The Paradox of Choice and the Pareto Principle by Henry Elisher

 

Voltaire, a French writer, essayist and philosopher is well known for the saying that ‘[the] perfect is the enemy of [the] good’, meaning that, if you wait to be perfect or wait to achieve perfection then you’ll never get anything done, whilst achieving that which is good, or indeed, very good, is something of worth, especially in the face of nothing at all.

Some of us may reflect on that and ask, ‘well, doesn’t that view just allow us to willingly accept a deterioration in standards’, promoting a type of race to the bottom? To this I would say, if we had the luxury of having a bounty of time, finances, resources and energy then maybe striving for perfection would be both a valiant and noble goal, but our everyday reality dictates otherwise. As business analysts we operate in a world of projects governed by limitations on the resources that we have at our disposal. Aiming for what is good or very good in our world is what commercial entities require and expect of us.

 

THE PARADOX OF CHOICE

In the world that we business analysts reside, within the framework of Western industrialised societies, there is an official dogma that permeates our socio-economic fabric that supposes that if there is a desire to maximise the welfare of citizens, the way to do that is to maximise individual freedom. The extension from that being that the maximisation of freedom is derived through the maximisation of choices.

This central tenet guides all of our decision making and frames the psychology of various spheres or arenas of interaction, specifically in business. In our engagements, within the context of our projects, there is often the desire of the business to strive towards delivering solutions that can do it all, be everything for everyone, have every bell, whistle and toggle imaginable.

The interesting dichotomy between our social reality and the limitations imposed by business is that we, from the outset, seek to do it all, and as business analysts we can, and do, fall into the trap of acting as the agents of these desires. We effectively become the ‘waiters of the business’, running around, taking our orders of requirements, in the understanding that the freedom of the business to choose is paramount to delivering the desired outcome and additionally is paramount to being an effective business analyst. However, this is not the case.

Just as is the case in our everyday existence, when one is overwhelmed by options then we self-inflict our own analysis paralysis. As business analysts if we choose to act as the agents of ‘free choice’ then we too can instigate a type of analysis paralysis where both the decision making and psychology of allowing choices to be made within a set of overwhelming options produces a less satisfactory and less satisfying result, than if there were less options that were more pointed and guided to achieving the outcome of ‘the good or very good‘.

Not only can we inhibit the analytical process by vying to act as a facilitator for everything but we also foster the psychology of dissatisfaction. As business analysts and consultants we have our own duty of care to our stakeholders where we should aim to maximise their aggregated utility of satisfaction by assisting to find ‘best solution’ but not the perfect solution. The ‘best solution’ not being a sum of all requirements possible but rather being the best result within the constraints of the limitation of resources at our disposal. Inclusive within that aim is the management of the satisfaction of our stakeholders. From the perspective of the analyst this means not acting as the ‘requirements waiter‘ but rather being the gatekeep and rationalist driver of change. This means not allowing for a multitude of requirement alternatives to arrive at the bargaining table. We want our stakeholders to be empowered, to feel as though there choices are correct and for them not to be disappointed by having to make decisions that eventually would subtract from the final result or solution (inclusions), even if was a good one.

 

PARETO’S PRINCIPLE – THE 80/20 RULE

There are statistics that show that in software development 45% of the functions developed will never be utilised by users, 19% will be used rarely, 16% occasionally and only 20% will be used frequently or always. It’s an eye opening realisation when considering the resource effort utilised to research, develop and deploy 80% of the entire functionality. It also underlines how the paradox of choice underpins exactly what the principle states, the freedom of choice given to providing a solution undermines the development process of what is core to a solution.

The Pareto principle can be applied in almost any field of life, essentially promoting the thought that 20% of efforts will lend itself to finding 80% of the results. As business analysts this is a principle of significant importance as it can direct our focus to the areas of criticality when we are in our research gathering and requirements establishment mode.

Especially in environments that are Agile centric, the principle is one that a business analyst can use to drive both their focus and drive the entire team effort. Understanding that 20% of the given solution will contain 80% of the stakeholder and customer driven change, or that 20% of the user stories (functional work) probably contain 80% of the value, the business analyst can shape the work path to formulating an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) or MUST (Minimum Useable Subset). It’s a strategy that allows for the harnessing of limited/constrained resources and focusing it on the 20% of the functionality that is going to secure the greater part of the value for the stakeholder/customer.

It’s the utilisation of this strategy as a business analyst and consultant that allows to us to act as the fulcrum of change especially in environments where the freedom of choice inhibits the ability to quickly get to the core aspects of what the solution needs to achieve and how it needs to be developed.

It’s the art of understanding how to achieve the good, or the very good outcome that will prevent what may have been inevitable ‘analysis paralysis’ where the desire to have everything either achieves nothing or achieves a sub-standard result. If the aggregate utility of your stakeholder or customer is maximised by achieving a good or very good outcome as bound by the constraints of a business project, then it will beat a non-existent ‘perfect’ result every single time.

Our secret is not chaos or the latest fad but connecting business acumen with business analysis skills, techniques & competencies that fit the business need & its customers. Business strategy is about improving an organisation through requirements change. Business analysts know this well within our profession, using our own vocabulary for change, moving from “as is” to the “to be”.