challenging when you’re not in the same physical location. If you don’t check in frequently, your colleagues in other locations will lose track of what you’re doing (and vice-versa). But sending multiple messages to multiple recipients on multiple channels can create infusion and make it hard to tack progress. To organize who does what take the following steps (Harvard Business Review, Virtual Collaboration, 2016):
- Simplify the work: streamline things as much as you can, and agree on who ultimately own each task. If you aren’t in a position to influence these decisions, talk one-on-one with the people you’ll be working with most directly to make sure that you’re all on the same page. If necessary press your boss for more direction — and suggest the changes you would like to see.
- Have each person share a “role card”: Itemise important information such as the person’s title, general responsibilities, work schedule, close collaborators, and the key tasks, decisions, deliverables, and milestones the individual is attached to. These “cards” could be individual documents, email, or entries in a shared work or message board. Review the inform briefly during a meeting to clear up any misunderstanding.
- Agree on protocols: guidelines are needed for important activities such as group decisions, tracking progress, and sharing updates. Consider these questions: Who is the group needs to be involved in each of these activities? Which communication technologies will you use for each of these activities? If you lack the authority to lead this conversation, pose these questions to your supervisor with respect to yourself: What activities do I need to be involved in? How should I share updates during a meeting? I’d like to…
One of the most popular tools for clarifying roles as responsibilities is a RACI Matrix — also known as a responsibility-assignment matri — which outlines how individuals with different specializations will participate in tasks such as work phases (Kaley, A., Setting UX roles and responsibilities in product development, 2022).
Each person or role has its own column and each phase, activity, or deliverable has an individual row. Each cell in the matrix specifies the involvement of the corresponding party with the task. The involvement is specified through one of the four letters R (Responsible), A (Accountable), C (Consulted), and I (Informed) — hence the acronym RACI. For example, in the RACI above, the product manager is responsible and accountable for the task of defining objectives and key results, whereas the UX/product designer and the engineering teams should be consulted. Overall role involvement at the phase level is based on the type of participation that appears most for activities and deliverables therein (Kaley, A., Setting UX roles and responsibilities in product development, 2022).
The four levels of role involvement for any given task (whether a product-development phase, an activity, or the creation of a deliverable) are defined as follows (Kaley, A., Setting UX roles and responsibilities in product development, 2022):
- R= Responsible: The role(s) or team member completes the task. There can be more than one person responsible for any task in product development. For example, a user researcher might be responsible for running a quantitative usability test, as part of the iteration and optimization phase of product development.
- A= Accountable: The person provides final review and determines whether and when the task is completed. For each task, there should be only one accountable person. Accountability is essential for an organization and team. Without it, it’s difficult to get people to take ownership and get things done. In some cases, the accountable person is also responsible for completing the work or deliverable. For example, when running a usability test, a UX lead or researcher might be accountable for the overall completion of the study, while also responsible for recruitment, preparing the study protocol, facilitating sessions, and analyzing results. During each testing session, a product manager and engineer might share responsibility for taking notes.
- C= Consulted: The role(s) provides input and expertise on the task. There are usually multiple people from various disciplines and levels marked with a C in the RACI, depending on the phase of product development and activities involved. In our example usability test, a UX manager might be consulted by the UX lead to get feedback on the study protocol and understand if there are any other peers on the UX team who would benefit from the research findings.
- I= Informed: The role(s) are kept aware of progress as the task is worked on. Like the responsible and consulted roles, there are often many roles kept informed, including stakeholders, leadership, and other product teams who may be impacted by the work. Informed parties could also include people from customer support, legal, operations, marketing, human resources, and in smaller organizations, the CEO.
Clearing Bottlenecks and the Need of Facilitation
No matter what kind of organization, team structure, or project types you’ve worked on, you’ve probably had experienced problems working with teams, such as:
- drifting focus
- misunderstood communications
- uneven participation
- struggles for power and control
- difficulties reaching consensus
- frustrations with obtaining commitment to follow up action.
This is not by ill-intent: Patrick Lencioni posits that making a team high performing – i.e. high-functioning, collaborative, cohesive, aspiring, engaging – requires self-discipline, courage and stamina (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2011).
Facilitation is a deceptively familiar word, because it sounds like something you know, but means different things in different workplaces. For the purposes of this conversation, a definition of facilitation consists of two things (Hoffman, K. M., Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018):
- Facilitation is an explicitly designated role for managing conflict. That role is filled by a single individual, or multiple individuals when you have multiple small groups, with each group having its own facilitator.
- Facilitators create a productive pattern of conversation, built on divergence and convergence. This pattern encourages tangents, but also manages tangents to direct the conversation toward decisions.
It’s been my experience that — left to chance — it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals. Helping teams paddle in the same direction requires not only good vision and goals, but also leadership, and intentional facilitation.
Systematic Approaches for Making Good Decisions
The connection among decisions you make lies not in what you decide, but how you decide. An effective decision-making process takes in consideration these 8 elements (Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H., Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions. 2015):
- Work on the right decision problem: the way you frame your decision at the outset can make all the difference. To choose well, you need to state your decision problems carefully, acknowledging their complexity and avoiding unwarranted assumptions and option-limiting prejudices (learn more about problem framing).
- Specify your objectives: ask yourself what you most want to accomplish and which of your interests, values, concerns, fears, and aspirations are most relevant to achieving your goal. Thinking through your objectives will give direction to your decision making (learn more about the importance of vision).
- Create imaginative alternatives: your alternatives represent the different courses of action you have to choose from. Your devious can Ben no better than your best alternative (learn more about the Art of Creating Choices).
- Understand the consequences: how well your alternatives satisfy your objectives? Assessing frankly the consequences of each alternatives will help you to identify those that best me your alternatives — all your alternatives (learn more about discussing consequences in Feedback and Design Reviews).
- Clarify your uncertainties: what could happen in the future, and how likely is it that it will? Effective decision making demands that you confront uncertainty, judging the likelihood of different outcomes and assessing their possible impacts.
- Think hard about your risk tolerance: people vary in their tolerance of risks and, depending on the stakes involved, in the risks they will accept from one decisions to the next. A conscious awareness of your willingness to accept risk will make your decision-making process smoother and more effective (learn more about risk tolerance in Strategy, Pivot and Risk Mitigation).
- Consider linked decisions: what you decision today could influence your choices tomorrow, and your goals for tomorrow should influence your choices today. Thus many important decision are linked over time. The key to dealing effectively with linked decision is to isolate and resolve near-term issues while gathering the information needed to result those that will arise later. By sequencing your actions to fully exploit what you learn alone the way m you will be doing your best, despite an uncertain world, to make smarter choices.
With these criteria in mind, let’s look at some systematic approaches for making good decisions.
Good Decisions and Right Problems
It’s easy to solve the wrong problems. Good design relentlessly questions assumptions, reframing the design problem to be solved.
Before applying any specific reframing strategies, it’s a good practice to start with a review of the problem statement. Here are some questions that can help you do that (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T., What’s Your Problem?, 2020):
- Is the statement true?
- Are there simple self-imposed limitations?
- Is a solution baked into the problem framing?
- Is the problem clear?
- With whom is the problem located?
- Are there strong emotions?
- Are there false trade-offs?
If you still are not sure if you hitting the right target (or the questions above may be a bit too direct to ask your stakeholders), here are a few suggestions to help you zero-in on the best direction (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020):
- Real Problem: do we really know the underlying problem we want to solve? Are we solving the root cause of the problem?
- Real Business: what business are we really in? Who are our real competitors? What new technology can make us irrelevant?
- Insights: what data would help reframe the question or provide insights into better solutions?
- Variations: if your question implies that all customers/situations are treated the same, ask, “How can we address exceptions or rare cases in a different way?”
- Observation: instead of asking our customers what they want, how can we observe them?
Good Decisions, Objectives and Vision
I know that product vision might not be the most exciting topic in the Product Development industry, but my experience has been that a clear and well communicated product vision gives answers to core questions and give everyone a tool for making good decisions in their own work.
The design team needs to assess the extend to which the challenge at hand is driven by a vision that is shared by asking three questions (Calabretta et al. “Designing Transitions: Pivoting Complex Innovation” in Strategic Design: 8 Essential Practices Every Strategic Designer Must Master. 2016):
- Is there a project vision? Does the company have a clear view of the project direction, and where it fits into the raison d’être (the “why”) of the company? How exactly will the project help the company fulfill it’s why? A satisfactory answer to this question should emerge during the early stages of a strategic project, when the brief is formulated. Lack of clear-cut answer to these questions usually signals the absence of a strong, cohesive project vision.
- Is the project a good fit with the wider goals of the organization? Sometimes the project vision does not align with the KPIs or primary goals that the organization has expressed elsewhere. This usually happens – for example – when a trend emerges and organization may act impulsively because they are afraid to miss out on what they see as an opportunity for growth.
- Is the vision shared across the company? If there is a clear project vision, is there widespread awareness and alignment within the company? Can various department move in the same direction during project setup and implementation?
Good Decisions and Outcomes
In the old days of engineering, setting project goals wasn’t that hard. How have we historically given teams a goal that they can work on? Mostly, we simply asked teams to build features—but features are the wrong way to go. We often build features that create no value. Instead, we need to give teams an outcome to achieve. (Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output, 2019).
You might be asking, “what you do mean by outcome”. Joshua Seiden defines as outcome “a change in user behaviour that drives business results.”
In the second post of this series, I’ve mentioned that I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve. Outcomes creates focus and alignment.
You can help the team start thinking in terms of outcomes by asking three simple questions (Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output, 2019):
- What are the user and customer behaviours that drive business results? If the team gets stuck on trying to answer that question, there is a good chance that working on alignment diagrams will help.
- How do we get people to do more of these things?
- How do we know we’re right? The easiest (and the hardest) way to answer that question is to design and conduct tests.
Managing by outcomes communicates to the team how they should be measuring success. A clear outcome helps a team align around the work they should be prioritizing, it helps them choose the right customer opportunities to address, and it helps them measure the impact of their experiments. Without a clear outcome, discovery work can be never-ending, fruitless, and frustrating (Torres, T., Continuous Discovery Habits, 2021).
Having a strong vision, clear goals, and shared understanding of what problems teams are trying to solve, and focus on outcomes helps reduce the friction, create focus and alinagment. That doesn’t mean that all decisions that need to be made during the project lifecycle are easy or simple. So how do we ensure we make good decisions that ever so bring us closer to our vision and goals?
Good Decisions and Creating Choices
Designers may have naively believed that the user perspective can be provided at one point of the product development lifecycle (e.g. during project/backlog/sprint planning phase).
In reality any product that makes into the the world it’s actually the outcome of a set of dozens, hundreds or thousands of decisions along the way. Each decision building upon each other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience (Garrett, J.J, Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond“, 2010).
It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions (for more on ensuring decisions align with objectives, check the systematic approaches to making good decisions later in this article).
Teamwork can make or break a collaborative project and affects all of the design activities, particularly in the selection of design alternatives and resolution of conflicts (Cross, N., & Cross, A. C., Observations of teamwork and social processes in design in Design Studies,, 1995)
The effectiveness of the team in making good decision by picking the rights choices depends on their ability of generating alternatives.
Without multiple solutions to any question, the process is highly vulnerable. Without the ability to see all the work at once, spread out, relationships will be missed, and the conversation and subsequent designs will suffer. (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007).
That said, good decision makers examine problems as a whole, taking note of the complexities that exist and — instead of picking the “best” alternative — they embrace the tension between opposing ideas to create new alternatives that take advantage of many possible solutions (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017).
Beware of Analysis Paralysis
As you probably noticed, all the methods I’ve mentioned above involve creating options. While having alternative help increase our chances of making good decisions, it also creates the danger of team being stuck with Analysis Paralysis.
Analysis Paralysis will most likely happen when teams have too many options to consider. The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices. (“Hick’s Law” in Universal Principles of Design, Lidwell, W., Holden, K., Butler, J., 2010).
From that perspective, I find it incredibly important that — while designers need to ask good questions that foster divergent thinking, explore multiple solutions — probably one of the most the most critical aspect of facilitating good decisions is to help teams converge and align on the direction they should go (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming, 2010).
Following a pattern that leads with divergent thinking and concludes with convergent thinking helps you manage those tangents. Tangents can feel frustrating, but good tangents are one of the best things that come out of meetings. Good, novel ideas come from diverse opinions and experience. Going off on tangents is a way to get to those ideas. They won’t all be great ideas, but a few of them could be better than what you might come up with working alone (Hoffman, K. M., Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).
Knowing when teams should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.
Good Decisions and Priorities
What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things. Many miscommunications and missteps happen because person A assumed one priority (make it faster), and person B assumed another (make it more stable). This is true for programmers, testers, marketers, and entire teams of people. If these conflicts can be avoided, more time can be spent actually progressing toward the project goals (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).
Unfortunately, this sense of priorities might not always be clear with teams, either because leaders have not defined priorities, or priorities have not be clearly communicated.
A few reasons why not every leader practices prioritizing (Maxwell, J. C., The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you, 2007):
- When we are busy, we naturally believe that we are achieving. Activity is not necessarily accomplishment.
- Prioritizing requires leaders to continually think ahead, to know what is important, to know what’s next, to see how everything relates to the overall vision.
- Prioritizing causes us to do things that are at the least uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful.
The goal with prioritization is to determine what to complete next in order to get maximum value in the shortest amount of time and to avoid multi-tasking due to competing priorities (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017).
There are a few things you should ask yourself and/or the team when we keep coming revisiting and renegotiating the scope of work (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017):
- What is your prioritisation policy and how is it visualised? How does each and every item of work that has prioritised helps get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals?
- How will you signal when work has been prioritised and is ready to be worked on? In other words — where is your line of commitment? How do people know which work to pull?
- How will we visually distinguish between higher priorities and lower priority work?
If you have priorities in place, you can always ask questions in any discussion that reframe the argument around a more useful primary consideration. This refreshes everyone’s sense of what success is, visibly dividing the universe into two piles: things that are important and things that are nice, but not important. Here are some sample questions (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- If there are multiple problems, which one is most important?
- How does this problem relate to or impact our goals?
- What is the simplest way to fix this that will allow us to meet our goals?
Good Decisions and our Commitment to Action
At some point in the decision making process, we know what we should do. We have clear intention, but that is not the same as doing it. Without action, the value of the best alternative is nothing more than potential value. Converting potential value into real value requires action (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).
A decision isn’t truly made until resources have been irrevocably allocated to its execution. And so we need a commitment to action and a mental shift from thinking to doing. Thinking and doing are two different mindsets. If a business decision has the potential for a bad outcome (as nearly all of them do), a leader may hesitate in committing to action. It can even be financially risky for a decision maker to act, since incentives generally reward good outcomes rather than good decisions (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).
Shifting between the two mindsets is especially difficult for action-oriented executives and managers who get bogged down in the complexities and uncertainties of decision making. But to be effective, they must learn to operate in both modes — deciding and executing-moving rapidly from one mode to the other. A shift from thought to action can be emotional and may require courage. It also requires a shift from one skill set to another. During the decision-making process, conflict is fuel, encouraging a diverse set of alternatives, values, and perspectives. When it is time for action, we need alignment and buy-in (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).
Shifting between the two mindsets is especially difficult for action-oriented executives and managers who get bogged down in the complexities and uncertainties of decision making. But to be effective, they must learn to operate in both modes–deciding and executing-moving rapidly from one mode to the other. Unlike the rapid action of detailed operational adjustments, strategy decisions involve less detail, have long delays before the outcome is observed, and may be very expensive or impossible to adjust once execution is launched (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).
Overcoming Lack of Commitment
Like trust, conflict is important not in and of itself but because it enables a team to overcome the next dysfunction: the lack of commitment. Teams that commit to decisions and standards do so because they know how to embrace two separate but related concepts: buy-in and clarity. (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010).
And like the other four dysfunctions, commitment needs to be correctly defined before it can be achieved. Buy-in is the achievement of honest emotional support; Clarity is the removal of assumptions and ambiguity from a situation (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010):
- Buy-In: Commitment is not consensus. Waiting for everyone on a team to agree intellectually on a decision is a good recipe for mediocrity, delay, and frustration, which is why it amazes me that so many of the teams I work with still seem determined to achieve consensus. Ironically, commitment is something of the opposite. It’s about a group of intelligent, driven individuals buying in to a decision precisely when they don’t naturally agree. In other words, it’s the ability to defy a lack of consensus.
- Clarity: Unfortunately, even when teams master this ability to “disagree and commit” (this is something that the folks at Intel came up with years ago), they can still fail to benefit from their commitment. That’s because many teams fail to achieve clarity and alignment around a decision. Instead, they make well-intentioned assumptions about what they’ve agreed to, and they end up creating confusion and frustration among employees who wonder whether their leaders are even talking to one another. I’ve seen this happen often and it’s worth describing.
This problem with failing to align around commitments can easily be avoided by using two simple techniques Patrick Lencione calls Commitment Clarification and Cascading Communication. Here’s how they work (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010):
With five minutes to go at the end of a meeting — any type of meeting — the leader of the team needs to call a question: What exactly have we decided here today? At the white board, the leader writes down the decisions that the group thinks it has made. In many cases, team members see what the leader is writing on the board and react. “Wait a second. That’s not what I thought we agreed on.” And so the group dives back into the conversation until everyone is clear (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010).
In any case, by being extremely explicit about what has been agreed upon, a team will be able to identify discrepancies before a decision has been announced. Now, you might be wondering, “But maybe team members are purposefully sitting back and allowing for ambiguity, preferring to later ask for forgiveness rather than permission.” (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010).
To avoid that situation, the leader must also engage in cascading communication. That means demanding that the team go back and communicate the decisions to their staff members within twenty-four hours of the meeting. And not by e-mail or voice mail but either live in person or on the phone, thus giving employees a chance to ask questions for clarification (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010).
Of course, this assumes that if they don’t communicate decisions to their people, the leader of the team will hold them accountable.
Commitment through Participation and Ownership
Commitment to action is built on participation and ownership. Organizations and business scholars have long puzzled over how to incentivize this sense of ownership, which is central to building commitment to action. Stock ownership plans, performance-based pay, and related schemes have all been tried. These have merit, but in the end, monetary rewards matter less to individuals than participating in the decisions that they are asked to implement (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).
Simply put, a quality decision requires commitment from two Parties: the people who have the power to decide, allocate resources, and support their choices; and those who will lead the implementation. Both parties must have the opportunity to participate in the decision process (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).
It takes skill to manage the natural conflict between the mindsets of strategists and implementers. Nonetheless having both in the decision process creates the benefit of a deep understanding of the decision and a sense of ownership by the implementation leaders, which may prevent many of the downstream failures. Many, if not most, implementation failures are not really implementation failures at all. Rather, they are the result of an incomplete decision process-one that fails on the requirement for decision quality: true commitment to action by both the individuals that can make the decision stick, and the individuals who will lead the effort to make it happen (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).
Judging the Quality of Commitment to Action
In most cases, it is not hard to judge the quality of the commitment to action at the end of a decision process. The larger challenge is to build that commitment along the way. To assure high quality in this link of the chain, a decision maker should ask (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016):
- “Have we achieved quality on all of the other requirements for making a good decision? If not, where do we need to focus before we commit?”
- “Are there differences of opinion about the additional work required on the other requirements? How do we resolve those?”
- “Once we commit, will the decision stick? Are the stakeholders and people with organizational authority aligned with the choice?”
- “Do we truly understand the level of resources needed to successfully implement the decision: money, staff, time, authority to do the work, and executive attention? Have these resources been lined up?”
- “Is everyone on the decision team committed, including implementers? Do they all understand the key value drivers?”
- “Do we understand implementation risks and have a good mitigation plan? Do we have the capability to respond if any of the worst possible outcomes materialise?”
Commitment to Action and Psychological Safety
People will often say they agree when they don’t agree. They will say they are on board when they are not on board. They will say that they don’t understand something when they understand it perfectly well. In a top-down organisational hierarchy, “I don’t understand” is a polite way of saying “No, I’m not going to do this.” Why does this dynamic play out time and time again, in organizations large and small, all over the world? It has to do with emotion. Feelings. We’ve all heard the saying “leave your emotions at the door.” It’s a common saying in business. Be objective. Focus on the facts. Nice idea. Unfortunately, it’s not possible (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).
Why do people say they agree when they don’t agree? Because somebody asked them to leave their emotions at the door, that’s why. And when they left the meeting, they put their emotions back on and went back to work (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).
Emotions are an important and necessary part of the reasoning process. If you had no emotions, no feelings, no needs, then there would never be a reason to do anything. There would be nothing to be objective about. Everybody has needs (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).
When a meeting — for example — is not a safe place for people to share their feelings and their needs, you will get people saying one thing and doing another, a story we have all seen play out hundreds of times (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).
Good Decisions and the Cost of Changing Your Mind
My dad was a Civil Engineer, building airports for the Brazilian Air Force back in the 1970s. He would tell me stories about how frustrating (and expensive) it was to figure out that something needed to change in projects, especially after construction has begun. And the closer to the end of the project, the more expensive — or less room for — changes to be.
There are many projects out there that fail because drastic changes were needed in the last moments, adding a huge strain on the finance of the product. In the world of UX, everybody knows that late changes can break a product design project. It’s all about spending money on decisions that were validated, so change happens quickly and early – while it’s still cheap (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, 2021).
Pivot, Persevere, or Stop
Once you have collected the relevant feedback or data, reviewed and analysed it, ask yourself is your strategy is valid. Your initial product strategy may contain plenty of assumptions and risks, and you may well discover that the strategy is wrong and does not work. If that is the case, then you have two choices (Pichler, R., Strategize, 2016):
- stop and let go of your vision, or
- stick with the vision and change the strategy, which is also called pivot.
You should therefore aim to find out quickly if anything is wrong if your strategy, and if you need to fail, then fail fast. While a late pivot can happen, you should avoid it, because the later it occurs, the more difficult and costly is is likely to be (Pichler, R., Strategize, 2016).
By building, measuring and learning, designers are able to get closer to great user experiences sooner rather than later (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, 2021).
Design and Conduct Tests
Too many entrepreneurs and innovators execute ideas prematurely because they look great in presentations, make excellent sense in the spreadsheet, and look irresistible in the business plan… only to learn later that their vision turned out to be a hallucination (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing Business Ideas: A Field Guide for Rapid Experimentation, 2019).
You test the most important hypothesis with appropriate experiments. Each experiment generates evidence and insights that allow you to learn and decide.
If you only have one hypothesis to test it’s clear where to spend the time you have to do discovery work. If you have many hypotheses, how do you decide where your precious discovery hours should be spent? Which hypotheses should be tested? Which ones should be de-prioritised or just thrown away? To help answer this question, Jeff Gothelf put together the Hypothesis Prioritisation Canvas (Gothelf, J., The hypothesis prioritization canvas, 2019):
To test a big business idea, you break it down into smaller chunks of testable hypotheses. These hypotheses cover three types of risk (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, Testing Business Ideas: A Field Guide for Rapid Experimentation, 2019):
- First, that customers aren’t interested in your idea (desirability).
- Second, that you can’t build and deliver your idea (feasibility).
- Third, that you can’t earn enough money from your idea (viability).
What’s important to understand is that testing rarely means just building a smaller version of what you want to sell. It’s not about building, nor selling something. It’s about testing the most important assumptions, to show this idea could work. And that does not necessarily require building anything for a very long time. You need to first prove that there’s a market, that people have the jobs pains and gains and that they’re willing to pay (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas, 2020).
Experiments replace guesswork, intuition and best practices with knowledge. Experimentation is at the hear of what software developers call agile development. Rather than planning all activities up-front and then sequentially, agile development emphasises running many experiments and learning from them. Applying this tactic has a number of benefits (Mueller, S., & Dhar, J., The decision maker’s playbook, 2019):
- It allows you to focus on actual outcomes: a successful project is not deemed successful because it is delivered according to a plan, but because it stood the test of reality.
- It decreases re-work: because the feedback cycles are short, potential errors or problems are spotted quickly and can be smoothed out faster than conventional planning.
- It reduces risks: because of increased transparency throughout the implementation process, risks can be better managed than in conventional project.
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