How Many Options Can You Hold at One Time?

The more I learn about adaptability, the more I realize I need to generate several options. The options help me select a new response to the altered situation.

And, every so often, I find that too many options confuse me. I want to find the One Real Possibility that will solve the problem.

Instead, I discover I need to experiment.

Experimentation isn’t bad. I like to experiment. And, I can’t hold all the options in my head. I “hold” options by writing them down. I write options in these ways:

  • Which options might expire first? Am I in danger of starting a project I can’t finish in time? This might occur because I need more people to work with me, or that a client needs to provide information for a project.
  • Look for “opposite” options: the best thing that could happen and the worst thing that could happen. How can I keep both of those options so I don’t create cognitive dissonance?
  • The first possible option that I can turn into an experiment.

These are not parallel alternatives. I often discover that when I write options down, I see possibilities I didn’t when I thought about the options. For me, the writing changes how I think. I gain more alternatives when I write than when I think. That might be because I’m an extrovert. I don’t think silently. I normally think by talking. I’ve become better at thinking through writing.

I’m not that good at holding many options in my head at one time. I’m much better with only three options, as in the Rule of Three.

And, I know I often need to generate more options so I can choose where to go now.

Here’s what I do:

  1. I write the options down. This way I don’t have to use my head to remember. I reduce my cognitive load of having to remember “everything.”
  2. I might write a few consequences or results of these options with each option. If I talk through or think through the results, I might be able to make a better decision.
  3. I look for any of these:
    1. The shortest experiment that will give me feedback on a particular option.
    2. The most valuable thing to do.
    3. The option that offers me the most information about the other options in the least amount of time.
  4. Decide what to do and see how fast I can gain information.

(In case I confused you, 3a is about one option. 3c is about all the options.)

Now, I can choose one small step and gain some feedback. That’s step 4.

Because I wrote things down, I can reason about them. I can select one small step. I might even realize I have many more options to generate.

If I want to work with other people, I might dot-vote, or discuss the options with them.

Long ago, I realized the best designs or architectures arose from teams who had great depth of experience in the domain, and who didn’t close their options prematurely. That’s the same idea for this “process.” (I hesitate to call it a real process.)

That’s the question this week: How many options can you hold at one time?

2 thoughts on “How Many Options Can You Hold at One Time?

  1. karlosmid

    Hi Johanna,

    interesting blog. I know about rule to three for some time, but I never really used it in my testing (or better to say, problem solving activities). When I think now about it, I go with first option, experiment with it, and then maybe I try another one. I do not do it systematically.

    This post is definitely a trigger for me to start using rule of three.

    How did you “push” yourself in the past to start using rule of three options? What was your trigger?

    Thanks!

    Regards, Karlo.

    1. Johanna Post author

      Hi Karlo,

      I know I explicitly learned about the Rule of Three from Jerry Weinberg. I don’t remember if it was in-person or in-reading. I know I had many chances to practice the Rule of Three in person with him.

      I’d sort-of used the Rule without knowing about it back when I was a project and program manager, in the 70s-80s. The one thing I knew was that some part of the design/architecture would change during the project. And, if we gave ourselves permission to experiment with at least three options, we understood more about our eventual risks. I often asked the architecture folks to create three options, and tell me what worked about all three and where the risks were with all three. If they fought with each other, I asked them to choose the one they thought would fail and ask them to tell me what worked about that option.

      For me, the “push” was trying to see the risks that would come bite us in the project later. Then, when I met Jerry and worked with him, I realized how I often gravitated/glommed onto the very first option. I didn’t consider multiple options until the first option didn’t work.

      Now, as you can see, I use it all the time!
      Thanks for enjoying the blog. — Johanna

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