Sunday, September 17, 2017


We can model large endeavors as a series of decisions. Ultimately, their success relies on getting work completed, but the underlying effort cannot even be started until all of the preceding decisions are made. The work can be physical or it can be intellectual or it can even be creative.

If there are decisions that can be postponed, then we will adopt the convention that they refer to separate, but related pieces of work. They can occur serially with the later piece of work relying on some of the earlier decisions as well as the new ones. Some decisions are based on what is known up-front, while others can’t be made until an earlier dependent bit of work is completed.

For now, we’ll concentrate on a single piece of work that is dependent on a series of decisions. Later we can discussion parallel series and how they intertwine.

Decisions are rarely ever ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, so we need some other metric for them. In our case, we will use ‘quality’. We will take the decision relative to its current context and then talk about ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in terms of quality. A better decision will direct the work closer to the target of the endeavor, while a worse one will stray farther away. We’ll accept decisions as being a point in a continuous set and we can bound them between 0.0 and 100.0 for convenience. This allows for us to adequately map them back to the grayness of the real world.

We can take the quality of any given decision is the series as being relative to the decision before it. That is, even if there are 3 ‘worse’ decisions in a row, the 4th one can be ‘better’. It is tied to the others, but it is made in a sub-context and only has a limited range of outcomes.

We could model this in a demented way as a continuous tree whose leaves fall onto the final continuous range of quality for the endeavor itself. So, if the goal is to build a small piece of software, at the end it has a specific quality that is made up from the quality of its subparts, which are directly driven by the decisions made to get each of them constructed. Some subparts will more heavily weight the results, but all of it contributes to the quality. With software, there is also a timeliness dimension, which in many cases would out-weight the code itself. A very late project could be deemed a complete failure.

To keep things clean, we can take each decision itself to be about one and only one degree of variability. If for some underlying complex choice, there are many non-independent variables together, representing this as a set of decisions leaves room to understand that the one or more decision makers may not have realized the interdependence. Thus the collection of decisions together may not have been rational on the whole, even if all of the individual decisions were rational. In this sense, we need to define ‘rational’ as being full consideration of all things necessary or known relative to the current series of decisions. That is, one may make a rational decision in the middle of a rather irrational endeavor.

Any decision at any moment would be predicated both on an understanding of the past and the future. For the past, we accrue a great deal of knowledge about the world. All of it for a given subject would be its depth. An ‘outside’ oversimplification of it would be shallow. The overall understanding of the past would then be about the individual’s or group’s depth that they have in any knowledge necessary to make the decision. Less depth would rely on luck to get better quality. More depth would obviously decrease the amount of luck necessary.

Looking towards the future is a bit tricker. We can’t know the future, but we can know the current trajectory. That is, if uninterrupted, what happened in the past will continue. When interrupted, we assume that that is done so by a specific event. That event may have occurred in the past, so we have some indication that it is, say, a once-in-a-year event. Or once-in-a-decade. Obviously, if the decision makers have been around an area for a long time, then they will have experienced most of the lower frequency events, thus they can account for them. A person with only a year’s experience will get caught by surprise at a once-in-a-decade event. Most people will get caught by surprise at a once-in-a-century event. Getting caught by surprise is getting unlucky. In that sense, a decision that is low quality because of luck may indicate a lack of past or future understanding or both. Someone lucky may look like they possess more knowledge of both than they actually do.

If we have two parallel series of decisions, the best case is that they may be independent. Choices made on one side will have no effect on the work on the other side. But it is also possible that the decisions collide. One decision will interfere with another and thus cause some work to be done incorrectly or become unnecessary. These types of collisions can often be the by-product of disorganization. The decision makers are both sides are unaware of their overlap because the choice to pursue parallel effort was not deliberate.

This shows that some decisions are implicitly made by willingly or accidentally choosing to ignore specific aspects of the problem. So, if everyone focuses on a secondary issue instead of what is really important, that in itself is an implicit decision. If the choices are made by people without the prerequisite knowledge or experience, that too is an implicit decision.

Within this model then, even for a small endeavor, we can see that there are a huge number of implicit and explicit decisions and that in many cases it is likely that there are many more implicit ones made than explicit. If the people are inexperienced, then we expect the ratio to have a really high multiplier and that the quality of the outcome then relies more heavily on luck. If there is a great deal of experience, and the choices made are explicit, then the final quality is more reflective of the underlying abilities.

Now all decisions are made relative to their given context and we can categorize these across the range of being ‘strategic’ or ‘tactical’. Strategic decisions are either environmental or directional. That is, at the higher level someone has to set up the ‘game’ and point it in a direction. Then as we get nearer to the actual work, the choices become more tactical. They get grounded in the detail, become quite fine-grained and although they can have severe long-term implications, they are about getting things accomplished right now. Given any work, there are an endless number of tiny decisions that must be made by the worker, based on their current situation, the tactics and hopefully the strategic direction. So, with this, we get some notion of decisions having a scope and ultimately an impact. Some very poor choices by a low-level core programmer on a huge project, for instance, can have ramifications that literally last for decades, and that degrade any ability to make larger strategic decisions.

In that sense, for a large endeavor, the series of decisions made, both large and small, accumulate together to contribute to the final quality. For long running software projects, each recurring set of decisions for each release builds up not only a context, but also boundaries that intrinsically limit the best and worst possible outcomes. Thus a development project 10 years in the making is not going to radically shift direction since it is weighted down by all of its past decisions. Turning large endeavors slows as they build up more choices.

In terms of experience, it is important for everyone involved at the various levels to understand whether they have the knowledge and experience to make a particular decision and also whether they are the right person at the right level as well. An upper-level strategic choice to set some weird programming convention, for example, is probably not appropriate if the management does not understand the consequences. A lower-level choice to shove in some new technology that is not inline with the overall direction is also equally dubious. As the work progresses bad decisions at any level will reverberate throughout the endeavor, generally reducing quality but also the possible effectiveness of any upcoming decisions. In this way, one strong quality of a ‘highly effective’ team is that the right decisions get made at the right level by the right people.

The converse is also true. In a project that has derailed, a careful study of the accumulated decisions can lead one back through a series of bad choices. That can be traced way back, far enough, to find earlier decisions that should have taken better options.

It’s extraordinarily hard to choose to reverse a choice made years ago, but if it is understood that the other outcomes will never be positive enough, it can be easier to weigh all of the future options correctly. While this is understandable, in practice we rarely see people with the context, knowledge, tolerance and experience to safely make these types of radical decisions. More often, they just stick to the same gradually decaying trajectory or rely entirely on pure luck to reset the direction. Thus the status quo is preserved or ‘change’ is pursued without any real sense of whether it might be actually worse. We tend to ping-pong between these extremities.

This model then seems to help understand why complexity just grows and why it is so hard to tame. At some point, things can become so complex that the knowledge and experience needed to fix them is well beyond the capacity of any single human. If many of the prior decisions were increasingly poor than any sort of radical change will likely just make things worse. Unless one can objectively analyze both the complexity and the decisions leading to it, they cannot return to a limited set of decisions that need to be reversed properly, and so at some point, the amount of luck necessary will exceed that of winning a lottery ticket. In that sense, we have seen that arbitrary change and/or oversimplifications generally make things worse.

Once we accept that the decisions are the banks of the river that the work flows through, we can orient ourselves into trying to architect better outcomes. Given an endeavor proceeding really poorly, we might need to examine the faults and reset the processes, environment or decision makers appropriately to redirect the flow of work in a more productive direction. This doesn’t mean just focusing on the workers or just focusing on the management. All of these levels intertwine over time, so unwinding it enough to improve it is quite challenging. Still, it is likely that if we start with the little problems, and work them back upwards while tracking how the context grows, at some point we should be able to identify significant reversible poor decisions. If we revisit those, with enough knowledge and experience, we should be able to identify better choices. This gives us a means of taking feedback from the outcomes and reapplying it to the process so we can have some confidence that the effects of the change will be positive. That is, we really shouldn’t be relying on luck to make changes, but not doing so is far less than trivial and requires deeper knowledge.