Cracking the Nut (Part 1) – How to Make Almost Any Decision

One of my favorite challenges is to take on a really hard complicated problem .. and figure out how to move forward based on a compelling and rigorous analysis.  Best of all is to do it with a small group of kindred spirits.  In a team that I was part of for many years, we called this process “cracking the nut”, and over the years I’ve developed a model for tackling a new problem.  I thought I’d share it in a series of posts, applying it to a couple of examples.

Getting Started

For the first example, let’s pick something straightforward and personal, but potentially hard: choosing among a set of job offers.  This diagram outlines the model (you can download a full sized version here):

Define the problem

Let’s dive in.  The first thing to do is make sure that you really define the problem.  For our job conundrum, that’s pretty easy: “figure out which of my job offers is the best”.  Of the tools in this quadrant, there is one that is really going to be helpful for us: decision criteria.  In other words, what actually matters about the new job.  There are many factors that might matter.  One team works in a really cool office, another is located in a great neighborhood, another is working on an exciting project, another has a dynamic leader, etc.  Those are all potentially legitimate reasons to pick one over the other .. the question is, what matters to you?

It can be quite hard to figure this out – you have to become a bit of a detective, because often your emotions will lead you to over- or under-weight different criteria vs. how they will truly affect your life.  One way I get started is to list all the characteristics that spring to mind about each of the jobs.  Then winnow down to the ones that I think are the most important.

Let’s say you have done this and came up with four rank ordered criteria.  You will probably be inclined to have more, but try to keep the list short – priorities get watered down if you have a lot of them.

  1. Impact of the project
  2. How skillful I am at the work
  3. Salary
  4. Work/life balance

Challenge yourself a bit here.  Think back on when you were happiest and most engaged in your work, and ask if that is really reflected by the criteria you picked and the order you put them in.  “Let’s see .. I loved my job on the WickedCool project.  Why?  Well, the woman running the project was amazing and inspiring.  I got to dive in to a bunch of new areas I’d never done before.   I worked like a dog, but it was so fulfilling to see the project ship and touch so many people’s lives.”  And think about counter-examples.  “I was miserable working on the Grumble project.  Nobody was inspired by what we were doing, it was the fifth version of a minor product.  I got home for dinner every night, but I just dragged myself through the day.”

Now, do the things that popped out as great or bad match your original criteria?  No, not really.  An inspiring leader and team didn’t make your list, but that was critical in both WickedCool and Grumble.  Work/life balance was lousy when you were happy, and good when you were miserable.  Salary didn’t come up.  And if you were learning all the time on WickedCool, you were probably lame at your job for a fair amount of time in the beginning.  But the impact point did make the list.

So perhaps this is a more accurate set of criteria:

  1. Inspiring leader/inspired team
  2. Impact of the project
  3. Chance to learn new skills

Keep going, keep challenging yourself.  Pose hypotheticals – if I got offered a job working for somebody great who is doing something I don’t care as much about, would I take that rather than working for a less exciting person on a project that inspires more passion?  Another good tool is to demote a criterion to a constraint.  You might need a certain salary in order to support your family, but as long as you make that much you won’t prioritize one job over another because the first one pays better.

Again, the whole point in a personal decision like this is to figure out what really matters to you.  Not what is supposed to matter.  Not what matters to your inner critic or your mother or would impress that teacher who liked somebody else better.  To you.

Context

This quadrant focuses on what you need to understand better in order to make the decision.  You want to focus on things that will actually affect the decision, are not known, and are knowable within a time frame that is relevant.  In the case of the job hunt, you’d look at the criteria that we identified above, and see whether you actually do know how the different job options stack up, and if you can know.

Take “inspiring leader/inspired team”, for example.  If you went through a whole set of interviews with people on the team, then you should have a decent read on that one.  But if it’s one of the most important things to you, then it may be worth digging some more.  Maybe you can take somebody on the team out to lunch and explore it more informally.  If they are offering you a job, they want to sell you – it’s a big investment of their time to find somebody and make an offer, so they will presumably be motivated to encourage you to join.  If not, that’s a potential red flag – you learned something even by being turned down.  Talk to somebody who works with them and whose judgment you trust, if possible.  Talk to somebody who left the team.  Do the best you can to figure out how a team or company or neighborhood or whatever really stacks up on your key criteria.

Meta

This quadrant covers the project management aspects of the decision.  In the case of picking a job, it might not be too complicated.  But, there may be other stakeholders (do you have a spouse/family/etc who would be affected if you picked one job over another?).  You probably have a deadline – the date by which you need to make a decision.  There might be a workback, in the sense that you have to notify your current employer/team, or you have to negotiate salary, or you need to sell your house or give up your lease or whatever.  Make sure you have all of these aspects captured.

Evaluating Solutions

Now that you have done your research, go back to your set of options, and test them against your criteria.  You’ve spent a bunch of time figuring out what truly matters to you, so focus on that – don’t let surface things that influence you emotionally take precedence.  You definitely shouldn’t ignore your emotional reaction – a gut feel that something is wrong is always worth listening to.  But, a gut feel that you will be a much cooler person if you work for a company in a particular area code should be given the importance that it deserves .. whatever that happens to be for you.  Now you can really stack up your options with a clear idea of how to evaluate them, and figure out which one is the best choice for you.

So that’s an example of using the framework to make a constrained decision.  Next, we’ll give it a spin on something much more open-ended.

Comments

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] the last post, we used the model to analyze a constrained problem.  Now, we’ll take on something a lot more [...]

  2. [...] forward from part 1 and part 2, we’ve gotten the foundations laid down, so let’s keep powering [...]

  3. [...] For each of the issues that you’ve picked, you need to figure out what concrete steps you can actually go take to deal with them.  I like to sit down with a piece of paper and do a mind map.  If the issues are worth addressing and you haven’t been doing it, it’s a good bet that you are a bit stuck in figuring out what needs to be done.  Maybe you just need to spend 30 minutes listing next steps or coming up with a plan.  Or, perhaps it will work better to pick somebody you have a good rapport with, and brainstorm about it together.  If it’s a really big issue, you might find it helpful to apply (some of) the framework that I outlined in the series on “Cracking the Nut”. [...]

  4. [...] away at it until you figure out how to get traction (possibly using some of the ideas from the “crack the nut” post).  Or, it might be hard because you are trying to create something new, and that can be [...]

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