Meta-Decisions: Agreeing on the criteria before discussing the alternatives

choicesIn a working environment, meetings may consume lots of time. In general, the goal of meetings is to make decisions based on the input provided by several people. There are normally many different ways to solve a problem or address an issue. When choosing among several alternatives, the discussion is normally based on people presenting their personal opinions.

We would like to be as close as possible to a consensus, because we may not be able to claim that one person’s opinion is more important than others. But very often the participants in a meeting try to convince each other that their opinion is the right one, instead of trying to reach an agreement.

In general, the difficulty in reaching an agreement is caused by the fact that different people are forming their opinions using different criteria. Thus, the solution to reduce the time spent in discussions and to make decisions faster is to first agree on the criteria that should be applied when choosing among the several options.

For example, suppose your team is planning how to develop a new product. One person thinks that first of all you should build a prototype. Another person thinks that you should immediately start implementing the final product. A third person believes that you first need to look for existing components that may be used to build the product.

How is it possible that each person has a different opinion? After all, they are all experienced professionals that have developed such products before. The explanation is that each person is using a different criterion to form his opinion:

  • The person proposing a prototype probably wants to collect feedback from real users before he starts developing the product.
  • The person who wants to start the implementation immediately probably is concerned with the time-to-market.
  • The person who wants to reuse existing components probably wants to reduce the total development cost.

So before this team agrees on the right alternative, they must agree on the most important criterion. What is more important? User feedback? Time-to-market? Cost? After agreeing on the right criteria, choosing the right alternative is much easier.

Deciding about the criteria is what I call a Meta-Decision: It’s a decision about how to make a decision. In other words, a Meta-Decision is the choice of the rules that should be applied when making decisions about some subject or issue.

focusImagine making decisions as a dart-throwing game. If people have different criteria for making their decisions, it’s like they are all throwing their darts in different directions, as if they had different targets. In contrast, when people agree on the criteria for making a decision, they are actually agreeing on the target they want to hit.

Meta-Decisions, Trade-Offs and Software Quality Attributes

In the field of Software Engineering, developers generally need to make their decisions analyzing trade-offs.

Trade-Off: “A situation that involves losing one quality or aspect of something in return for gaining another quality or aspect.”

For example, in many situations it is possible to reduce the execution time of a function by increasing the usage of memory. This is called a Space-Time tradeoff. Therefore, when choosing the algorithms and data-structures to implement a system, the developers must make Meta-Decisions: Do we want to minimize CPU time or memory?

Meta-Decisions are also needed when choosing the focus on Software Quality Attributes. Some attributes refer to the quality of the design or the quality of the code itself, such as Maintainability, Extensibility and Reusability. But there are also dynamic attributes that refer to the system execution, such as Scalability, Throughput and Resilience. Clearly, when comparing several design alternatives it is necessary to focus on a subset of all possible quality attributes.

Advantages of Meta-Decisions

As discussed above, Meta-Decisions are useful to make discussions more effective and thus help us avoid wasting time in long meetings. But applying Meta-Decisions has several other benefits.

Awareness: When you choose an option based on a Meta-Decision, you are conscious. You know the reason you are making this decision. You are following a process.

Systematic Thinking: Using Meta-Decisions actually activates different parts of the brain. It requires Logic and Reasoning vs. Intuition and Personal Bias.

Justification: When you apply Meta-Decisions, you can justify your decisions. You can say “We chose option A because we want to optimize X. If we wanted to optimize Y, then we would have chosen option B.”

So next time you are in a meeting and people are not being able to reach an agreement, the best thing to do is to just interrupt the discussion and bring it to the Meta-level. Say: “Before we discuss the options, let’s discuss the criteria we will use to select an option.”

Do you like the idea of Meta-Decisions? Do you already use it? Please share your experience leaving a comment below.

About Hayim Makabee

Veteran software developer, enthusiastic programmer, author of a book on Object-Oriented Programming, co-founder and CEO at KashKlik, an innovative Influencer Marketing platform.
This entry was posted in Efficacy, Software Architecture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Meta-Decisions: Agreeing on the criteria before discussing the alternatives

  1. Daniel Gross, PhD says:

    This is an excellent post.

    I am right now involved in meta decision-making to create a) a strategic road map for product features, based on best value:cost increments and b) a plan for features for next delivery under tight time and cost constraints.

    When looked at more broadly, meta decisions, are also linked to creating work processes that work for teams in organizations.

    Two brief comments:
    1. criteria can broadly be classfied (is this at a meta meta level? :-)), of Value to Customer/Client, and of Value to the Development Organization — which may conflict.

    2. Prioritizing requirements/features/etc. is all about meta decision-making, an interesting topic in its own right.


  2. Gene Hughson says:

    Absolutely on board with the idea of meta-decisions (in fact, I have a guest post due to come out shortly on the same topic). In order to create an effective architecture of the solution, you need to have a handle on the architecture of the problem. Otherwise, you risk solving the wrong problem.

  3. It is indeed tempting to think that if you are not able to reach a conclusion on a level, you can try to reach it for the meta-level first. But there is no guarantee. That’s what democracy is about. Of course, if people do disagree on a law, it may be because they don’t agree on the meta-level (ie what should be a society). But stating that you should be able to agree on a society definition is trying to tackle an even bigger problem.

    I would agree that understanding the motivation of every party before trying to reach a conclusion is helpful but not that you can change the motivation necessary. Of course, if you can, that’s a great tool, but that’s not always the case.

    And anyway a meta-level is a level, so it might also have it’s own meta-level.

    All problems (in computer science) can be solved by another level of indirection … except for the problem of too many layers of indirection.

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