Take the time to share non-work interests with your team

As part of our global architecture status meeting, we have been taking 10-15 mins out of the agenda to share some of our non-work interests. Our team is geographically distributed, so not many of us have never met face to face. This is a great way for us to build rapport and improve our working relationships.

So far we’ve had some very quirky and interesting topics:

  • Indian weddings
  • Building a space elevator
  • Community engagement outside work (being a local politician)
  • RC helicopters
  • The “Cinco de Mayo” festival
  • Lacrosse – the oldest N American sport.
  • and me on Rugby Union

Here’s the slide deck that I used to explain Rugby Union to the uninitiated –> Rugby Explained (External)

Why not try something similar in your next team meeting? It’s surprising how it can break up a regular monotonous status session.


Donal’s approach to complex problem solving

There are all sorts of frameworks and whitepapers on this subject. But quite simply, I try to break down complex problems into more easily solvable chunks…

To do this, I use my own take on the Decision Analysis and Resolution (DAR) approach from CMMi.

DAR is a structured, formalized and somewhat long-winded process that helps organize and document complex, high-impact decisions where multiple resolutions are possible and the optimal one isn’t obvious from the outset. It facilitates the objective comparison of alternative solutions using sponsor/stakeholder agreed selection criteria and weighting.

In my role as a Technology Architect, I often use a cut-down DAR to help solve the following types of problems:

  1. Selecting a technology platform, product or application (e.g. Siebel vs SAP CRM vs SalesForce.com)
  2. Resolving complex technical architecture decisions (e.g. Legacy vs Packaged/COTS vs Custom Build)

It’s useful to refer to a previously approved set of requirements or standards when choosing which selection criteria to specify. I’ve often used a client’s Enterprise Architecture Standards, or project specific Functional and Non-Functional Requirements to good effect. Here are some examples of the common core selection criteria I’ve seen:

  • Business Strategy Fit – alignment to business drivers, goals and objectives
  • Functionality Fit – adherence to functional requirements and regulatory compliance etc.
  • Technology Architecture Fit – adherence to technical requirements, reference models, road-maps, strategy, principles and standards
  • Resource/Skills Fit
  • Cost Factors – software, hardware, CAPEX, OPEX, resourcing, licences etc.
  • Implementation Time-frames
  • Barriers to Delivery – impact to/of in-flight programs and initiatives

It may be obvious, but the complexity of your DAR model should be proportional to the complexity and importance of the decision you are making or the problem you are solving. That said, I often use the same, simple scoring and weighting mechanism whatever the complexity (see below). Although I know a few people that prefer Harvey Balls for this – incidentally, did you know there was a MS Word font for this, and even a MS Excel conditional formatting setting?!

For each of the weighted selection criteria, a group of stakeholders and Subject Matter Advisers(SMAs) should discuss and agree on the relative score/multiplier for each option under consideration. This process should be as collaborative as possible, but it often helps if you draft a initial straw-man model prior to the meeting in order for them to review it. Although a clear winner may not emerge straight away, it will at least narrow down the decision to a couple of pivotal areas, focusing the debate and avoiding paralysis by analysis.

For me, the key benefits of this type of approach are:

  • It organises and structures my thinking into a simpler, more manageable process;
  • It enables a more collaborative and consensual approach – this is essential in some client cultures!
  • It objectifies the selection criteria and weighting – it’s not just my opinion;
  • The solution comparison becomes obvious, even to a lay person;
  • The document produced creates an unchallenge-able paper-trail. These types of decisions will come under scrutiny at some point in the future.

What frameworks do you use? My simple process isn’t infallible, nor is it all-encompassing, but it has proven very useful for me in the past.

Avoiding Decision Fatigue The Barack Obama Way

According to Wikipedia, the term decision fatigue describes the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual caused by a prolonged period of decision making.  The common consensus is that decision fatigue is a phenomenon experienced by us all, whether we realize it or not. It can occur at work, at home or in our social lives.

In most cases, this has negative connotations: for example, my friends recently amassed over 1000 Facebook messages just to organize one night out over the Easter holidays, just because nobody could make a decision on where to meet, what to eat and at what time. But some industries use it to their advantage – I’ve learned recently that the reason why most supermarkets have magazine racks and junk food situated next to the checkouts is because people are so worn down by having to make constant choices throughout the store that they will often pick someone at the end of their shop without thinking.

Car manufacturers have cottoned on to this and now have learned to avoid swamping their customers with endless decisions up front and tend to offer a reduced set of options by packaging them up into distinct specifications. But in closing the deal they’ll offer you all sorts of additional extras like paint cover, extended warranties, gap insurance and expect you to be fatigued into ticking all of them – that’s where their bonuses come from.

As technology architects often working in high-pressure working environments,  we experience decision fatigue inducing scenarios all the time. Whether it be big up front design decisions, technology selections, change impact analysis, production change approvals, we need to find ways to remain as ordinarily sensible people and reduce our decision fatigue to become more effective architects.

How do other people cope? Barack Obama famously enforces a streamlined process on all (100+) of his direct reports, whereby they must include three check-boxes on any document they ask him to review with the options: agree; disagree; or discuss further. I really admire the simplicity of this approach.

Unbeknownst to his technique I tried something remarkably similar a few years ago when my fiancee went through a period of intensive wedding planning. Whenever she needed my input on a decision e.g. wedding invitations, colour schemes, menus etc. I asked her to do some research (she loved this bit) and come back to me with her three preferred options and we would pick our favourite together over a glass of wine. I could then focus my time on the important stuff like how much beer and wine we’d need and the location for the honeymoon etc. Incidentally we also had a huge shared Google Spreadsheet with reams of detailed plans and lists, which still serves a purpose nowadays as our Christmas card list complete with people’s addresses!

Like Mr Obama, we can do this by both employing prioritization techniques and structured decision making tools to our advantage. And if we’re lucky enough to have direct reports then get them to do some research and streamlining up front. We need to take stock of the types decisions and their cadence. Often, it’s easier to tackle big issues first before attempting simpler day-to-day decisions.

In my experience it always feels safer to weigh up all pros and cons in to arrive at the “best” answer for the bigger more complex issues, but to avoid fatigue try to focus your attention a few key criterion, and leave the rest alone. Where possible, try making quick decisions on smaller choices that don’t matter as much, or try empowering your team members to do the thinking for you and just provide you with the opportunity to quickly Agree, Disagree or Discuss.

What do you think? Is decision fatigue a problem for you at work or at home? How do you cope?