Monday, December 27, 2010

The Best Decisions are Those We Must Live With

We have all been the victims of others' poor decisions. This is especially painful when we, and not those making the decisions, are the victims. I have seen many times in my career when a particularly bad idea was implemented because the person making the decision had no relevant experience to understand the consequences of his or her decision. These same people often don't have to implement the poor decision and therefore don't learn from their mistakes. In this post, I look at ways to reduce or avoid this effect.

Most decision-makers (managers, leads, customers) want to succeed and are trying to make good decisions. The problem is that they may lack a full understanding of the total costs, the risks. and the unintended consequences of a particular decision. It it sometimes sufficient to point out the total costs, the risks and the potential unintended consequences of the decision to head the poor decision off. Unfortunately, expressed risks, costs, and unintended consequences are often dismissed as overstated or not likely to be incurred.

In the remainder of this post, I look at steps that can be taken to attempt to stop or reduce poor decisions from having long-term adverse negative impacts on success.

Help or Allow the Decision Maker to Taste the Idea

A group of fellow developers and I stopped a particularly bad idea from being implemented when we helped the management team making the decision to visualize the true costs (time and schedule) of the decision. As they envisioned themselves implementing this onerous approach, they realized what we had been trying to tell them: their idea sounded good at first, but was very inefficient when considering the realities of the tools we had at the time. Only when they pictured themselves waiting on this tool to run did they understand how inefficient their idea really was.

It's most effective when the decision maker has personally experienced the negative consequences of a particular idea, but helping them imagine it is the next best thing.  If imagining the consequences of the decision  is not enough, it may be possible to implement a solution on a trial basis without a backout plan. This allows only minimal loss to be incurred until the decision maker realizes the downside. The actual experience or realistic imagining can help make the costs, risks, and unintended consequences more "real" or more concrete to the decision maker.

Associate Idea to Similar Ideas Whose Problems are Well Known

It's often the case that decision makers know about poor previous decisions and their negative results, but they may not realize the relevance of that previous decision to the current decision. Developers can connect the two decisions and draw parallels between them. This can make it easier for the decision maker to identify the true costs, risks, and unintended consequences of the pending decision because the similar negative consequences of a similar decision made previously may now be known.

Enlist Recognized Experts

If the significance of a decision warrants it, it may be advisable to bring in a colleague who is a recognized guru or expert in the particular area to provide credibility to your argument. Such outside influence will be most effective if the person brought in has real life experience with something similar to the decision being made.

Avoid Hyperbole

Too much drama or exaggeration can doom chances of stopping a poor decision. The decision maker is more likely to dismiss the objections when they are obviously exaggerated. If a decision maker believes one has exaggerated in the past, he or she cannot be blamed for thinking that the same person is exaggerating again.

Not All Bad Decisions are Equal

Some bad decisions have more significant negative consequences than others. Because of this, not every decision deserves an equal challenge. The person who challenges every potential decision is more likely to be ignored when objecting to a really bad idea and dismissed as just a complainer. This is the "pick your battles" principle.

Assess Negatives and Positives of Major Decisions

Even when we are unable to avoid being subject to another's poor decision, we can potentially improve our own future by gently pointing out the negatives of the current decision. Although it's tempting to turn this into an "I told you so" session, what we really want is for the person who made the poor decision to realize their own error and to realize the value of our experience. It seems to be human nature to want to say "I told you so," but it's even more welcome when that doesn't need to be explicitly stated because everyone knows you did without you saying it.  Making sure an objection to a really bad decision was made and acknowledged before everyone else realized its negative impact helps build this credibility and people will be more likely to listen carefully to your opinion the next time.

Recognize Own Deficiencies

It is also important to realize that everyone makes mistakes and everyone is limited based on lack of experience or knowledge in certain areas. Especially in the case where peers do not seem to agree with our position, we should ask ourselves, "Am I the one with the bad idea here?"

Not All Decisions Are All Technical

Perhaps one of the most difficult principles for we developers to accept is that not all decisions are made on a purely technical basis. We can argue as much as we want about the technical merits of something, but many other factors play into decisions. There are times when those seeing the bigger picture might make a technical decision we don't like for a real or perceived greater good.

One of the things that makes this difficult is that there seems to be a relatively small percentage of people who can adeptly weave technical aspects of a particular decision with the many non-technical aspects of the same decision. The technical person has a difficult time seeing how anyone could decide anything but the best technical solution and the non-technical person wonders how the technical person cannot see the overwhelming need for their decision to be applied.

It is an impasse like this that makes a good technical manager a significant boon. A good technical manager with technical background combined with good business and other skills can help mediate difficult decisions and provide some expert-based credibility to the decision.

Another thing that can help with this is when the technically minded folks attempt to understand the consequences of making a major decision purely on technical grounds. Just as decision makers who make bad technical decisions should need to live with their decisions, so should technically minded people who make poor non-technical decisions. Better than suffering the negative consequences is to think them through before making the decision.

Unpleasant Does Not Mean Poor or Bad

Sometimes, we have to do tasks that may not be our favorite task or may not be the most pleasant of tasks. This doesn't mean they are a result of a poor decision. There are times when we have to do certain tasks to get the job done or accomplish a certain goal that simply are not fun. However, if tasks are overly wasteful or demotivating with no real value or insufficient value to justify their cost, then we are talking about a bad or poor decision. Often the worst decisions are those for which there are some elements of "good," but these elements are outweighed by the bad if the decision maker will look closely enough at the likely obvious and unintentional consequences.

Leave the Situation

In the most severe cases of a pending poor decision, when all else fails, it may be advisable to remove oneself from the situation entirely. If the results of the decision are highly likely to lead to significant negative consequences that the decision maker does not have to deal with, it may be best for the potentially affected developer to make sure that he or she will not be the victim of the decision either. Removing oneself from the situation may be as easy as working on a different part of the project.

It's Easier to Choose Poorly When It Impacts Someone Else

The decisions that I have been most disappointed with and most frustrated with in my career have generally been made by people who don't have to live with the consequences of the decision. It's all too easy to avoid the effort involved in researching an issue and thinking about the wide range of choices and associated consequences (obvious and unintended) when one knows that he or she is not the one who suffers from being not putting in the requisite labor.

A colleague recently told me a story that reminds me that this is human nature. His in-laws planned to live with him for a short period of time while they looked for and purchased a new home in the area. He had suggested that they should rent PODS or equivalent to store the majority of their stuff in while living with him. His reasoning was that then they could load the PODS from their former house, have them delivered to the new house when it was purchased, and unload from the PODS to the new house. His mother-in-law, however, thought it was a better idea to move all the stuff from their old house to my colleague's house and then from my colleague's house to their new house. For her, this was a cheaper solution and it did not cost her anything because her son-in-laws would do all the moving in all cases. In other words, she had a choice of no cost (monetary or effort) versus a choice with monetary cost and so it was an obvious better deal for her to have her son-in-laws put extra effort into moving her stuff around. My guess is that if she had to do the moving, the rental price wouldn't look so bad after all (especially given the fact that they weren't paying rent anyway while living with the daughter and son-in-law). Meanwhile, her son-in-law colleague of mine, who was affected by her plan, was seriously considering simply paying for the PODS costs for his in-laws stuff because that decision benefited him.

When we don't have to live with the consequences of our decisions, it changes what we think is the best decision. I contend that we will generally make the best decisions when we have a stake in the outcome. When we envision how we would implement a decision ourselves, we start to realize more fully how good or bad the decision is.


There are few things more frustrating to a developer than being the victim of particularly poor decisions whose negative consequences are obvious to everyone but the decision maker. Assuming that the decision maker really has the organization's or client's best interests at heart, one important step to helping that person make a better decision is to help that person better understand how the organization or client is severely and negatively impacted by that decision. In cases where the decision maker only cares about himself or herself, it probably won't matter how bad the consequences are if he or she will not be affected by those consequences.

I think most people would agree that decisions and plans are best implemented when the people who must implement them take ownership of the decision. Therefore, it's fairly obvious that decision makers should get buy-in from the would-be owners of the decision's implementation. When decision makers don't get buy-in from those implementing the decision, the implementation may be found lacking. Getting buy-in from the implementers of a decision is also important because the very process of doing so may help the decision maker make a better, more informed decision.


A Zillion and Counting said...

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Dustin said...

That's fine with me.