Systems Engineering Leadership – Decision Making (Part 2)

There is much research leading to many possible techniques for improving the processes by which we make complex decisions. One of the biggest challenges facing systems engineers is that of making choices from among a number of alternatives based upon multiple criteria. Often such decisions need to involve groups. Sometimes this means groups of design engineers and sometimes it means groups of stakeholders which may include both technically-oriented and non-technical people.

Group decision making can benefit greatly from the use of templated processes which can be customized to fit the characteristics of the group. In selecting such a process group, leaders should look for a template that provides for targeted but robust group input managed by an understandable and easily-followed process.

One of the most useful techniques for leading group decisions is the Full Analytical Criteria Method or FACM. It is derived from the work of Dr. Thomas Saaty and others on the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP). The AHP uses a 9-point scale to evaluate a large number of alternative solutions against each other with respect to a single criterion at a time. It accommodates a large number of criteria by using the same scale to evaluate the relative importance of the criteria and assigning weights to those criteria based on the outcomes of the comparisons. The various alternatives can then be processed repetitively against one criterion at a time and the results synthesized using the weights assigned to each criterion. The power of the AHP lies in the use of one to one (head to head) comparisons of alternatives with respect to a single criterion.

The FACM streamlines the AHP process and makes it well suited for use by a group (e.g. an Integrated Process Team). This is done by using a 5-point comparison scale instead of the AHP’s 9-point scale. Tools like traditional brainstorming or brain writing are used to generate ideas and are coupled with prioritizing techniques (e.g. Nominal Group Technique) to refine the results into a useable list of criteria or alternatives. The goal of the front end process is to limit the alternatives and criteria to be analyzed to lists of 5 or fewer. This culling of alternatives, along with the use of the simpler 5-point scale, makes FACM a useful and manageable decision process for almost any group.

The most important observation growing out of the use of the FACM is the realization that it is not the rankings or comparison scores themselves that produce the greatest value from the process. Instead, the main value of the FACM process is derived from the discussions which surround the comparisons of the alternatives and criteria. Through these discussions the group can come to a clear understanding of the issues surrounding the choices that are to be made. When these discussions happen in the company of an open and spirited debate about the value judgments being made the quality of the decisions made by the group is greatly enhanced.

Decision making is a critical skill area for any leader. For a systems engineer, leading a complex design effort it is especially so. The design team will face many complicated decisions along the path to a solution. Their leader must understand the decision processes that go on above and below the surface as these decisions are made. The leader must become a student of human psychology and group dynamics and must combine the knowledge of these two fields in order to craft customized approaches to particular decision-making settings. It would be difficult to overemphasize just how important this is especially to the leadership of complex projects.

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