Friday, September 25, 2009

Three Options and a Recommendation

During my tenure at HP in Chelmsford MA, I was technical lead for a memory system design where I had the good fortune to work with Milton Makris.  Milton was the engineering manager for the project and together, we led a 25 person ASIC team to develop and verify three custom chips for HP's commercial and workstation Unix systems.

Milton was an energetic, positive, and innovative manager and I learned a lot about managing and leadership from him.  When faced with a need to make a decision about a complex situation, Milton would always say, "three options and a recommendation."  A simple, yet powerful phrase that helps in many situations.

In the faced paced high tech world, we often feel a sense of urgency to make decisions quickly.  However it's easy to make suboptimal decisions, which ends up wasting more time than was saved by making hasty decisions.  Unstructured discussions tend to focus on one aspect of a decision at a time, without fully understanding impacts in other areas.  For example, if a "critical" project is falling behind schedule, the discussion may focus on pulling in the schedule for this project, without fully assessing other impacts such as delays to other projects, increased costs, and lower efficiency from resource thrashing.

"Three options and a recommendation" provides an excellent framework to increase discipline and objectivity to team decision making without adding excessive overhead.  Before coming to a decision, the team takes the following steps:
  1. Identify at least three different options.  At this stage, it's important to encourage creative thinking to explore a range of possibilities.  "Crazy ideas" should be welcomed, not discouraged during this phase.
  2. List pros and cons for each option.  Be as objective and quantitative as possible, gathering as much supporting data as practical.  For example, "it's more work" is too subjective.  "It will require 3 extra person weeks of work" is much better.
  3. Write a summary of the options; define the schedule, scope (feature set), and resources for each option. Identify all dependencies and associated impacts.
  4. Recommend one of the options and include an explanation.
With a rich set of information organized into "three options and a recommendation," the team is now well prepared to run a productive meeting to close on a high quality decision.

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