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An Effective Decision Communication Tool

One of our early discoveries with DecisionPad was its importance as a decision communication tool.  The design has always emphasized accessibility, transparency and clarity.  Hence the easily understandable tradeoff matrix format with lots of graphical support.  Since changes in one place update everywhere immediately, the system lends itself to “what-if” exploration.

Some decision tools behave as “black boxes”; you put in your ratings and data and get an answer back just like magic.  These are useful for marketing tools like website “product model suggestions” or “better health tips” but they are not effective for serious decisions.  People will not trust an analytical method where the process is hidden and mysterious.

Watching people use DecisionPad, we found that one of the first things they do in examining a model is make a few small changes to see if the results go the direction they expect.  They are able to validate the system by direct interaction.  Since they can see all the ratings, weights and scores, and since changes take effect instantly, this is a fast credibility builder.  It is essential for acceptance by people who did not construct the model.

All of the entries in the DecisionPad matrix are in plain language, no cryptic coding required:  specs are numbers or features, prices are dollars, subjective ratings are agreement or excellence.  That makes it easy for everyone to understand the evaluation and check for areas of controversy.

However that means the matrix is full of apples and oranges!  How to analyze it?  By assigning a “utility” or “usefulness” value to each of the entries using a conversion scale you specify.  Utility numbers can be in whatever range the audience is comfortable with:  -3 to +3, 1 to 10 or 0 to 1000.  The scale is a reusable rule to say what utility number is assigned to “excellent” or “$550”.  These scaling rules are easy to set up and many common ones are preloaded.  They are easily reviewed or graphed – they are as transparent as the matrix itself.

A major aid to clarity in utility analysis is separating the relative importance of criteria (weights) from the utility values across the cells.  Unaided decision discussions can get bogged down when these two issues get muddled together verbally.  DecisionPad shows a column of weights next to the criteria and provides a graphical way to set and review which is easy to relate to.  People can sort the criteria by weight.  Agreement on the order of criteria importance is often the first step to forming a solid recommendation.

Graphs are available for a variety of decision elements, which helps speed understanding.  One of the most useful ones has been matrix views with small graphs in the cells, implemented in the first DecisionPad.  These have grown more elegant as computer displays have improved.   These little graphs are now called “sparklines”, a term coined by Edward Tufte who has written extensively on various interesting uses.  They pack a lot of understanding into a small space.

Notes can be attached to any item as backup and definition.  These become a part of the package and are used to document the thinking.

The net result is that DecisionPad is very approachable.  No scary technology visible, in fact it feels natural and intuitive.  It requires sophisticated technology inside to make that happen of course, but it does not need to be in your face about it.  This makes it useful for meetings, building consensus, creating buy-in to the final decision, and for re-justifying the decision when next year’s budget comes around: the matrix and reports will clearly show why the decision was made in a way everyone can understand.

Modifying a question grid to incorporate more than two scales.

In SurveyPro we offer the ability to create question grids. Question grids allow you to group questions which share a common scale together in a more compact, space-saving form. In the standard Question Grid you can incorporate up to two scales per question row. But, by using the Advanced options screens selection on the Edit Question Grid ‘General’ tab you have more complete control over content and presentation. One of the aspects that you can modify is how many scale columns are incorporated into your question grid.

For full details on how to create multi-column grids, please read our Knowledgebase article:

http://community.apian.com/tips-tricks/adding-columns-to-a-grid

Hard Times Demand Smart Decisions Implemented Quickly – Part II

In this article, Bill Ray, Apian President, discusses the decision-making environment that influenced his development of the DecisionPad software, how his experiences informed that development, and the sort of problems DecisionPad was originally created to address. Read Part I.

I had only been working a few months with that troubled mid-sized company (previous posting) when it was acquired by a Fortune 100 company.  The acquiring company had a diversified offering but most of its profits came from one highly technical flagship product that was very tricky to produce.  Because of the downside risk of a mistake with that cash cow, the corporate culture was highly cautious and analytical.  To fill a strategic product hole this cautious corporate culture bought a Silicon Valley Wild West company in big trouble.  Fortunately they had deep pockets so the high bleeding rate was affordable though hardly acceptable.

One big decision they had to face was plant closures.  There was too much capacity in the acquired company already plus the buyer was bringing new capacity of its own online.  Plants were spread around the world, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Being analyticals our senior management meetings on the closure decision began with a large Lotus spreadsheet of financial analysis such as manufacturing costs, transportation costs, boarder-crossing costs, etc.  Over the year that I watched it the spreadsheet got bigger in a endless series of meetings that always seemed to start over at the beginning.  The spreadsheet was so big that the analyst was a beta user for the new Intel plug-in board products to add RAM to the PCs.

Each meeting would begin with the analyst explaining the spreadsheet, but would soon get off course with questions like “what is your assumption behind that costing”, “what about the quality problems at that plant”, “how about the stability of government policies in that country”, “how do we link development engineering efforts half a world away”, etc.  (Remember this was when a FAX machine was state-of-the-art in business communications.)

In other words the tough critical issues in the decision were soft ones, the assumptions, which were not easily turned into financial numbers that could be directly compared to manufacturing costs.  Even when the long-term result will be measured financially, converting all the a priori issues into finance numbers is difficult at best.  People were able to discuss these issues more clearly in subjective terms.

As soon as the discussion moved away from the spreadsheet we lost the superficially objective numerical framework and moved into the purely unstructured verbal.  We needed a framework that could handle the apples and oranges of the real decision criteria.

DecisionPad was motivated by the need to handle a mix of hard and soft information in a way that is satisfying to a wide range of decision participants.  There are fancier analytical methods that are theoretically better but are not useful in practice because they cannot be coupled to real people.  More on how DecisionPad deals with these issues in future articles.

The net result is clear: a framework like DecisionPad can help people converge as information accumulates in the matrix and notes.  Instead of each meeting backing up over old ground,  then scheduling the next meeting, each meeting builds on the last to move forward.

Hard Times Demand Smart Decisions Implemented Quickly – Part I

In this article, Bill Ray, Apian President, discusses the decision-making environment that influenced his development of the DecisionPad software, how his experiences informed that development, and the sort of problems DecisionPad was originally created to address. Read Part II.

I joined Hewlett-Packard in 1969 just after my MBA.  In those days H-P hired us from school with limited experience, virtually all with engineering degrees, and we were promoted from within.  We went through the same management training classes including Kepner-Tregoe which promoted a particular philosophy of effective decision making.  That made H-P what the business schools call a “strong-culture organization”.  People approached business decisions in much the same way horizontally and vertically within the organization.

In 1985 I became VP engineering at a mid-sized Silicon Valley company that had pioneered and grown rapidly in the computer accessory business.  Like most high-growth firms they hired people from where ever they could be found and spread them out in numerous buildings where ever they could rent space.  All this growth – which industry analysts projected to keep right on going — attracted competitors at about the time a sudden technology shift cut the market growth to near zero.  That left everyone in the business with too much capacity and too many people, with prices falling to manufacturing cost or even dumped below true cost.

When the crisis came we needed smart decisions made quickly and implemented effectively.  The cash bleed rate was impressive.

Unfortunately the fast buildup meant some managers expected to reach decisions bottom-up and others top-down.  Worse yet, within that polarization people disagreed on how to analyze or talk about a decision.

The bottom-up managers would try to collect good information and have meetings to decide, but these meetings got bogged down for lack of a consensus on process.  The top-down managers would become frustrated and make arbitrary decisions that soon fell apart because all the relevant information and tradeoffs had not been properly taken into account.  And of course, because the organization was fragmented geographically, both kinds of managers were often mixed into the same decision as shrinking departments were consolidated.

If a decision did get made, often it was too little too late – one traumatic layoff was not deep or fast enough so it would be followed shortly by another.  And another.

Equally often the decision might fall apart in implementation for two reasons:  (1) it overlooked something important and thus did not work, or (2) it could not be communicated quickly and accurately in detail by the decision makers so it would be misunderstood or even sabotaged.  For example, measured by the overall business needs the wrong people might be laid off.

This would have been a perfect place for DecisionPad to provide structure, but DecisionPad was still two years in the future.  However these experiences set many of its design parameters:  to be accessible to a wide range of people without being trivialized, and to be “open” so it would be an effective communication tool during and after the decision.  I wanted to use the power of the emerging personal computers to package up a proven successful decision process in a way that non-specialists could use effectively.

How to Get Real and Stop Undermining Decision Making

A recent BusinessWeek article talked about the Myths that Undermine Decision-Making. It was interesting to see where DecisionPad can be a solution to the myths.

Myth 1:  A single team makes the big decision when “reality is that decisions … are made in many forums, formal and informal”.

A complex decision is always a process not an event at any level in the organization.  Understanding of the issues (criteria in DecisionPad terminology) grows over time as various people contribute their expertise and requirements.  Normally this knowledge accumulates in a hodgepodge of notes, spreadsheets and memos by various authors that are difficult to integrate, leading to more meetings trying to make sense of them all.

By providing a consistent framework DecisionPad can help keep the process moving forward to a conclusion that includes the best of everyone’s contributions with notes as required.

DecisionPad’s sensitivity analysis can steer the discussions away from wasting time in unproductive debates once the participants see some issues cannot affect the outcome.

Myth 2: The executive team is a body of equals when “in reality some people and some functions carry much more weight than others“

When DecisionPad asks for weights on criteria it does so in terms of the decision itself, which puts the weight of inputs from department X in a less threatening light than saying department X has high or low internal status.  The former changes to fit each decision; the latter is politics.

For example, the cluster of criteria of concern to Human Resources in locating a new manufacturing facility plays a smaller role than a different cluster does in revising the whole firm’s management training program.  Everyone can relate to a difference in weights that are consistent with the decision logic for understandable, non-political reasons.

Otherwise it is easy for the decision process to become de-focused over internal issues, instead of staying focused on what will lead to a successful decision implementation.

The DecisionPad is usually set up to group criteria by functional area.  Weighting can be done within each grouping primarily by its experts while general management choses the weights between the functions.

DecisionPad encourages visibility of all the issues that are important to the decision.  Missing these because they get lost or unspoken for the status or personality reasons often lead to surprises that may cause implementation to come unraveled.  Costly in money, time and morale.

Myth 3: Team members should always adopt a CEO perspective

By getting all of the issues out on the table it is possible for people to contribute their expertise to the decision and advocate for their issues vigorously during the process, yet also be aware that there are other legitimate issues to be considered.  Focusing on their own area at this stage is not parochial because it is in context.  Everyone is being heard and recorded.

As the decision converges to a conclusion, there is no reason why the CEO perspective cannot be taken by everyone.  It need not be a myth in the end.  Having a documented decision where everyone was heard helps the people who participated explain to their peers and subordinates why it came out a particular way, building buy-in and reducing the risk of the decision being sabotaged.

Use DecisionPad to fix the process instead of trying to fix the people — quality management 101.

Cool Graphic Scales – Sliders in SurveyPro

Sliders can add graphic interest – making your survey more attractive and fun for respondents, and increase precision of answers – giving you better data to work with. This is the first installment of four tutorials on how to use the JQuery Library to enhance your SurveyPro survey with custom scales.

slider

Sliders are an easy graphic way for someone to evaluate an item. It allows your respondents a more “fluid” feel in answering survey questions. For example:

How much do you like ice cream?

a) I Really Like It!
b) It’s Ok
c) No opinion whatsoever
d) I don’t like it
e) I REALLY Don’t Like It

If your respondent likes ice cream more than “Ok” and less than “Really!” they’re stuck between two rigid choices. They might end up choosing an answer that does not accurately describe their feelings, or decide to not answer the question at all. If we implemented a Slider for this question, the respondent would be able to slide their cursor right in between Option A and B, providing us with a more honest response to the question, and subsequently more accurate data.

Also, let’s don’t forget that sliders are fun. Never underestimate the value of a more “interactive” method of data collection for keeping respondents engaged. To see the full tutorial on how to implement Sliders into your survey see the Knowledgbase article here.

Converting SurveyPro 3.0 or 4.0 projects to SurveyPro 5.0

Here in the support department we have been getting a number of calls and EMails as many of you are transitioning to the newly released SurveyPro 5.0.  The question most frequently asked relates to using SurveyPro 5.0 with projects originally created with SurveyPro 3.0 or 4.0.  Rest assured, the update process is quite painless and even leaves your original project file unaltered.

You can convert any files to 5.0, except for files associated with live web surveys.  If you have a live web survey collecting data, please make sure not to make any changes to the SurveyPro file until the web survey is closed and all data is downloaded. Then you can convert the file to the latest release.

Simply use the ‘File Open’ dialog to navigate to the sub-directory which houses your project files.  As in the illustration below, you would then use the ‘Files of Type’ pull-down menu to select SurveyPro 4.0 (.SP4) or SurveyPro 3.0 (.SP3) from the available choices.  Once you have indicated the desired file you will get a dialog asking to confirm saving as a SurveyPro 5.0 project.  Click OK to confirm the process and convert the file.

Your original project file remains unaltered and can be safely archived.

Files of Type Dialog Window

Files of Type Dialog Window

Javascript Tools for Web Surveys

If you are a web designer, most likely you have had some experience with JavaScript Libraries, such as jQuery (http://jquery.com), or Scriptaculous (http://script.aculo.us/). If you have had experience with these libraries, you know how very useful they are. We do too!

SurveyPro surveys can accommodate jQuery or Scriptaculous functions beautifully. You can see this code in effect in our custom scale demo:

http://www.surveyhost.com/apian/surveyhost/demo_enhanced_scales/

A handful of scales in this demonstration survey have been enhanced with these JavaScript libraries, including the sliders, conditional inputs, date picker and point allotment. These are just a few examples of ways we’ve been able to use JavaScript libraries to customize the initial scale created in the SurveyPro Software.

In the upcoming weeks, I will be explain how SurveyHost implements some of these tricks to SurveyPro surveys.

Counting the Uncountable – Setting Up Open-Ended Questions for Later Analysis

We often get questions from new SurveyPro users regarding the difference between the first two built-in scales, Short Countable Written — Single Answer and Short Countable Written — Multiple Answers.

Considering that they are both open-ended answers, it is easy to be confused with how SurveyPro will treat your comment type answers. The best way to look at these two scales is to compare the the feature normally only found in checkbox scales: the single checkbox answer versus the multiple response, ‘Check all that apply’ option that you can implement in a custom scale.

For a full description of differences in implementation see the Knowledgebase article here.

“Fan Apian Software” on Facebook!

Are you curious about what our mascot “Esmerelda” looks like (here’s a clue, she’s related to “Audrey”).

Maybe you want to keep up to date with new releases and promotions? Join our page on Facebook and we’ll let you know when there is any news or when we post fun stuff.

“Become a fan” is all you need to do on this page:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Apian-Software/71290651720

Of course, you’ll need to join Facebook first if you haven’t already.