How To Make IT Decisions With Incomplete And Imperfect Information
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some unexpected and challenging decisions upon IT leaders over the past few weeks. In this post, Rob Duffy considers how leaders should approach key decisions in chaotic circumstances.
In the late 90s, Dave Snowden (working for IBM at the time) drafted the Cynefin Framework. With Cynefin being a Welsh word for ‘habitat, the framework was designed to aid decision making, providing users with a home or domain from which they can perceive their situation and take necessary action. The domains within the framework are:
- ‘Simple’, where the user is facing known-knowns and the relationship between cause and effect is clear.
- ‘Complicated’ is where the user is facing ‘known-unknowns’ which require expertise and a sense-analyze-respond approach,
- ‘Complex’ consists of ‘unknown-unknowns’ where understanding is emergent and cause and effect only becomes apparent in retrospect.
- The ‘Chaotic’ domain has little time for discovery and requires immediate action with an act-sense-respond approach
- ‘Disorder’ is where there is no way of identifying your domain because multiple scenarios apply to multiple domains (you do not want to be here).
The situation that we are all facing with COVID-19 has placed many leaders in the realm of the ‘Chaotic’. With lots of decisions that need to be made to protect your employees and business emerging at an accelerated rate, the only way forward is to act and get the train moving.
We discuss the Cynefin Framework, in relation to COVID-19 and business continuity with leadership coach, Alastair Kidd, in Episode 53 of the Cloudbusting podcast. Listen in the player below or in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” — Theodore Roosevelt
But how do you make good decisions when there are so many uncontrollable external forces dictating the agenda and the landscape is shifting hour by hour?
It is chaotic times like these that will test the mettle and adaptability of all IT leaders but there are some strategies you can use to help you make good decisions and course-correct on the bad ones:
Wise decisions depend on good information. To ‘get smart’ and solve your problem you first need to have a clear understanding of your desired outcome. You must then consider your problem from all angles - understanding that the solution may not come from above but in unexpected areas of your business. Finally, ensure you are using reliable sources and accurate information to inform your decisions.
Today’s information overload requires a lot of internal filtering to obtain credible and useful sources. In IT, this means listening more to your internal metrics, your IT team, and your trusted partners to inform your decisions. Try to ignore the noise in the marketplace. Keep in mind they are trying to solve their problems by getting your attention, but that doesn’t necessarily solve your problem. Stay focused on your objectives and rely on the experience, expertise, and judgment of yourself and the people around you to appraise and respond to the information available.
Slow down and make smaller decisions
As hard as it is, try and take a breath and understand the whole problem. Take a step back, anticipate and prioritize. Try to make small decisions that move you in the right direction. Making smaller decisions allows you the time to evaluate the results and react. Understand what are the five or ten most pressing decisions at the moment and solve for those. Make sure you are engaging others in these processes to help them understand what decisions are being made and gauge how they might affect downstream operations.
You do not need to be 100% correct
We have all heard the expression: Perfection is the enemy of the good? As overused as the saying is, it applies itself perfectly to the business environment we find ourselves in. Often people are paralyzed with trying to model out every possible outcome and build a detailed plan before they act. In today’s chaotic business environment, you don’t have the luxury of time to gather complete information nor will that information remain static for very long. What is important is that you are moving and that you are (at least) directionally correct.
The mythical perfect answer does not exist. Even if it did, this is an unprecedented situation - how on earth could you be expected to know the answer right away? Try and think of several different pathways and choose the ones that get you closer to your goal. Without all the information you are never going to be 100% certain of the outcome, so you have to trust yourself and your team to stay nimble and aware to adapt and iterate as you go along. The best you can hope for is to not make things worse and that you can adjust as the situation evolves.
Should you trust your gut?
Some leaders go with their gut, others solely rely on the data. With more data available to help inform your decisions than ever before, you would be mad to ignore it. However, especially in chaos, there is very little time for detailed analysis and strategy. In chaos, there is still a place for trusting your instincts and experience. This type of anecdotal, non-codified evidence can be helpful as long as you are self-aware and can look inward to where these reactions are coming from and remain mindful of how they are influencing you.
- Recognize that your gut feeling is not arbitrary but is generated out of your past experiences and formulated in your subconscious. It is a collection of the objective and subjective information you have already been exposed to. Try and remember what in your history is drawing you in these directions.
- Science suggests that our brains are very adept at predicting future events. Your gut feeling is the result of a lot of processing by your brain.
- To hone your gut instinct try and recognize cognitive biases, by paying attention to previous examples, patterns, and models from your history and linking what they learn to future decisions. Tips on how to spot those pitfalls, here and here