IT Employment

Making a case: How to become a thought leader and influence decisions

Decision making has been a popular topic of academic research and best-selling business books, due, perhaps, to an apparently fascinating fact: seemingly intelligent people are perfectly capable of making blatantly stupid decisions. Here's how to avoid being in that group.

Decision making has been a popular topic of academic research and best-selling business books, due, "As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action arise, human science is at a loss."

-- Noam Chomsky

Management of an organization makes decisions on a daily basis. Some of these decisions are in response to arising opportunities, business challenges, or new regulatory requirements. What is the best way to respond to the last competitor's move? Where should we locate the new call center? How can we improve our customers' experience? How can we meet the new tax reporting requirements at a minimal cost?

Decision making has been a popular topic of academic research and best-selling business books, due, perhaps, to an apparently fascinating fact: seemingly intelligent people are perfectly capable of making blatantly stupid decisions. It's a complex subject which, I have to admit, I am passionate about.

As an IT executive, manager or professional, you are often expected to contribute your ideas and recommendations to the decision making process. Here's where it gets interesting, if the experience of my clients and those Techrepublic readers who contacted me, is any indication. There seems to be a lot of difficulty among even the most senior IT staffers in communicating their thoughts clearly. As far as I can tell, the issue lies really in the inability to present a clear and compelling business case, structured in the way it can be understood by the others. At the same time, this is a critical skill that can dramatically advance the career of any IT executive, director, manager, or professional.

Now, we can help with this here, on Techrepublic.com, to the benefit of many readers. This blog commences a series on business cases set to improve the ability of IT communicate with the rest of organization and, notably, with executive management. The first entry is on the rational model of decision making.

Rational decision making model

Malcolm Gladwell noted in one of his brilliant books that "Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking." While highly developed intuition coupled with the willingness to apply it is somewhat part of the decision maker's character, the deliberate part relies on the information received from humane and inanimate sources alike. The quality of this information can be greatly improved if it's structured appropriately.

Figure A illustrates the "deliberate" decision making process. I'll talk about the sections.

Figure A

1. Objectives

Decisions are made to address one or more objectives. Sometimes they're conspicuous, and other times, they're concealed, either deliberately, or through a false belief that their clarity is not important, or because of the decision maker's inability to properly identify causal relationships between known facts. Sometimes, we fail to treat the root cause but treat symptoms instead.

Before everything else, the objectives need to be clearly understood.

2. Alternatives

There are usually several ways of meeting the stated objectives, of which status quo is often one. One should strive to explore as many alternatives as possible and isolate three or four for serious consideration.

3. Selection

Which one of the available alternatives is the most appropriate? The set of decision criteria is like a sieve which is typically comprised of the following layers (constraints):

  • Corporate Vision, Mission and Values. Is the alternative congruent with them?
  • Strategy and ongoing projects. Does this alternative fit our strategy? Does it dovetail with the rest of the project portfolio?
  • Costs and Benefits. Every alternative solution comes with its unique set of benefits and costs, both quantitative and qualitative.
  • Risks. Often overlooked, the risk profile of each alternative should be considered.

To be most efficient, the recommender needs to be aware of the criteria applied by the decision makers. This necessitates knowledge of the company's business, awareness of the current economic conditions and other elements of business alignment that I discussed in previous blogs.

4. Preferred Alternative

Once the decision criteria are applied to the set of alternatives, a preferred alternative will emerge. It represents the best course of action available.

How to use this model

Picture yourself responding to a challenge of providing a recommendation on how to deal with a problem or seize an opportunity. The former governor of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, used to ask his officers, in his usual quiet voice: "Please give me your best thinking on this topic." They tried their best, as you can imagine.

Now, follow this sequence:

  • Restate the objectives to make sure everyone knows you understand them.
  • Speak about available alternatives, their pros and cons, benefits and risks.
  • Identify the preferred solution. If the attention span of the audience is short, it often makes sense to do so in the beginning of the message.
  • Explain why this solution is preferred by discussing the selection criteria.

You should end up with a crisp and compelling message which will showcase your thinking.

There are several considerations that are fundamental to a successful case, as I have learned through my consulting work. Here are the top five.

  1. Always ensure you understand the objectives. Try to get them directly from the person who sets them.
  2. Always strive to understand the real driver behind the stated objectives.
  3. Do an exceptional job in developing a set of viable alternatives. When it comes time to choose the preferred one, it's too late to develop more of them. Besides, you don't want additional alternatives foisted on you as you make your recommendation.
  4. Understand the real decision criteria well, so that your recommendation resonates with the decision makers as reasonable, intelligent choice.
  5. Always identify the preferred alternative. This is your opportunity to shine.

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada and specializing in IT- business alignment. Ilya can be reached at ibogorad@bizvortex.com or (905) 278 4753

About

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations.

8 comments
eduardo
eduardo

We need to be careful about decreasing values for escaping of ceratin calling or make other imporant. Consultants are out there because they really bright differently in the Industry sky. They have to. Otherwise they shouldn't be there. It is important pass skills to the people involved and make them important too. Make successors is a key value for our job. I not sure if make ourselves invisible is a great idea. But I'm sure that pass skills to other can alleviate our need by the customer. I have seen many colleagues doing hard work in such way that in the end they received no recognition about that, actually the job recognition goes only to the client team, as the consultants did not existed. You may change your mind if you read about Karl Marx's writting on capital and human work subjects. Anyway, great article.

jwilliams
jwilliams

Putting logic (as defined in the diagram) to a human decision is incompatible with how the human mind works. Granted, it looks good in processes and on paper - but the mind does not work that way. Decision making is an artform, not a process. Given all the reasoning in the available, the person making the decision will rely mostly on instinct and personnal reasoning than outside information. We wish another person would make decisions based on what we perceive as truth - but the fact is, they use their own truth to make a decision. Nobody said the truth for one is the truth for all. Please, add to the diagram a big "GUT FEEL" as an input to the decision box. It outways any logical reasoning behind analysis of the alternatives.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Not. Perception of truth, maybe. But the definition of truth binds truth to absolute. Truth is truth, irrespective of the perceptions/opinions of any of us. Furthermore, outside the realm of computers, programming, and the like, Logic is defined as the science of reasoning, and has been a Philosophical discipline for ages. Logic is applicable to reason. etu

ibogorad
ibogorad

Thank you for your comment. I cite Gladwell on your point of the gut feel in the body of the article. Decision making is a complex and curious thing. I am merely providing a roadmap for getting the rational part of it streamlined. More often than not that's a problem even before we talk about more debatable areas. Intuition kicks in during the selection process, and there is also a whole incredibly interesting are of coming up with alternatives without painful compromises - see, for example, "The Opposable Mind" by Roger Martin.

meryllogue
meryllogue

And I disagree with the first poster... this is not just a "pretty on paper" structure. It can actually help. Yes, you will definitely need some human element... the cold hard facts do not always suffice. But I can say from lots of experience that too often people rely too much on gut feel. And that gut feel will vary within any one individual depending on how hungry they are, how tired they are, their emotional state, etc. Because like it or not, we are variable in how we respond at a "gut" level to any given stimulus.

tomasb
tomasb

"that gut feel will vary within any one individual depending on how hungry they are" ...no argument about that! ;-)))

ibogorad
ibogorad

I have to say one thing about frameworks and templates: while I have probably 30 to 40 people download templates from my site each day, I sometimes question how they use them. Tools are just that, tools, but we must use them intelligently. I have attempted in this article to go beyond just a template. If one masters this simple approach, they are 100 times better off than the next guy. But those who embark, through coaching, mentoring and training, on the path of constant betterment of themselves are the ones who will truly soar. Again, thank you for your kind words. Ilya Bogorad ibogorad@bizvortex.com