What Decision Science Can Teach Us About Project Objectives

22 Oct 2019 | Research & Business Knowledge

By ICG Member Kath Rhodes, Qual Street

If you are thinking about how to set the right objectives for a project, then read on…

Ambreen and I spent last Friday evening attending a lecture on Decision Science given by Dr Valentina Ferretti a fellow at LSE…yes Friday after work!

Much of her talk was focused on why we need to work on decision making, and her argument was that the only thing we can control in any given project is the process, the method we use to arrive at making decisions.

She warned us to watch out too because the process can easily go awry thanks to a myriad of cognitive biases. Which means we need to identify our biases and find ways to ‘aim off them’.

Valentina spent a lot of time talking about ‘framing’ a problem, which was interesting, but familiar territory. (It’s important to define the problem, to understand that the way in which we define the problem affects outcome. Are we thinking of this as a problem, or an opportunity – because how we see the issue will affect the solutions we work on…)

But what really got me thinking was the second half of her talk where she started to explain how we could improve our decision making.

Any project, particularly a research project, needs a set of objectives, it needs a purpose… so I sat up when she put forward her ideas on expanding objectives.

Apparently, it’s very common for us to identify too few objectives when we are making a decision and to make them too broad and non-specific. Our natural tendency is to limit the number of factors we’ll take into account, partly because we’re not so good at thinking beyond ‘now’, partly because we find it hard to think broadly and deeply.

Her pitch was that we need to focus on expanding objectives when we are decision making in order that we can see the whole picture, and also identify which objectives actually matter to us and might be priorities or success criteria.

(She proved her point too by getting us to do an ‘objective’ experiment, and we all came up with a pitiful number of criteria for choosing a new GP, which as soon as we started to think about was far too limited or too broad…)

So if we don’t naturally do ‘objectives’ well how can we improve?

Her first point was start from values. Work out what you care about and what drives you. Then work on expanding your objectives by deploying ‘Value Focused Think Devices’ or alternative ways in which you can think about objectives – broader, deeper thinking processes that will encourage you to get as expansive a list as possible.

According to Valentina there are 10 tools or Think Devices:

  1. Create a wish list
  2. Go opposite – imagine alternatives that could help to surface objectives. For example, if success looks like this, what would failure look like?
  3. Identify possible problems and short-comings – again to help you figure out what needs or objectives you might need to answer
  4. Think of consequences, what might happen if..?
  5. Identify goals, constraints and guidelines that might affect the project you are working on
  6. Consider different perspectives (from the point of view of…)
  7. Focus on ultimate objectives: what are your fundamental values that matter for this project?
  8. Think about generic objectives: what might the objective be from the perspective of… the marketing team, or the sales team, or the customer, or the supplier..?
  9. Structuring objectives (I missed what she meant by this)
  10. Quantifying objectives, what would be a measure of success?

The point here is to take time to pin down what really matters for your project, and to do this via divergent thinking before you converge or narrow down, or prioritise.

That’s useful thinking.

Often (research) projects have numerous unspoken objectives that aren’t surfaced in the brief, or briefing meeting. Things that are half thoughts, or should be being studied but are never identified. This bigger focus on ‘what do we really need here?’ as a kick off to the process (any process), is useful.

Let’s remember that how we frame our projects matters – are we dealing with a problem, an opportunity, or both, or is that what we need to find out. What are our objectives?

Really, what are our objectives..?

Read more of Kath’s blogs here.