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.