Mike Swanson

July, 2008

  • Mike Swanson's Blog

    My Decision Matrix

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    Have you ever had to make a decision with too many options or factors to consider all at once? Or perhaps you’d like to be more objective about your choices. Or maybe you need to document your decision to make it more defensible later on (“your honor, this chart shows why Grape Nehi is clearly superior to Orange”). Whatever the reason, you may find that a simple decision matrix is all you need.

    I’ve been using various forms of my decision matrix to make both personal and professional decisions for as long as I can remember. In recent years, I discovered that my method is very similar to portions of a Kepner-Tregoe Matrix (“KT Matrix”). If you’re interested in a much deeper understanding of their techniques, I wholeheartedly recommend The New Rational Manager by Charles H. Kepner and Benjamin B. Tregoe. It’s a fantastic book.

    Anyway, I’ve found myself using my decision matrix in more and more situations recently, and people have started asking for copies of the spreadsheet. I re-formatted it a bit, added some simple instructions, and I’ve been e-mailing it to anyone who asks. I’m sure someone with more spreadsheet skills could improve what I’ve created, and if anyone would like me to share their improved version, please contact me directly.

    To use the decision matrix, I recommend the following steps (whether you’re doing this alone or with a group). By the way, you’ll get the most objective decisions by writing down your results on paper or a whiteboard before entering them into the spreadsheet. If you use the spreadsheet, it’s too easy to see the options jockeying for position.

    1. Of the options you’re considering, decide which attributes can be used to help make a decision. You can include as many attributes as necessary. For example, if you’re considering multiple vendors, you might use attributes like Cost, Reliability, Company Size, Expertise, Process Familiarity, etc. If you’re doing this as a group, make sure everyone agrees what the attribute means. It’s often helpful to include a few more words, like: “Process Familiarity – how well does the vendor understand the way we do things at our company?”
       
    2. For each attribute, assign a relative weight that is greater than zero. In my decision matrix, the range of numbers doesn’t matter; it’s the relationship between those numbers that matters. For example, if Cost is assigned a weight of 8 and Expertise is assigned a 4, you’re saying that Cost is twice as important as Expertise in your decision. Naturally, lower weights are less important than higher weights, and it’s okay if multiple attributes share the same weight. In that case, you’re saying that those attributes will be treated equally. In group situations, the discussion about the relative importance of these attributes can be very enlightening, and it’s a fantastic way to build consensus.
       
    3. While this step is optional, I find it extremely useful. I like to “test” the weights by turning them into sentences. And if I’m in a group, we test these sentences aloud. I’ll say something like: “So, we’re saying that it’s three times as important to work with a large Company Size than it is to receive a low Cost?” Or: “Reliability is really only half as important as Expertise?” For anything that sounds wrong, this is a great opportunity to adjust the relative weights.
       
    4. List all of your options. In the example I’ve been using, this would be the vendor names. Then, for each attribute, assign a score from 0-100 to each option. I highly recommend scoring all options for an attribute before moving to the next attribute, because it’s much easier to imagine the attribute, then score each option relative to one another. Of course, if you don’t know all of your options yet, this can’t be done (for example, if you’re using this technique to interview candidates for employment, you may need to score each attribute for the candidate while on the phone). Scores don’t have to be perfect, and 0 can mean bad/low confidence/not applicable/failure/etc., while 100 can mean great/high confidence/guaranteed/etc.
       
    5. Enter your results into the spreadsheet. Here’s an example decision matrix that my wife and I used to select a lot of land years ago:

       
      Add the attributes as columns. In this example, attributes are listed in columns B through H. If you need to insert new columns, be sure to update the formulas in row 10 and in the Score column. I don’t like that this step requires manual manipulation of the formulas, and I’m hoping that someone can improve the spreadsheet to make this step easier and more maintainable. Then, add the relative weights from step 2 above the appropriate attributes in row 9. Last, add all of your options and scores from step 4.

    And you’re done! If everything worked correctly, the best option (according to your attributes, weights, and scores) should be the option with the highest overall score in the last column. Often, there are additional factors that can’t easily be included with attributes alone, so the final decision maker should really use this data as good advice. Perhaps best of all, you have a defensible document that summarizes which attributes of your decision were important, how they relate to each other, and how each option was scored.

    Download my Decision Matrix Excel spreadsheet (21.5KB), and start making objective, defensible decisions!

  • Mike Swanson's Blog

    Obscure DVD Recommendations

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    Okay, "obscure" may be exaggerating a bit; perhaps "less well known" is a better way to describe these DVD picks. Like Helvetica: The Documentary, these aren't your typical Saturday night popcorn popping blockbusters. But if you have an interest in any of these subjects, they're worth checking out.

    First up is the excellent and extremely comprehensive, BBS: The Documentary by Jason Scott. It took Jason three years and over 200 interviews to assemble the material on the three DVDs included in this package. There's over five-and-a-half hours of content covering topics like the beginning of bulletin board systems, sysops and users, Fidonet, the ANSI Art Scene, hacking, phreaking, anarchy, cracking, and the legal battle over data compression between PKWARE and SEA.

    Not only did I used to write bulletin board software (for the Atari 800 and Commodore 64), but I ran a few BBS's in my time. If you grew up in this era, or if you've ever been curious about communication systems that pre-date the internet, you'll appreciate this amazing work. Be sure to check out Jason's www.textfiles.com, and sign-up to be informed about his next project, Get Lamp, a documentary about the history of text adventures (xyzzy, baby!).

    Second on my list is TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball. TILT tells the story of Williams Electronic Games and their attempt to save the industry by creating Pinball 2000. The one hour documentary includes numerous interviews, clever graphics, and some old promotional video. You can just imagine an arcade owner receiving a VHS tape from Williams describing this revolutionary new pinball platform! The over three hours of extras included on this two disc set are almost better than the film: from the design of a pinball machine, to a tour of the former Williams pinball factory, to footage of a few unreleased machines. Me? I was a video game addict. But I pumped enough quarters into the occasional pinball machine to enjoy this DVD set. Recommended.

    Next up is Change and Motion: Calculus Made Clear, 2nd Edition, one of many titles from The Teaching Company. While I've been interested in the DVDs from this company for a long time, I've never been able to convince myself to spend the money. However, they're in the middle of an "up to 70% off" sale, and that's just the excuse I needed. This particular course contains 24 half hour lectures across four DVDs. Boldly, they claim that this course can teach calculus to someone with a basic understanding of math, and they explain all of the formulas using plain English. As a Technical Evangelist at Microsoft (and PDC2008 Content Owner), I'm always interested in seeing how others convey complex topics. They're picky about their professors, and I'm sure that helps. I've watched about half of the lectures so far, and I'm impressed. Sure, the instruction is a bit dry, but considering the topic, they've done a really good job.

    Last, but not least, is an older title called REVOLUTION OS, an 85-minute film that tells the story of the creation of GNU/Linux and the beginning of the Open Source movement. It's been a couple of years since I watched this film, but I remember learning quite a bit. The second disc has over 70 minutes of additional interviews with people like Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Bruce Perens, and Rob Malda (of Slashdot fame). As an interesting side note, I used to work for one of the companies that Rob worked for in Holland, Michigan...in the same department. Small world. Anyway, the film provided some good perspective, and for that, I appreciate it.

    Are there other relatively obscure or unknown films like this that I'm missing? I'd love some good recommendations!

  • Mike Swanson's Blog

    New Show: Countdown to PDC2008

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    Jennifer Ritzinger and I have started a new show called Countdown to PDC2008, and we just published our first episode on Channel 9. We’ve been recording an internal video series (of the same name) for about ten episodes now, and some fellow employees suggested that the format might also work for an external audience. So, we decided to try it, and we’d love your feedback! Specifically, if you have any questions about the conference, or if you’d like to hear about a particular topic on a future show, please add your comment to the post. We’ll do our best to address them.

    To keep things short, tight, and packed with information, we use an old skool analog kitchen timer. Yes, we know that it runs a bit fast, but you know what? We will abide, and “at the ding, we’re done”…even if we’re in the middle of a word. That way, even if we suck, we won’t suck for long. For astute viewers, the fact that we’re standing up and using a kitchen timer might even make this an Agile show.

    Okay…I’m just rambling now. Enjoy!

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