Decision Making: Context Is Crucial

  • Adrian Reed 
  • 6 min read
Picture of an open-air music concert
Image Credit: © Africa Studio — stock.adobe.com #119408486

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was a teenager, a group of friends and I made the trek from Portsmouth to London to attend a one-day open-air music festival.  We had been looking forward to the event for months and we’d spent a fair amount of time planning our journeys to ensure we could get there on time and (crucially) also get home.  I remember one of my friend’s parents was a classic car fan and had offered to drive us in his restored Lincoln Continental (a car you virtually never see in the UK), but we decided to get the train instead.  As an adult looking back this seems like a crazy decision (seriously, who wants to be on a train when you can be practically chauffeur driven?!). However, part of the fun was being independent and travelling “sans-parents” for a day—it was an absolutely logical decision given what we valued at the time.  A reminder that what is the “right” decision really does depend on what those affected by the decision find valuable….

Sunburnt And Sleeping On A Platform

The day arrived and our plans worked flawlessly—initially at least!   We met on the train, got across London and reached the venue in plenty of time. The music started and it was awesome — guitar-based indie bands belting out tunes that sounded so much better live.  After a whole day of dancing and sun exposure (note to self: carry sunscreen to open-air gigs) the event ended.  Still riding the adrenaline rush, we headed back to the tube (underground metro) station and we had the sudden realisation that getting home might not be as easy or quick as we’d anticipated.  We hadn’t accounted for the fact that it wouldn’t just be us trying to get home, there would be tens of thousands of other people too.  We stood in line for what seemed like hours just to get into the tube station, as each minute passed the chance of us catching our train diminished.

We ended up getting back to Waterloo (where we had planned to catch our connecting train to Portsmouth) just in time to see the final train leave.  After a deep breathe and some “choice” language, we started to discuss what to do.  We were about to exit the station to figure out what next when a somewhat burly security guard appeared:

 “I’m locking up, you’re welcome to stay here, but for security you’ll be locked in. There won’t be any staff, only cleaning staff and security staff”

 “So, are you in, or out?”

The decision context was clear: we needed an instant decision. There was no time for a lengthy discussion.  One of us, I can’t remember who, shouted  “in!”.  We found some cold, hard, benches and attempted to get sleep.  I got none,  I was just grateful we were somewhere reasonably safe and weren’t out in the elements.

Decision Making: Relevance For BAs And Projects

I was reflecting on this experience recently, and it reminded me how important context is when making a decision.  Anyone that knows me will know I’m an advocate of participatory approaches to change.  However, even though it sticks in my throat as I say it, there are times when “participation” and “engagement” aren’t appropriate.  If the fire alarm goes off in an office and a fire marshal runs in and says “don’t go down the South stairway, it’s blocked” we’d do well to listen to them.  This isn’t the time for a focus group or a lengthy consultation process. 

A topic that isn’t discussed enough, perhaps, in organisational change is “how will we decide how to decide?” . A lot of effort is put into decision making itself, but less so in deciding how decisions will be made.  A lack of explicit agreement over how a decision will be made can lead to delays and analysis paralysis. All the worst symptoms of ‘decision by committee’ emerge.  Folks meet and can’t decide: requests for reports and data accelerate as folks with different values and perspectives dance around the issue, until it becomes so proximate and urgent that their hands are forced.  The decision is made by inaction and the default option becomes reality.

Decision-Making Dimensions 

There are many dimensions to decision making,  but some that are particularly relevant in change include:

  • Proximity and urgency: How “proximate” is the issue being discussed? Do we have lots of time to analyse? Do we need to make a decision promptly? What’s the cost or risk of delaying? Do we give up an option by delaying? Is life at risk?
  • Upside vs downside: What are the consequences of getting the decision “right” or “wrong”? Do these consequences impact all stakeholders equally, or are certain groups advantaged and disadvantaged? Are those stakeholders involved? Can they be?
  • Default: What happens if we don’t make a decision in time? Who is affected or impacted? What are the consequences of inaction?
  • Authority: Who can make the decision? Who is accountable for the effects? If these are different people, are they both involved?
  • Values: What do different stakeholders value?  What are their perspectives? Do we know what “success” looks like for them?
  • Stakeholder participation: To what extent can we, or would we like to, get wider participation in the decision making process? Are we “engaging”, “consulting”, “imposing”, or something else? Does the approach fit the context?
  • Size and predictability: What is the size of the decision, risks, or benefits? Is it “routine” and predictable, or new and novel?

There will be other considerations too, depending on context, and there’s certainly no one “definitive” list. The real key is to have open discussions about how decisions are (or ought to be) made, and who should be involved. Prompts such as those listed above can be useful to cultivate these discussions. This may be overkill for smaller or more routine decisions, but when it comes to organisational change it seems crucial.  As business analysts we can help to keep these considerations firmly on the agenda.


Related topics
If you liked this article, you might be interested in reading about ‘Real Options’ (by Chris Matts), or Critical Systems Heuristics (Werner Ulirch)


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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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