Components of a Decision Support System

Traditionally, the term “decision support system” is used to describe tools with some computer component to help people, usually managers, identify and evaluate options when faced with a complicated decision.  However, you don’t need a computer to use all the components of a decision support system.  A number of brain-based ways of thinking about decisions can be useful and are often much more accessible.  What you need is a way to systematically think through possible outcomes of your choices and compare the relative benefit of each.

10 Minutes, 10 Months, 10 Years

Suzy Welch’s book, 10-10-10, helps you think about the future outcome of decisions you need to make:  what will the outcome be in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years?  (Mixed reviews on Amazon; I found the book helpful.)  Many times, what appears to be more important in 10 minutes (finish the assignment) has a different outcome in 10 years (get more exercise).

Some of the books reviewers think this system is nothing but common sense, without acknowledging that “common sense” is the least common of all the senses.  Other reviewers, including me, realize that regularly thinking through the long term outcome of any of our daily decisions can be a discipline.

Her system gets a little complicated if you have to decide between more than two options or a “go-don’t go” situation.

Round the Clock

When I read Peter Bregman’s post about Visualizing Failure on the HBR blog this morning, I was reminded of another, brain-based, decision support tool I use called “round the clock.”

To use the Round the Clock system yourself, draw a circle on a blank sheet of paper.  Mark at least the quarter hour positions, at 12, 3, 6, and 9.  Now, close your eyes and imagine the best outcome possible for the decision you face.  Make a note of that outcome at the 12 position.

Next, imagine, per Visualizing Failure, the worst possible outcome, given the realistic facts of the choice you are considering.  This outcome goes at the 6 position.

Next, imagine two, different, outcomes, halfway between best possible” and “worst possible.”   One is more good than bad, one is less great and a little more difficult, but neither should be a total failure of the concept.  These outcomes belong at the 3 and 9 spots, respectively.

If your facts and imagination will accommodate you, keep going–differently successful, or un-, outcomes at each of the numbers on the clock face.  However, many decisions only need the major four positions covered, before you understand what course of action you need to take.

If you’re still not sure, give yourself a day to think about the worst possible outcome that you can imagine.  What exactly would that be like?  What warning signals would the situation provide to you, that could indicate a need for a change in plan?  Is it true, like one commenter suggested (admittedly as a very unlikely outcome), that:

What if you quit your job to start your dream company, and you fail, lose all of your money, can’t get another boring job, lose your house, can’t support your family, your family disowns you, you end up on the street, you acquire some deadly disease, and are homeless.

Equating “not starting your dream company” with “homelessness” is an awfully big leap.  Very few people make that leap in one step.  Very few people wind up homeless, as a result of entrepreneurial failure alone, although sometimes stories about business failure make for better cardboard signs than stories about other causes of homelessness.

If you’re pretty sure that your family would not disown you, or that you would find some job any job if your business could not provide the income you needed, then your “worst case outcome” is NOT homelessness, and “living on the street” should not be in the 6:00 position.

You may want to make a note of any warning signs you thought about as you imagine the worse case scenario.

Outcomes are Unknowable

The truth is, any outcome reasonably far into the future, involving other people, is pretty much unknowable from the start.  If it were a 100% sure thing, you wouldn’t need to put your idea through the components of a decision support system, by evaluating individual steps and outcomes against what you know about the world.

We know from research in a number of fields that people are pretty bad about predicting accurately.  However, most people are actually reasonably good at responding to out-of-the-blue unexpected events.  What hurts emotionally are the events that are completely predictable, that we didn’t predict, often because we became too attached to one potential outcome too quickly.

When you do a round-the-clock exercise, you have an opportunity to consider and document the warning signs that could appear along the way, telling you that your path is leading to a 6:00 outcome rather than the noon version in your best dreams.

Similarly, if you regularly practice 10-10-10 thinking, it’s much less likely that you’ll turn around on your next “0” birthday and say, “I sure  wish I’d exercised more…”  At the very least, you’ll understand that you made decisions in favor of some other outcome along the way.

Make a decision to decide…

Big decisions can be intimidating.  Using the components of a decision support system, even with pencil, paper, and your imagination, can cut a big decision into much more manageable parts.   All you need is a way to systematically think through possible outcomes of your choices and compare the relative benefit of each.



Schedule the un-doing time

Have you ever come home from a fantastic class or seminar, brimming with ideas and vision and action items for your business?  Plenty of times, right?  And almost as many times, two weeks later, you come across your notes in a pile on your desk, coffee-stained and wrinkled, and realize you haven’t taken action on a single idea.

What’s the fix?  Take another class?

Unless you can find a class about “un-doing,” you already have all the skills you need to master this hack for a productive life.  You simply need to remember to do it, or rather, un-do it.

The fix for not implementing the new ideas or new information you learned in an expensive class is to schedule the un-doing time, aka implementation or execution time, at the very same moment you schedule the class.  That is, when you add the class to your calendar, book at least half the amount of time as follow up.  Hard-code it, as we used to say in IT.  Make an appointment with yourself.

If you’re taking a week-long class, it could be that an entire week of half-days of “follow up time” is too much.  However, you may do well to schedule at least one hour a day for the following week, or perhaps four hours a week for the following month, to act on the content, ideas, and information you gained.  You’d be surprised.

In most cases, I’m not fond of booking “activity” appointments with myself.  I prefer to use my calendar for hard-stop events—scheduled appointments, phone calls, and webinars, events that if I don’t attend, I miss altogether.  I my version of “getting things done” to keep track of assignments and project work.

However, booking a follow up time at the same time I move the class onto my calendar helps me to prevent calendar creep.  When I see an “open” day or week, it can be too easy to allow an appointment or four to creep in. I don’t always remember to look at the previous week to remind myself that I will be doing something then that will require follow up in what appears to be “open” time.

Don Aslett, the cleaning and productivity maven, is a big fan of scheduling the Un- time.

  • Party “afters”—dishes, food, cleaning
  • Cleaning and putting away tools after a construction project
  • Filing project papers and documenting lessons learned

In How to Handle 1000 Things at Once, Don adds that not scheduling and arranging for the “un-doing” of an activity, when that work has to be done anyway, casts a pall over the memory of the event (p. 64).  Brides who don’t think about who will handle wedding gifts brought to the reception impose on their friends.  When we don’t allow time to implement ideas from a class or presentation, we tend to blame the teacher, not our own scheduling ability.

In a recent blog post, behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells a story of a company that failed to allow any time for salving the emotional pain and de-motivation resulting from a canceled project.  The people who commented on the post have a range of opinion about who was actually responsible for the employees’ feelings and reactions.  Regardless, it is probable that a formal “un-doing” of the canceled project, rather than a curt, “quit working on that and do something else” message would probably have unruffled feathers and reduced turnover at the company.

When looking for new employees, hiring managers like to talk about “attention to detail” and “follow-through.”  Larry Bossidy, retired CEO of Honeywell, wrote an entire book about this trait, called Execution.  If you can’t demonstrate “follow-through,” you may be out of luck in the job hunt.  (Hint—get a friend to proof read your resume.  The #1 most common indicator of good attention-to-detail is no typos.)  Now, some people are clearly better at execution than others, and some manager are all too easily fooled by a resume that has been carefully proofed, true.  On the other hand, a substantial about of “attention to detail” is simply a productivity hack.  Learn to schedule time for follow up.

People who commute learn to build a schedule that allows for drive time.  If we live in high-traffic areas, we even manage drive times that vary by a factor of three, depending on rush hour conditions.  Use the same skills to master un-doing.  The longer the meeting and/or the newer or more challenging the material, the longer it will take to act on it.  Block “un-do” time into your calendar when you schedule an event, and you’ll amaze yourself with your ability to act on new ideas.

There’s always a goat

I came home from teaching a course about the tools that office workers need to be productive to an open calendar and three or four blog posts waiting to get out of my head onto the screen. As I settled in to work, I noticed that my big dog was barking his “something needs my attention” bark; a bark that didn’t stop and didn’t shift as it would if he were following someone moving on the street. I went out to see what had his attention.

One of my neighbor’s goats had died.

Farm, or even backyard-farm, life is often not pretty. One thing I know for sure is that once there’s a problem, it won’t get any better on its own. We had a similar situation earlier that year.  When you find a dead possum on your porch in July, you will have to take action long before you can wait until the problem solves itself.

I called the goat’s owner. We talked about what to do with the body, and fortunately, I thought of the tigers. The Carolina Tiger Rescue facility was happy to take her, but they couldn’t come and pick her up.   I loaded her into the bed of my truck and delivered her. By the time I came home, the afternoon was gone and the evening’s schedule called.

It is in the nature of goats to disrupt schedules and plans, but it is also in the nature of schedules and plans to be disrupted. Your life may never cross paths with a real live goat, or even a dead one. Count yourself lucky. But every life has its own goat-equivalent. Most of the time, schedules are disrupted with the addition of “something else, more, additional.” We don’t even think of it as “disruptive” when we discover a chunk of the plan doesn’t have to be completed, although it’s as much of a change as finding out we have a new responsibility.

There’s always a goat, even if sometimes, the goat is a possum, or a kitten.

When I don’t want to think about goats, I use a phrase provided by a friend who works at the Animal Shelter:  “Kittens do not take zero minutes.”