The Art of Decision Making – Part 3: Defining the people in the problem

This article continues the discussion from Product Anonymous back in June.  Full credit goes to the team and the attendees for providing key steps, insight and critical analysis.

In the last post we talked about defining the problem, and the clarity that comes with it.  We never really talked about the people angle.  Until now.

Let us now consider the people element when making the decision; also known as engagement.

This is probably not a big issue for a small decision or small company – you can probably skip the rest of this post.  But once you get to a medium to large organisations there are usually a large amount of people you need to convince to get something decided and implemented. Engagement becomes a necessary task to overcome the role specialisation within larger organisations.

People often shy away from engagement.  They see it as too hard, takes too long, or is just ‘airy fairy’.  Or perhap, like John Paul Satre wrote in Huis-clos, they believe ‘Hell is other people’.  Yet careful engagement is an early investment that can pay off in the longer term.

In his book ‘Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change’, Kent Beck wrote “no matter what the client says the problem is, it is always a people problem.”  For large organisations and large decisions this phase is a good time to think about those people, acknowledge them as important, and work out how you can get them involved and onboard quickly and easily, so that future decision-making flows smoothly.

There is a fine line between gathering consensus and playing a political game.  But if you consider that you are doing this for the decision and not for yourself then you are on the right path.

Who is going to make the decision?

Who are the right people to be involved?  Are the right people making the decision? Product managers tend to think the world revolves around their decisions, but perhaps this is a question for someone else to answer.  Perhaps this is not really in your hands.

The classic tool for clarifying roles and responsibilities is the RACI matrix (and used by most attendees of Product Anonymous). This tool is a way to work through your stakeholders and identify where they stand.

The acronym stands for

  • Responsible: Those who do the actual work to achieve the task.
  • Accountable: The one ultimately answerable for the correct and thorough completion of the deliverable or task.  There must be only one accountable specified for each task or deliverable.
  • Consulted: Those whose opinions are sought, typically subject matter experts.
  • Informed: Those who are kept up-to-date on progress.

(Refer to

The process in theory is pretty simple: Identify each stakeholder in your project and assign them a letter from R, A, C, or I.  Then work through the list and ensure that each stakeholder is being treated as required.

But it gets complicated in practice:

  • Responsible and Accountable can be easily confused, so keep a careful eye on their meanings at first. Remember there can only be one Accountable person.
  • The Accountable person may be your boss, the project sponsor or you.  Depending on the magnitude of the outcome it tends to go further up the chain.  Don’t escalate everything if you can avoid it.
  • Almost everyone believes they should be Consulted.  The reality is they don’t need to be, and they will slow you down and cause you extra work.  Take a calculated risk and mark as many people as Informed as possible instead of Consulted.
  • Is your customer / end user in the Consulted list?
  • Keep it as simple as possible, with the smallest group possible.
  • If the stakeholders seem to have multiple roles in the matrix, then perhaps you have a multi-part question.  You may need to break the question into sub-questions.

The RACI matrix is a simple tool that can be quite useful to bring clarity to the roles of the stakeholders.  But remember it is not a substitute for a plan.  It is only a communication tool that helps with engagement – You still need to go out and talk to the stakeholders.

We know it is decision time, we have the question defined, an understanding of the problem, we know how to use the outcome, identified stakeholders and we even a decision maker who will get us there.  Next we’ll look at what alternatives are available…

Have you got any other tools to ensure you have the right people and a solid decision maker? Please feel free to comment below to add to the discussion.

Go back & read part 2 on defining the problem or go forward to read part 4 on identifying alternatives

Steve is a Product Development Manager at Telstra Wholesale.  The views expressed in this post are his only and do not necessarily reflect the views of Telstra.


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