Decision Filters

Organizations are impacted on a daily basis by decisions made by people at every level.  Even the most minute seeming tactical decisions can have an impact on the overall organization.  Successful organizations realize this and look for ways to align the decision making at all parts of the organization so that the people who are in the best position with the most up to date information are making decisions.  This is usually the people who are closest to the immediate impact of the decision.  Blocks put in place by politics and corporate culture means that those higher up in any hierarchy are inherently less well informed than those next to the action.

While this type of distributed decision making is ideal for many reasons, organizational leaders still look for some way to align decisions so that the people making those decisions apply the information they have available to them in a way beneficial to the organization and consistent with it’s chosen direction.  The balancing act becomes providing enough guidance to those making decisions while not restricting their ability to use the information available to them that those higher up in the organization may not be familiar with.

What are decision filters?

Niel Nickolaisen came up with the idea of decision filters and describes them in this interview with InformIT ( :

Every day, people throughout the organization, especially those closest to the edges of the organization- the market and customer needs, need to make decisions. A filter gives those people a way to check if their ideas are in line with the direction of the corporation.Will this help us differentiate us in the marketplace? Or, will this be something that we need to do well but not better than anyone else? That is the value of defining the decision filters and then communicating them throughout the organization.

To state it simply, (as Niel put it) “decision filters help teams do the smart stuff better and stop doing stupid stuff.” (Presentation at Agile Leadership Summit – Better Software East 2012)

Decision filters are based on strategic direction or objectives and provide a simple communication of intent to guide decisions in a distributed fashion.  Decision filters are questions that can be answered yes or no such as  these two that Niel uses at his current organization, an online university, to determine whether they should do a given activity and if so, how they approach those activities:

1) Does this promote personalized learning?
2) Does this promote competency based learning?

In this case, if the activities meet both of these filters, the organization treats these with innovativeness and creativity. If the activities do not meet those filters, then the decision becomes whether to do the activities at all, and if so to do them in a simple manner, mimicking approaches by other organizations.

In the interview from InformIT quoted above, Todd Little describes some key aspects to decision filters and explains how he used them at Landmark Graphics:

The key with decision filters is that they need to be actionable and they really need to be filters. If the filter is nebulous, such as “make great software,” it won’t be very effective. Another aspect that is key to an effective filter is that everyone needs to know what it is and what it means. At Landmark Graphics we set out the vision that we were going to be differentiating by providing improved integration across our software line. We made sure that everyone knew the importance of integration, and then we recognized that to integrate the software we needed to do a better job of integrating the people and the teams. Then, we invested in bringing people face to face and in reiterating the importance of integration. These actions demonstrated the commitment and investment and there was very strong buy in. The teams delivered remarkable results and the result was substantial market growth.

How Decision Filters work

Identify a few questions that encapsulate what you are trying to accomplish with your organization, product. project, release, or iteration.  When you are trying to decide what you are going to do, or how you are going to do it, you use the decision filters to guide the decision about what to do, and how to approach those things you do.  Having useful decision filters therefore comes down to how you create the filters and how you use them to make decisions.

The decision filter technique can be used for a variety of different purposes, often closely aligned with different levels of planning.  They tend to be restatements of other key ideas such as objectives, conditions of satisfaction, or key success criteria depending on what type of decision they are trying to guide.  Regardless of purpose and type of decision, they are usually are created the same way – through conversations. The conversations usually include the people that are providing the objectives, conditions of satisfaction, or key success criteria and some of the people that have to enact the decisions.  The ratio of people providing the filters to those using them switches as you move from more strategic to more tactical.  The conversations that occur when you are trying to come up with the filters can provide a great deal of background information for the delivery teams, but the truth is that eventually there will be people that need to use the decision filters that were not able to be involved in the discussion it is for these folks that the decision filters are really being created to help guide their decisions on a day to day basis.  I’ll describe that more in future posts about the different kinds of decision filters.

The conversations usually proceed through a process of generating a large number of potential decision filters (divergence) followed by converging to 2 – 3 decision filters.  You are better off with fewer decision filters, because the filters are additive, meaning in order for something to be done, it has to pass through all of the decision filters.  The more filters you have, the fewer things get through.  The discussions you have to narrow down to these 2 – 3 key ideas can be very enlightening and help a team establish a clear idea of what you want to deliver.  It’s easy to identify a long laundry list of things you want to work on, but narrowing the list down to those 2 to 3 critical factors really helps a team focus.

Once you have created the decision filters you need to make sure that you are communicating them correctly to the teams that need to use them.  How you communicate these decision filters is especially important if some or all of the people who need to use the decision filters were not included in the creation conversation.  In that case, it is often helpful to introduce the decision filters and the highlights of the creation conversation to provide a bit of background for the team. The best way to see if the team understands the decision filters is have them use the decision filters to make an actual decision and see if they apply it correctly. This a much better way of ensuring understanding because the team may not always think of missing information until they are using the decision filters for a specific purpose.

When the team understands the decision filters, you need to make sure they are used consistently.  I like to post decision filters on the wall (either physically or virtually) where the team can refer to them on a regular basis. This is helpful when the team is struggling with making a decision or when a  discussion appears that seems to be going on a bit longer than it should, the someone on the team can point to the decision filter on the wall and say “is this helping us get to that?”  I have used that technique for workshops, software development teams, and teams working on a transition and in all cases have found it great way to refocus the team.

4 thoughts on “Decision Filters

  1. One of the greatest strengths of an agile organization is their ability to make timely and accurate decisions on the move. The leaders across the organization use a documented and efficient decision-making process that includes decision filters. These decision filters are developed around the key components of their strategy and strategic plan. Being agile does not mean the organization is not strategic or does not have a strategic plan. On the contrary, agile organizations are consistently evaluating and adapting their strategy and tactics to achieve their strategic and financial vision through effective decision-making.


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