Avoiding FOMO and Making the Right Choices

In December 2019, my oldest son turned 16.  I need to buy a car.  Choosing a car has become a paralyzing adventure for me.  Literally.  I can’t decide.  I am like Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place.  I understand what my choices are.  However, I keep getting lost in the merits of each make and model, and as a consequence, we don’t have a third car.  I’m like the scene where Chidi can’t even decide what to order from the menu. 

Luckily for me (well, sort of), COVID-19 hit, and we haven’t really needed it.  But the time will come.  Life will go back to normal or some type of new normal.  My son, my wife, and I will need cars at the same time, and the need to make a decision will take a higher priority.  Regardless of when the moment arises, we will need to reduce the total number of car choices to one car and come up with some rubric to help us make a final decision. 

Recently, my personal guru Shankar Vedantam (disclaimer: he doesn’t know he’s my personal guru) taped an episode of his podcast The Hidden Brain called “The Choices Before Us,” and my personal turmoil became understandable and explicable. 

During this May 7 Hidden Brain podcast, Mr. Vedantam conducted an interview with Columbia Business School professor, Dr. Sheena Iyengar and author of the book ‘The Art of Choosing.’  In this episode, Mr. Vedantam and Dr. Iyengar navigate several aspects of choice and decision making that indicate the challenges we face when selecting even the most inconsequential of things.  They discuss study after study that points to the notion that truly less is more. 

The challenge of choosing, making good choices, and being fine to live with the choices not made is a proverbial human quandary.  As I shared this podcast with my friend and colleague, John Humphrey, we chuckled that the plight of our clients is not too dissimilar from this decision-making challenge. 

What Agile Teaches Us About Choices

Lately, we have found ourselves where our jobs at that moment are to help our clients determine what they are going to focus on next.  It takes us right back into the Chidi Conundrum. 

The organizations we are blessed to work with are super talented, but they are human.  There is literally no upper limit to what they could accomplish on anything they set their minds to.  As much of a blessing that is, it can also be equally a curse.  Because, pardon the Yogi Berra-like pun, the direction they choose is the direction they will go.  They need to choose their next step wisely. 

“What will produce the most value?”

“What is the higher priority?” 

There are no easy answers here. Agile Scrum does give us all tools to use to review our choices, make sure we understand why that choice has value, and then maybe iterate a few steps forward to test the viability of that idea before going all in and investing in the final product. 

Value Stream Analysis

Sometimes the opportunities to add value emerge from analyzing where and how value is created through common business processes.  Maybe you are a widget manufacturer.  Perhaps what you sell is a service.  Regardless of modality, we hopefully all work for places where creating value is essential to survival.  But few firms have really dissected their value stream to the extent that they can point to exactly how value is created and thus how their value stream can be extended or optimized to create new value or enhanced value from existing streams.

Value Chain Analysis presents a great method for understanding overall cycle times, process efficiency, and the full scope from concept to cash of your operations.  From these analyses, valuable insights can often be generated. 

Here is an example of one we recently created for a client: 

 

 

We were able to take our client through this model with an active discussion about where IT can be inserted in the value chain.  As you can see, in their current state, they are an island off the value chain, and with this picture, we were able to help IT create a visual asset that could foster some important conversations between them and the business. 

This business has a choice to make:  When should IT be engaged? How big is our initial scope?  Can we bite off smaller chunks?  We are helping them recalibrate the value chain so that IT is not an afterthought, but more of a strategic partner.   

Value Stream analyses are not quick, and they typically need to be done right.  This means investing some time, through active and collaborative whiteboarding sessions to evaluate things like the process times, wait times, feedback loop consequences, and hard conversations where we find the areas that are impacting Work In Process.  But, in terms of helping understand where decision making should be focused, it is an invaluable tool. 

How Might We?… 

Now that you have generated insights, let’s start to put them on the board for the team to see.  Start a timeboxed exercise for the team to ideate on solving an insight using a “how might we…” phrase; HMW, for short.    

Examples might be:

  • How might we reduce warehouse assembly time?
  • How might we engage IT faster?
  • How might we reduce the wait time between assembling the team and establishing the product backlog so we can deliver new functionality sooner?
  • How might we spin up a new direct to consumer product line?
  • How might we reach out to our abandoned cart customers?

The list could be endless, and there are no wrong HMW’s.  But, use timeboxes to make sure the out of the box thinking avoids analysis paralysis. You’re not going to be able to tackle every insight in this session, but you will likely come up with some highly viable HMW’s that you can put into action right away. 

With the team’s HMW’s in hand, we can now review them and try to find an HMW that is tight enough on scope to be actionable but loose enough at the same time that it not too specific.   Start another timebox to see if the team can come up with some viable solutions for that HMW statement.  Something they could ideally iterate on in quick iteration. 

When bringing Dr. Iyengar’s insights regarding too many choices, we are able to see why a tight scope leads to success!  Too many requirements, or HMW’s, leads to diminishing returns in the solution because we might grow overwhelmed with too many decisions to make.

Spike User Stories

Try a spike user story to all your team some time to research a topic.  Spike sprints are single iteration sprints focused on evaluating a concept or learning what you need to know in order to proceed further.  They help us quickly identify the viability of a thought pattern.  In other words, they reduce the number of decisions we have to make. A good thing!

Prototyping

There’s an old adage about Abraham Lincoln, I’m not sure how true it is, but it goes something to the effect that a reporter asked him why he changed his mind on a policy that he had been formerly against.  He looked at the reporter and said, “Well, I’d like to think that I know more today than I did yesterday!” 

Prototyping helps us know something tomorrow that we don’t know today.  The value of agile is that we can take a team and give them an HMW and let them mockup what that idea might look and feel like in real life.  They can iterate for 2-weeks and come up with a conceptual model, diagram or maybe even semi-working website to show what that idea might look like if we brought it to life.  The most you’ll lose is 2-weeks of team time.  At best, you’ll gain the ability to deduce whether the HMW was a good idea or a bad idea.  Every choice is a gamble, but this one is as risk-managed as you can get.  These processes lead to the concept of a Minimum Viable Product, MVP.  The MVP is critical in software development and selection because it focuses people on the 80/20 rule, where the majority of the value comes from a small number of requirements.  Scope creep feeds on itself, and according to Dr. Lyengar’s research, more scope equals poorer decisions.

Proven Success of Prototyping

From this approach, amazing inventions have happened that we literally take for granted every day.  Gmail was, at one point, just an idea someone had about how they could improve upon existing e-mail experiences and leverage something Google already had: a search engine.

Sometimes these choices morph into something else.  We are all familiar with Slack, but we might not know that it didn’t start as a messaging platform with a ton of interfaces to other services.  The origin of Slack comes from a failed gaming company that had a product called Glitch that was not about winning as much as it was about encouraging players to collaborate together to perform a task.  It was fun and edgy and completely built on the wrong platform (Adobe Flash).  Though Glitch is now in the rubbish bin archives, clearly the fundamental concepts behind it were sound; they just needed a different problem to solve.  But, without Glitch, we might not have Slack today. 

Conclusion

As my guru’s podcast drew to a close, the fundamental message to me was clear.  We humans can only truly handle a limited amount of choices.  Our ability to make good decisions rests upon our ability to ferret out the noise and reduce the choices we have to make such that we are left with the one or two that show the most promise.  We need to avoid the Chidian dilemma as he tries to deduce the most ethically appropriate menu option to order only to send his waiter away for the 5th time. 

The business world is no different than our personal lives; however, the rub is clearly that the decisions we make in business affect our personal livelihood (most of the time).  So, we must choose wisely. Leveraging tools like Agile Scrum with Spike User Stories, Prototyping, and leading to an MVP will lessen the number of choices, improve decision making and yield higher returns for your clients.

Today, we shared some methods that have worked for us and our clients.  What works for you and your organizations?  Please share your decision-making models that work and the lessons you have learned along the way. 

Make it a great day!  And thank you for reading!

Written by Jonathan Goldstein, Vice President

Jonathan Goldstein has over 20 years of experience as a PMP and CSM delivery executive.

He has focused his career on managing multiple business and technology transformation initiatives, building Project Management Offices, and leading organizational change through process optimization.  He offers a blend of technical and business knowledge that enables him to be an advisor on initiatives of varying sizes, budget levels, and business impact.

Jonathan leads an organization currently delivering projects in the areas of agile transformation, systems integration, product management for core front and back office systems, and production support.  He blogs frequently about his lessons learned along his professional journey on his LinkedIn profile.

Reach out to Jonathan to discuss decision-making models and the next step for your business!