Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Decision Making

"When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it!"
Yogi Berra
Decision making skills can be very important in a careers context: Which career should I choose? Which university should I go to? Which course should I study? Of course they are also valuable in many other contexts in life.

The key steps in decision making are:

1. Clarify the nature of the problem before deciding action.

What is the purpose of the decision?
What is the expected outcome?
What are the key priorities: time, money, quality? Will a quick, cheap and cheerful solution do or do you need to invest time and cash to get things absolutely right?

2. Collect and summarise the data systematically.

Decisions can't be made in a vacuum! Gather, collate, classify and organise the information you need to make a decision. You need to analyse and evaluate all the important factors in making the decision. Analyse the various factors involved in the problem and identify the key ones.
Highlight any critical factors upon which the success on the decision will hinge.
Sound out the views and opinions of others: they may see something you have missed.

3. Use creativity/initiative in the generation of alternative solutions to the problem.

Produce a list of all the courses of action you can think of without trying to narrow these down. At this stage just produce a list of possible courses of action without trying to evaluate these. Brainstorming may help here (see below)
Think outside the box: don't just look at the obvious and tried and tested options. Don't be afraid to challenge the status quo.

How to brainstorm

  • The purpose of brainstorming is to produce as many possible options as possible without evaluating them.
  • Get a blank sheet of paper and write down any idea or possible solution which may help.
  • Don't censor your ideas. Write down everything, no matter how silly or insignificant to keep the flow going as once idea might lead to another.
  • Only once all the ideas have dried up, cross out or adapt all the weaker ideas: this should still leave you with a number of possible solutions.
  • Brainstorming can be done in a group, in which case no comments should be made about the decisions proposed or group members put down for proposing unusual ideas.

4. Produce a SHORT list of the best options.

Remove any obviously poorer choices. Don't have too many options in your final list or it will be too confusing.
Differentiate between practical and impractical solutions.

5. Make your decision

For each of your shortlist of options consider its advantages and disadvantages. Try to recognise any inconsistencies in your reasoning and question any assumptions you have made.
Evaluate each option against the key factors
to consider the combined effect of all the factors. Weight each factor in terms of importance paying particular attention to any critical factors. See the decision matrix below to help you do this.
Sometimes you may get so immersed that you may not be able to see the wood for the trees: if this happens sleep on it and postpone the decision until the next day. This may give you a fresh perspective.

Using a DECISION MATRIX to help you to decide between alternatives:

Make a short list of your key options and look at the positives and negatives for each item. Below is a very simple example. You could include many more factors.

Which career would be most appropriate for me: teacher, youth worker or sales executive?

Factors important to me in my career choice
Job security
high (x 3)
9 (x3=27)
7 (x3=21)
4 (x3=12)
Informal working environment
medium (x2)
4 (x2=8)
9 (x2=18)
3 (x2=6)
9 to 5 work
low (x1)
6 (x1=6)
1 (x1=1)
5 (x1=5)
Good salary
low (x1)
4 (x1=4)
3 (x1=3)
8 (x1=8)
Job satisfaction
low (x1)
6 (x1=6)
7 (x1=7)
5 (x1=5)
This suggests that for this particular person teaching and youth work would both be good alternatives, but a career in sales probably wouldn't suit them. Of course intuition (gut reaction) can also play a major part in making decisions, but a decision matrix may at least give you an idea of which is the most logical choice.
Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach. Tom Robbins
In a moment of decision, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Theodore Roosevelt
A peacefulness follows any decision, even the wrong one. Rita Mae Brown
When you have to make a choice and don't make it, that is in itself a choice. William James
Some persons are very decisive when it comes to avoiding decisions. Brendan Francis
You've got a lot of choices. If getting out of bed in the morning is a chore and you're not smiling on a regular basis, try another choice. Steven Woodhull
Decision is a sharp knife that cuts clean and straight; indecision, a dull one that hacks and tears and leaves ragged edges behind it. Gordon Graham
Whether you decide you can or you can't, you're right!
Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.

6. Implement your decision

See our page on action planning
Try to have a backup (contingency) plan in case your first option doesn't work out.

Learn to argue your solution if there is opposition from others

If it is a group decision, consider the implications for the other members of the team.
Communicate your ideas to the other team members, explain your reasoning and make sure they understand the logic behind it and get their commitment to carry it out.
See our page on effective group work

7. Evaluate how well things went

Learn from the experience especially if your solution does not prove successful!

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT analysis is a subjective method used to evaluate the STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES, OPPORTUNITIES, and THREATS involved in trying to attain an objective. It involves specifying the objective and identifying the internal and external factors that are favourable and unfavourable to achieving the objective. It can be used as a business tool or on a personal level where it can help you take advantage of your talents, abilities and opportunities. It can help to clarify and summarise the key issues and opportunities facing you and thereby to set objectives and develop new strategies. It should help you to to maximise strengths and minimise weaknesses in order to take advantage of opportunities and reduce threats.

SWOT Analysis for an unemployed graduate looking to gain employment






Attributes that help you to achieve your objective.
  • What skills do you have that others don't have? Our Skills Inventory with help here.
  • What skills have you gained in your degree?
  • Have you any contacts who may be able to help you?
  • What personal resources do you have access to?
  • Is where you live an advantage or disadvantage?
  • What do you do better than most other people?
  • How can you utilise each strength?
  • What do other people see as your strengths?

  • I have a good degree from a good university
  • I have good team working and organising skills
  • I have good support from my family, friends & the Careers Service


Limitations that are harmful to achieving your objective.
  • What skills could you improve?
  • What can you avoid?

  • I have no significant employment experience
  • My computing skills are weak: take a course to improve this
  • Not much money to do things.
  • Have to live  at home with my parents: can't afford to move away because of lack of money.



Favourable situations that help you achieve your objective.
  • Where opportunities are available to you?
  • How can you exploit these?
  • What opportunities do your strengths give you?
  • What trends might help you?

  • I have lots of free time to pursue things I haven't had time for before
  • I can do voluntary work & learn new skills to enhance my CV
  • It's a good chance to reevaluate where I'm heading in life


External conditions which could create problems.
  • What obstacles do you face?
  • How can you lessen these?
  • Could any of your weaknesses create problems?

  • If I stay unemployed for too long it could be difficult to get a job
  • Tough job market at present

Having said all the above, you also need to take into account your subconscious - your gut reaction will often make better decisions than any amount of analysis:
We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it...We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible an depending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.
 Malcolm Gladwell from his book "Blink"

How to reduce the costs of IT support

Cutting costs is an all too familiar requirement, but the article argues that you can do so without reducing staff numbers or sacrificing quality.

The question of reducing support costs is a seriously touchy one with big implications. Merely to consider it puts jobs at risk, which can damage morale and department stability.  Questions arise about the effect on service quality and so the wider impact on the corporation as a whole.  In all, the entire cost reduction issue is a bed of hot coals covered in tripwires.  Nevertheless, in the present climate, it is one that most managers – especially, one might argue, in the public sector – must at least be seen to have addressed, even if it is only to affirm that the department is lean, slick, running at maximum possible efficiency and meeting all business IT support needs for reasonable cost.
Accounting Value
The pressure on costs is purely financial.  It is not about service but value for money.  A core truth is that most IT support costs are already justified, or your department wouldn’t exist.  All we have to find out is ‘by how much’.  Therefore, the cost reduction programme must have two outputs.  The identification of excess expenditure is one, but that itself is only an arithmetic product of the main output, which is the accounting justification of the necessary costs.
Note I said ‘accounting’ justification – namely, what actually is the delivered monetary value of the services provided by IT support.  Most IT departments don’t know that number, or where to look for it. This is why they often have difficulty convincing those who think only about money to invest in IT support. If you want to convince a bean-counter, talk about beans, not ‘service benefits’.
Your next decision is whether you wish to increase, maintain or decrease service quality.  It’s OK to think about decreasing it by the way – once the target level of quality has been identified, any residual over-delivery is a waste that legitimately can be eliminated.
Two choices
Ultimately, there are really only two ways of reducing the cost of IT support.  One is to push the charge onto another cost centre and the other is to reduce resource expenditure.  For the first of these, the other cost centre may be internal, for instance where ‘user self-support’ pushes the support cost back onto the users.  The financial result is that some of the costs of IT support leave the IT budget and land instead in the budget of other departments.
However, unless this move is accompanied by a deliberate strategy for also reducing resource expenditure, then rather than change the costs of IT support, it simply transfers them elsewhere.  Ultimately, the organisation as a whole still bears the costs.
In addition, this mere transferral carries with it considerable risks.  Because the costs are now distributed among various centres, the total is now masked and effectively cannot be measured.  Thus it may rise invisibly and thus uncontrollably.  Furthermore, IT support responsibility has been passed to functions that do not specialise in this area – so there is a risk to quality.  Incidentally, this is why, in any consideration of support costs, you should also look at all those private support desks hosted and paid for by users, even if they don’t report to you.  It’s still all support cost, after all.
Another form of support cost transferral is outsourcing, as an attempt to force the costs onto another company entirely.  In fact, this is ultimately an internal transfer as well, as the organisation still has to pay the outsourcer.  Furthermore, that external provider now has an even bigger challenge than you had – namely to produce at least as good a service as you did, but also make a profit on what you pay him for doing it.  Of course, he can only do that by spending less to produce the service.  So either he must be supremely more efficient than you were or the service must be reduced in terms of scope and/or quality.
Outsourcing can also be a false solution overall.  One of the main pitfalls with this option stems from quantifying the support in the first place.  There is a very strong possibility that an inefficient support service has no accurate measure of the actual amount of support work to be done.  This is because poor support causes users to find other, more reliable ways of getting IT support, so not all the work ever reaches the official channel.  But when this is outsourced, all that demand may go to the outsourcing company, and because of the original statistical inaccuracy, the demand is unexpected.  So the charges go up.
The irony is that the accurate workload and demand measurement necessary for outsourcing would be the first step in any service improvement, for cost reduction or any other purpose.  Which brings me to the second way to decrease support costs, namely reducing resource expenditure.  In other words, the work necessary to prepare for outsourcing, may make outsourcing itself unnecessary.
First steps
When the programme starts, don’t be taken in by software companies suggesting you buy their product to save money in the long run.  That’s as may be, but at this stage it’s a distraction.  Find your procedural and structural waste first.  You can cement it with new tools as appropriate later.
There is a simple rule of thumb I like to use.  To find cost savings and efficiency improvements, the first place to look, in any organisation, is in the functions whose activity and output are least effectively measured.  In the first line, unlogged calls is a good place to start.  In the second and third lines, unquantified projects and query resolution times are rocks that can be interesting to lift.  Across support, activities that produce a recognisable result but are not formally identified as services, can also look very different under closer numerical scrutiny.
In the search for the smoking gun of waste, you have to do this looking behind the cupboards, at least to eliminate various suspects from your enquiries.  This can be extremely difficult as the work in some support sections may not be of the ‘McGregor Theory X’ type and so cannot easily be quantified.  How long and how many people does a ‘project’ take?  How do you compare the delivery of an installation with that of a user training course?  But of course that’s just detail. You’re looking at bigger pictures, so what you need here are patterns rather than mere units of resource consumption.
One problem I’ve sometimes encountered is resistance to measurement.  This can take numerous forms – rarely is it active defiance, but it can manifest itself as fear or ignorance.  Soldier on – you can’t ignore it just because it’s difficult.  Sooner or later, somebody will probably whisper the dreaded pejorative ‘Time and Motion’.  Of course this is just a cliché that people often use without fully understanding.  It comes from an industrial environment and an era before knowledge was a common product, so it’s not universally applicable to IT support.  You may find yourself having to explain this to some of the more fearful of those potentially affected.
As W E Deming said and I paraphrase, “if you cannot measure it you cannot manage it”, and by extraction it therefore lies outside your control and may thus be running up costs that are not necessarily justified.  Any inefficiency is also costing in terms of service quality to the end users, while perturbing and confusing managers.  You have to get these costs out into the open, even though you may thereby disturb the comfortable niches of some who have hitherto had no cause to take into account the cost-justifiability of their function.  If you can’t identify the costs, you can’t justify them.
The fear can often make it extremely difficult to find the objectivity essential to any such exercise.  You may be asking managers who have never measured their departments to produce statistics by which their cost value may be judged.  Even if they want to help with the exercise, they may simply not know how, and their objectivity may be clouded by the apparent or imagined risk to themselves or their departments.  This casts doubt on the accuracy and usefulness of the answers you may get.  For real objectivity, you might have to call in external assistance from one who has the techniques, expertise and experience to measure and propose cuts while understanding and maintaining IT support services, and no political or historical crosses to bear nor job of his own to protect (who might that be? Give me a ring and I’ll tell you).
One thing you can be sure of is that in the end, everybody benefits from a cost-measurement exercise, despite the possibility of heartache while it’s happening.  It’s more gratifying for the staff to work in a well-honed support service.  Where the exercise finds unpleasant truths like waste and protectionism that serves the self rather than the organisation, take pleasure in eradicating them, because that is a success, not a failure.  At the end, the users are happier, because the service is slicker.  You are indeed producing the best service you can for the investment made in it and you can prove it because you now have two figures – the cost of your department and the value it brings to the company, and the latter is decidedly and satisfyingly greater than the former.  It’s a relaxing feeling to know that on the bean-counter’s list, your department’s name has a tick of completion against it.