Making decisions is a subject that’s always interested me, both the part that takes someone to one choice or other and their consequences. Having been working for more than 10 years as a Business Analyst in software development companies, I’m used to talk to people responsable for making big decisions, besides having myself some of them under me. Contrary to many people with whom I’ve worked, deciding was one of my favorite parts of the job.
I’ve been working for a little over an year as a Business Analysis Consultant at a global software consulting company that is a pioneer in using inovating metodologies, such as Agile and Lean. In this enviroment, I was able to experiment at the first time many of the principles and values of Agile, in which many companies are still starting. It’s an incredible world, but obviously it’s not perfect.
Talking to my coworkers, I’ve realized that some of the discomforts we had were directly related to the way we were making our decisions. Not the decisions per se, but the proccess that brings to them could be affecting our agility. That’s when I started studying about the subject.
Some of these discomforts were:
- Delivery: The delay on making decisions can affect the delivery of an agile team, because people spend to much time debating about details when they could focuse on things that would bring more value to their work and their client’s businesses.
- Friction: Long and inconclusive meetings about themes that have already been discussed tend to demotivate the team, who can consider them a waste of time.
- Rework: It’s costly to change paths that, in the search of perfection, have been complex from the start.
Generally, humans aren’t good at making decisions. The more we make bad choices, the more we run from future choices, which end up bringing us to hasty decisions that have a bigger chance of not being good ones. That’s why we’re afraid to deciding. We fear the consequences that we can’t predict, with which we don’t know if we’ll be able to deal.
The fear of deciding is the fear of failing. At the same time we, human beings, constantly search for approval of many characters that we care about, our culture is not tolerant to failure. So, we delay our decisions until we can deeply know all the implications of each one of the options.
In herTED Talk, How to make hard choices, philosophy professor Ruth Chang questions what makes some decisions harder than others.
“What makes a choice hard is the way the alternatives relate. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall.”
A decision is hard when we can’t find obvious advantages in one option. Ironicaly, most times, we fail to realize that there aren’t big disadvantages either, so that decision would also be one where we had a smaller probability of error. But we are not happy with a low probability, we want perfection. And this isn’t agile.
Remembering some agile values
The agile literature has many principles and values in which we can get inspiration. I chose three, found in the Extreme Programming metodology (XP).
- Courage: Courage means go ahead despite de risks. It’s not to hide, to choose the best path, considering all the information that are available, and owning the consequences.
- Simplicity: Here comes the concept of the MVP (Minimum Viable Product), that often walks right beside agile development. The idea is reduce the size of the product or project to the minimum necessary to create some value, reducing also the impact of the decisions that need to be made. Simplicity promotes courage and makes feedback possible.
- Feedback: The agile manifest preaches that “working software is more valuable than documentacion”, but it’s not only the documentation that is second to developed software (even in it’s minimal version). Documented or not, a long and complex elaboration is still abstract, we can only know if an idea works after putting it in to execution.
Having courage to making simple decisions and putting out the software to receive feedback we can be agile.
Ok, but why can’t we make agile decisions?
American professor and researcher Meghann Drury-Grogan, who’s been studying decision making processes since 2011, lists six possible reasons on her paper Obstacles to decision making in Agile software development teams.
Considering how quickly things change in technology, a research conducted eight years ago may sound old and outdated. Unfortunately, it is not. Although the context may have changed, all the obstacles Drury-Grogan found back then we can still find today, even in companies that are more advanced in agility. That’s then:
- Unwillingness to commit to decisions: On teams with strong leaderships, some people may feel intimidated and need aproval from these leaders in their decisions, afraid of dealing by themselves with the consequences that may come from a bad decision. In the ideal world, agile teams are a safe place for mistakes, but agile teams are also made by human beings and, therefore, affected by emotional matters.
- Unstable resource availability: Related to the first point, something that may lead to the unwillingness to commit to decisions is the unavailability of themselves or some other member of the team in relevant moments of the project. This may also be the result of a strong and centralized leadership, where, for many reasons, knowledge is not distributed enough so that everyone has the information they need to follow through with a decision when key people aren’t available.
- Conflicting priorities: One of the causes for unavailability may be related to conflicting priorities. At company level, more experienced people may be removed, permanently or not, from a development team so that they can act in other projects that are strategic to the company or demand some specific kind of knowledge. At the team level, when priorities aren’t clear, it’s members may spend their energy in something that won’t bring immediate value, preventing them from acquiring the knowledge they should in more important subjects and making the decision process harder.
- Lack of implementation: The lack of clarity in priorization and instability in the team composition may result in actions being left behind. The biggest goal will always be the delivery, so actions that could lead to inovation or improvement aren’t implemented and subsequent decisions aren’t made due to the team being worn out from not seeing the results of whatever they have decided before.
- Lack of ownership: Ownership calls for responsability. Anyone will want to take good care of what they own. Every member of an agile team is supposed to have ownership over the project or product they’re working on, having the feeling that their work’s result is something that matters to them. When this isn’t true, for whatever reason, people may become apathetic and avoid making decisions because they don’t care about them.
- Lack of empowerment: The paper in which this story is based doesn’t talk about the connection between all of these obstacles, but it’s easy to see that they’re all related. Specially, lack of empowerment may be considered a summary of every thing that has been said, working sometimes as the cause and sometimes as the consequence of the other five points. For example, the lack of context caused by priority and unavailability conflicts may prevent team members from feeling empowered to make decisions, which may lead to indisposition and lack of ownership. Besides, in an enviroment where everyone is encouraged to question and present their opinions, many decisions are made by the group, which is great in many cases (like big architectural choices or debates about long-term future), but it can also lead to lack of empowerment and the feeling of insecurity felt by people who came from non-agile enviroments, where the scope of activities and decision make accountability is clear and specific for every person.
If you’ve read all of this waiting for a solution, I’m sorry for not having warned you before, but I have bad news.
There isn’t one ultimate solution, what exists is the context in which each team are inserted, which may foster one or more of these obstacles.
In her paper, Meghann Drury-Grogan doesn’t offer answers and I haven’t found them either, but she keeps searching, as well as many other people in the world. Maybe, in a future article, I may write about them too. For now, the important thing is the refletion about which ones of these factors are generating more negative impact or the ones that can the eliminated easier. If your team suffers from these issues or if it has suffered and recovered, feel free to leave a response and contribute with the debate.
Researching to write and present about agile decisions, I’ve read some articles and I’ve watched many good Ted Talks, even though not every one fitted in the line I opted to follow. Here they are, in case anyone is interested.
- Obstacles to decision making in Agile software development teams
- An investigation of the decision making process in agile teams
- Examining decision characteristics & challenges for agile software development
- 3 decision making strategies to scale agile at your company
- 3 ways to make better decisions by thinking like a computer
- Do you really know why you do what you do?
- How can groups make good decisions
- Would you sacrifice one person to save five?
- The psychology behind irrational decisions
- The paradox of value
- How to make hard choices
- Sometimes, it’s good to give up the driver’s seat
- Choosing what to choose
- On the art of choosing
- Are we in control of our own decisions?
- The paradox of choice
I’ve been writing on the internet for years, in blogs or social media, but this is my first time talking about something work related. This article wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for to dear friends of mine, with whom I always have the best conversations. Thank you to Gabriel Bressani Ribeiro, that unintentionally caught my attention to this matter and supported me the whole time, and Guilherme Coelho, who agreed to dive into all these articles and videos to present with me. You guys rock!