If Then Else Business Decisions

If, then, else: a foundation for good decision making

One of the things I have often taken for granted has been the ability to read and understand programming code or website script, and more importantly, the effect that has had on my offline thought processes. So am I an outlier, or do people who can code to some level of proficiency think differently and make better or more considered decisions?

I’ve managed, and worked with, lots of different types of people in my career. Most of them were not developers and most of them would have run a country mile if I’d asked them to tell me what a page of HTML script did, or showed them a page of C++ or .net or Java code. That said, many if not all of them have been problem solvers, business analysts, project managers and business function managers who have had to define and explain what they want the technology around them to do differently or start doing. Downside? Most of them have no idea how to talk to developers in a way that clearly expresses what they want the software to do, and not do, under various circumstances.

Most of my career has been spent translating these two worlds. I’m not a developer, far from it, but my understanding of the basic concepts of programming, database development and website creation has allowed me to capture and interpret business requirements and articulate them to developers. I’ve sat alongside non-code-literate colleagues doing the same role and, in my early career, was often baffled by what I saw as an inability to do this translation or, in some cases, even attempt it. It all seemed so logical to me and I struggled to understand why people didn’t think the way I did.

The need to think through a wide range of possible impacts quickly has never been more important.

It wasn’t until much later, when I began to run teams of my own, that I started to understand that the way I thought about problems was different to most other people. Most people, when you talk to them, can articulate what they want the outcome of a change to be. What they don’t do, without help, is think about all of the various permutations and variables on that outcome that need to be catered for. For a developer, that’s a pain. For a business, that’s expensive.

In today’s world, where the decisions we make as senior business leaders are increasingly real-time and the consequences felt within days not years, the need to think through a wide range of possible impacts quickly has never been more important. It’s not enough to simply say, “this is what I want to happen” and expect everyone to know what to do if something else happens instead. Customers are not as predictable as we might want them to be, and neither are our colleagues, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s better than that, it’s amazing. If we only ever got what one person thought of and wanted, we’d stifle innovation and many of our best ideas as a society would never come to fruition.

The problem with Humans is that we tend think in a linear way. And this is where my basic education in programming, combined with the demands of risk management from my project days, has stood me in good stead. Most people think along these lines: “if this happens then I want this to happen.” Simply put, I tend to worry about what won’t happen, or what might happen.

If you can plan for the exceptions, and be clear about the different outcomes in different scenarios, then you stand a much better chance of having a successful outcome

When coaching my team I try to get them to introduce some complexity to their thinking. “If this happens then I want this to happen, else I want that to happen”. Now we’re getting somewhere. But it’s not quite far enough. Gradually as you embed this thinking you can start to introduce more complex logic. For example, “I want this to happen for as long as a certain set of conditions is true, then I want to stop, or for something else to happen”.

Now, for some, this may seem obvious. Others will be baffled and see this as utter nonsense. For a few, probably those who code in one language or another, you’ll see what I’m doing. I’m embedding the basics of things like if statements and do-while loops, these bamboozling concepts that non coders assume is voodoo and terrifying, into the thought process of “normal” human beings. This helps them to translate business outcomes to developers more accurately but, beyond that, it encourages them to think about the exceptions and alternative paths their decisions might lead.

Now, if everyone in the organisation could articulate what they wanted in these terms, I predict that the success rates of projects would go up, purely because the outcomes and exceptions would be better thought through at an early stage. It takes the emotion out of the decision making process and replaces it with pure logic. If you can plan for the exceptions, and be clear about the different outcomes in different scenarios, then you stand a much better chance of having a successful outcome or at least predicting some of the other things that might happen and plan for those.

The best business analysts and project managers I’ve worked with think like this. Some of the strategists I’ve met along the way as well. They take problems and they break them down, consciously or otherwise, into these logic-driven statements and then articulate the various potential outcomes.

Recent movements in Agile methodologies have also helped, heralding the importance of prototyping which, in it’s own way, forces people to consider alternative outcomes they might not have otherwise. Frankly, anything that makes you stop and think, “what else might happen?” can only be a good thing.

For me, I’ll be forever grateful to that early education in foundation-level programming Whilst I never grew up to be a coder, the principles have stayed with me and, I like to think, made me a better business leader and decision maker as a result.

Published by

Steven Hewlett-Light

An experienced, adaptable and creative leader with significant experience in banking across digital and project management disciplines. A proven delivery record on complex and challenging projects, a good understanding of web management, UX/UI, SEO and Copywriting. A strategist with a healthy passion for innovating new ideas and ways of working.

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