The art of decision making

Why is it so painful to make decisions and how it affects our agility?

Imagem de duas setas, uma verde apontando para a esquerda e uma vermelha apontando para a esquerda, com uma casa ao fundo.
Picture by Gerd Altmann at Pixabay

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.

The problem

The Good Place

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.

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.

What now?

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.

References

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.

PS

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!

Head de Produto na Ao Cubo. Escrevo sobre produto e agilidade, mas também sobre séries, livros e assuntos aleatórios.