Smart decision-making for poets

In the fields of business, engineering and IT, we often think the answer to any question lies in the veracity of logic. In reality, however, what is in question is usually the scope of the questions themselves. In the public sector, answers are hard to come by and take more time because of the sheer number of considerations that are involved. Decisions that can simply be made in the private sector must be considered and vetted on a whole different scale in the public sector.

In years of experience, I have concluded that at least four broad areas must be addressed when it comes to making decisions. To aid my diminishing mental capacity, I have devised a mnemonic: POET. P stands for political — large or small p. O stands for operational. E stands for economic. And T stands for technical. The logic goes like this:

Have we considered the political ramifications of our actions? Have we sold our position to those who matter and who must be convinced? That’s the small-p part of the equation — the people part. The large P refers to the political system and what will it tolerate, accept and reject.

In the O part of the equation, we need to know if our approach will work operationally. After our act of genius, will the lights go out? Will the system work and will the mission be enhanced? In IT, we often have an eloquent solution with no problem to match. CIOs can survive policy failures, but operational blunders are often met with unpleasant responses from those damaged.

E refers to the economics of the action. Do we have the budget? Can we afford it? What’s the return on investment? Is there a business case to support taking the action?

T is the part of the equation that addresses whether an action or decision fits our technical solution. If we have made a technology our standard and our bosses want to deviate from it, are we prepared to tell them we don’t support their approach because that’s not the institutional standard?

POET is particularly useful in our IT world, but it is applicable in many other worlds as well. Almost any profession suffers from those fascinated with one of the above areas — often to the clear detriment of the others. Many of us who have spent time in operational mission programs are myopically focused on the O and T parts of the equation. If you work in an agency budget organization, you have a lot of interest in the E portion of the problem. In congressional and public affairs, you like the P portion.

Better decisions happen when all four areas are discussed, considered and logically examined. Despite cynics’ belief that political factors are not subject to logic, they are affected by the logic of self-interest and process rules. You are playing poker, and you want to win. Self-interest and the ability to work the rules to your advantage are paramount.

It is also true that the POET factors are not mutually exclusive. A meat inspection scare or breakdown has implications in at least three of the four factors. It is the same thing with midair collisions in aviation — or with the online publication of a quarter-million leaked diplomatic cables.

A solution examined using multiple models and perspectives is always more complete and everlasting. Do that consistently and you, too, could be a POET.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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