Airline pilots visually inspect every plane before every commercial flight. Over the course of their careers, pilots will go through this ritual thousands of times, despite armies of airplane maintenance crews and ground support staff. Ultimately, they own the decision to fly the plane. When they sit in the cockpit, they need to know that the plane is ready to fly.
Although they may make this decision several times a day, they know that they cannot afford to allow it to become a routine decision. If they make the wrong decision, people may die. So every day they don high visibility vests (and raincoats in Portland) to walk around the plane themselves to systematically go through the checklist they’ve gone through thousands of times.
In product development, we also make thousands of decisions — and some of those decisions can have as much life-or-death consequences as the airline pilot’s decision to fly. Others can mean life-or-death for our company, division or innovation. We owe it to our customers and our company to practice the discipline of making effective decisions. While many of those decisions will be routine, based in knowledge we already have, Key Decisions require special care because they are both High Impact and High Unknown.
The Five Requirements for Effective Decisions
These five elements help good decision-makers make even better decisions, whether the decision is a likely Known Solution, a Best Guess or a Key Decision:
Access to the company’s best knowledge and best experts.
A good decision will draw from the company’s best available knowledge and experience. This seems simple enough but sometimes, it’s not clear who the experts are and what data will be relevant. Yet the failure to take the time to figure this out means that the decision will carry the risk that you will repeat someone else’s mistake, or fail to capitalize on someone else’s discovery.
Such decisions also carry the risk that they will be revisited, because the experts may bring up concerns that you haven’t considered after the fact. When people know that you’ve drawn from the best people to help you, then everyone will have more confidence in the decision, which helps you get better buy-in for implementation.
An appropriate amount of systematic effort to make the decision with confidence.
Some decisions have such low impact on the success of the program that no time at all needs to be wasted on them. These “no brainer” and “best guess” decisions need to be made and then cleared out of the way so that the team can spend its time building knowledge to make Key Decisions with confidence.
If the team does decide that a decision has enough impact to justify the investment in learning, the team undertakes a systematic effort to build the knowledge, so that decision makers can make a good decision now, and so that the decision can become a Known Solution for future programs.
Clear understanding and acceptance of the Last Responsible Moment for Key Decisions and the right timing for other decisions
A good decision is a timely decision: made neither too late nor too early. Delayed decisions hold up the flow of work, causing unnecessary implementation delays that can directly contribute to the failure to meet launch dates. Decisions made too early may need to be revisited because the situation has changed or new information has come in. When you make a decision just a little before the Last Responsible Moment, then you give the situation time to settle out, and give yourself more time to gather information.
Just as we focus our learning on Key Decisions, we also focus our efforts to delay decisions here. It probably won’t matter much if a low impact decision changes, or if the team would rather have made a different one later on. There is no need to burden the team by holding such decisions open. Key Decisions and even some Known Solutions with some risk benefit the most from delaying the decision because that gives the team more time to close “known unknowns” and for “unknown unknowns” to surface.
Shift from Doing to Learning
A team that understands the value of time devoted to learning is a team that is prepared to make more effective recommendations to decision makers and to make better decisions themselves. As teams get comfortable with Key Decisions and Knowledge Gaps, it will be easier for them to tell whether or not a Key Decision can be made with confidence, and what they still need to learn if it can’t.
At the same time, we don’t want to burden our teams with things they don’t need. Deliverables should serve a purpose for the team and for the teams downstream. Meetings outside of Status, Learning Cycle and Integration Events need focus to be productive. All participants in the Events and other meetings should have something useful to contribute.
Real Time Reusable Knowledge
Finally, every time we make a decision — right or wrong — we learn something. If it turned out to be a good decision, we want to make that knowledge available to others. If it didn’t work out, then failure to capture the knowledge makes it likely that the same mistake will be made again. We don’t need to over-complicate this. Key Decision and Knowledge Gap reports do this automatically. Consider writing Key Decision-style reports for major Known Solutions decisions to capture the team’s rationale.
At the same time, these five requirements are necessary but not sufficient. Here are three errors that decision-makers run into sometimes, even if all five of these are in place, that can make your decision-making process unnecessarily wasteful.
Mistakes people make with their decision-making process that generate waste
These three errors make a decision-making process more difficult than it needs to be, which is unnecessary waste.
Confusing standardization with good process. Although the pre-flight inspection process may seem like it’s highly standardized, in practice airplanes differ a lot. A small prop plane that flies every hour between Portland and Seattle faces different stresses than an intercontinental 777 that may fly one long flight per day. The pilots’ checklists reflect this diversity, as well as the ways the pilots individualize the checklists based upon their own experiences with the plane. The diversity of decisions we make in product development defy even this level of standardization. Instead, it’s better to focus your personal efforts on adherence to the principles and practices of good decision-making, rather than the use of a standardized process or a fixed set of tools.
Not distinguishing between stakeholder engagement and consensus decision-making. Good decision-making requires input from others, but that does not mean that all decisions are consensus decisions. The pilot owns the decision to fly. Similarly, Steve Jobs took personal responsibility for every product Apple made. Who is ultimately responsible for decisions in your product development programs? If the answer is no one — or everyone — then you may be taking longer than necessary to make decisions.
Failure to recognize the role of subjective judgements in making good decisions. While we strive to be data-driven, it is possible to take this too far, and exclude the elements of tacit knowledge, experience and intuition. If the data says one thing, but your stomach tells you something else, pay attention! Chances are, the data is not giving you a complete picture.
While I’ve discussed these guidelines in the context of Rapid Learning Cycles, they are general principles that apply to many of the major decisions we make in business and in our personal lives. We may not be responsible for over one hundred passengers on a plane, but we are responsible for making decisions that leads to a product that meets customer needs and delivers business value.
Your Next Steps
Here are some first steps to help decision-makers commit to fly the plane:
- Make sure your decision-making process includes the experts and stakeholders without muddying the role of the key decision-maker(s) and that you have the decision makers at your Integration Events.
- Whether or not you are using Rapid Learning Cycles, build the knowledge you need to make the decision as a conscious learning cycle: Design the learning activities, run the Experiment and Capture what you learned. This will help you make a better decision this time and next time.
- Capture the rationale behind decisions as well as the decision itself on your Key Decision reports — ideally update them real time in the Integration Events so that they capture the team’s understanding on the date the decision was made.