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The Pro-Con-Fix Strategy for Decision Making

Do emotions run high in your brainstorming sessions? Do you find that your team members are more interested in name calling than decision making? In this week's column, Peter Clark explains how to get your team to brainstorm without the storm clouds rolling in.

"I can't believe that you said something that stupid!"

Mary looked in alarm at Bill and George. They sat glaring, red-faced at each other across the conference room table. Mary had called the meeting to decide which platform to use for their new product - Windows or Linux. Normally, Bill and George got along well, but they had very strong feelings on this topic that prevented them from seeing any validity in the other's point of view. The initial amicable discussion had escalated to an argument, and the argument had escalated into a name-calling free-for-all, conducted at the tops of their lungs. Mary had to do something, fast!

All too often, decisions are made in just such a haphazard, ad hoc manner, where personalities and rhetoric often trump reasoned analysis. While this is a process for resolving issues, it is probably not the best method to follow if you want your project to be successful. I think that we would all agree that a reasoned analysis is a much more fruitful, if difficult, path to take.

Mary immediately adjourned the meeting. She then met individually with Bill and George and told them their behavior that morning was completely inappropriate. They both sheepishly agreed that they were out of line and promised to behave in the future. Mary realized that she would need to get them both to listen to what the other was saying instead of just reacting. She had recently read The Thinker's Toolkit by Morgan D. Jones, so she decided to try the Pros-Cons-Fixes analysis tool.

One of the problems with brainstorming sessions is that it is too easy for participants to shoot down each other's ideas. As Jones writes:

Because our compulsion to be critical is so strong, we tend, when we evaluate the merits of something…  to focus on the negative aspects to the virtual exclusion of the positive. Negative thoughts can quickly overwhelm and preempt positive. 

The first thing, then, is to make sure that ideas get a chance to live for awhile before we kill them. Therefore, when running a brainstorming session, do not allow any criticism during the initial phase of idea generation. Take whatever idea is presented, and uncritically write it down.

When you have exhausted the well of ideas, go back and list all of the pros for each of the options. A pro is anything that you can think of that supports the idea. You are not allowed to offer any criticism of the ideas or the pros that support the ideas.

When Bill and George arrived, Mary was waiting. For both Windows and Linux, she had drawn a four-column table on the large whiteboard: Pros, Cons, Fixes, and Issues. She explained the first step of the process to them: List all of the Pros for each of the options.

George started listing benefits of Linux: "Well, the operating system and the development tools are free." Bill almost exploded. "How can you say that!? You have to look at total cost of ownership!" Mary reminded Bill that they were only listing Pros for Linux right now. He sat down, and Mary continued to write all of George's Pros on the whiteboard. Then, she wrote down all the Pros for Windows.

Once you have listed all of the Pros, it is time to list all of the Cons. Again, the idea is to be uncritical when listing Cons. Avoid getting into discussions on any points. It is OK to clarify a point to make sure that it is correctly noted. It is not OK to argue against a Con or to list mitigating factors for the Con. This is done in the following phases of the process.

As they listed the Cons for each of the options, Mary was surprised to notice that Bill and George were visibly relaxing. Occasionally one would question the other's Cons, but Mary was able to keep them to the process. They were being forced to actually listen to what the other person was saying. Both felt more respected as a result. The level of tension gradually ebbed from the room.

The next step is to consolidate the Cons by merging those that are similar and eliminating all of the duplicates. It is natural in this sort of debate to try to pile on reasons why an idea is bad. Often, the same Con can be verbalized in many different forms. This gives the illusion of over-powering evidence against an idea. By merging and eliminating, you reduce the Cons down to a manageable number.

After you have merged and consolidated Cons, it is time to evaluate Fixes for the Cons. Fixes are ways that you can mitigate or eliminate a Con. If a Con cannot be mitigated or eliminated, write "No Fix" next to the Con.

One of Bill's Cons against Linux concerned an interface to some proprietary hardware. Currently, the hardware vendor only supported a Windows driver. George responded that it was likely that the vendor was working on a Linux driver, or that one was available from a third-party supplier. Bill said that he was concerned about using Beta software or a third-party supplier in their new product. Mary wrote these two items down as issues in the Issues column.

One of the holes in Jones' process is that it almost always uncovers areas where you are missing information. There are several ways that you can address issues. First, you can assign someone to research the issue further and report back to the group. This is fine if you are not under time pressure to make a decision. Second, you can treat the issue as a risk. You then evaluate the probability and impact to the project and log them under Cons.

Jones completes the process by saying that you should compare the Pros and all of the Cons that you can't mitigate for all listed solutions, and then pick a solution. Sometimes you can eliminate solutions immediately, because the Cons are so severe and the benefits are so slight. However, there is likely to be disagreement regarding the relative strengths of Pros and Cons, which increases the difficulty of making a straight decision.

To sum up the Pro-Con-Fix process:

  • List all of the Pros for each competing solution.
  • List all of the Cons for each competing solution.
  • Merge and consolidate the Cons.
  • List all of the issues and decide on your strategy for dealing with them.
  • Identify Fixes for as many of the Cons as possible.
  • Compare Pros and unalterable Cons for each solution.
  • Pick a solution.

The Pro-Con-Fix strategy is not a magic solution for making decisions. You can't just turn the crank and have the best solution pop out. However, it is a very good strategy for making sure that all sides of each possible solution are considered. It also really helps in defusing politically charged situations.

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