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.

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