How to Make Right Decisions in the Age of Uncertainty


The threats and opportunities in the Age of Uncertainty

We live in the Age of Uncertainty. From individuals, to families, communities, social groups, governments, business entities, international organisations—we all live in an environment which is much different from what we used to live in, and increasingly so. Its main feature is complexity—defined by constant changes that occur rapidly and simultaneously in various dimensions, abundant but fragmented information, and unpredictability of future (even immediate) developments.

The Age of Uncertainty challenges us. It poses multiple and unforeseeable threats but also offers unprecedented opportunities. Just look around: the rate and scale of demise of big companies, transnational corporations thought to be ‘well-established’ in the market for decades is exponentially increasing. But so does the rate and scale of new, incredibly successful fresh entrants. Consider Facebook, Google, eBay.  But that’s not all Tech: think of companies like Uber—at a $50 billion valuation, the on-demand taxi company is more valuable than at least 70 percent of the Fortune 500. Opportunities are elsewhere, in any sector, new or old.

“In complex situations, an opportunity often avails itself in totally unexpected places, directions and forms that are not possible to discover or predict by logical computation (whatever artificial intelligence or big data employed), historic cases or trend extrapolation.”

The task therefore is making best of the opportunities the Age of Uncertainty offers. In complex situations, an opportunity often avails itself in totally unexpected places, directions and forms that are not possible to discover or predict by logical computation (whatever artificial intelligence or big data employed), historic cases and experiences or trend extrapolation. This is where curiosity equipped with unorthodox, flexible approaches and experimentation can do much better than ‘old school’ ways—after all, we do live in totally different times.


Is it enough answering the tested right questions?

All businesses, whether start-ups or established corporations, use the same set of questions for strategic planning: What business are you in? What is your purpose? Who is your customer? What is your value proposition? Who are your competitors? What is bargaining power of suppliers and customers? What are the risks?

Anyone who has written a business plan, or participated in their firm’s strategic planning exercise is familiar with those questions—all strategy frameworks start and end with them. They all stay relevant today.

True, posing and answering the right kind of questions helps. You will also do well by asking right questions regularly. My question, however, is: Whether it is enough asking the same, even tested and proved useful, questions in the Age of Uncertainty?

I think there are a few very important questions missing in this list. They concern your decision making. Because at the end of the day, it is how you answer those questions matters, not the mere fact that you pose right questions.

In a series of posts I will share my favourite decision making processes and methods which I think are best suited to complex situations when decisions have to be made under the time pressure and information constraints. I have tried them, in various modifications and combinations, over many years working in academia, private and public sector, in headquarters and in the post-conflict field settings, in well ordered and highly volatile situations.

And note that these methods are not ‘fixed’ as in a textbook—I keep working on them, reviewing, re-applying, and testing all the time. They combine old-school logic based approaches with experimental, recursive processes and intuition based decision rules. Moreover, it has been proven by the experiences of those working in emergency situations that this kind of decision making strengthens an individual’s and organisation’s resilience and adaptive capacity and, thus, increases their chances to succeed in the Age of Uncertainty, complexity, and wicked problems.


How do you make decisions?

The way how we make decisions matters. Greatly matters. We all know it too well, from our own experiences and those of others—individuals, companies, governments. And we have learned from both successes and failures (although, to be honest, failures are bitter but better advisers).

So, how do you make decisions? Below is a list of questions I think you will find useful to start with. It is not exhaustive, neither intended it to be—my role here is to give you a hint, to inspire you to think creatively. After all, this is the essence of the very approach I stand for. Here you go:

  • How do you strategize: Do you fix your plans into existing data or make data work for your plans? Do you set long term plans that are set in a stone or are they subject to regular revision?
  • How do you analyse: which formal and informal processes do you follow? Which methods do you apply at different steps?
  • What data do you use: external or generated by your own activities; only statistical or also qualitative, narratives? How do you store it and make readily available (i.e. is it useful for daily decision making)? How expensive is it to collect, process, and store or share it?
  • What are your rules (or thresholds) for stopping the search for decision, making decision, and moving into action upon it?
  • Do you always look for perfect decisions? What best decision means for you (or your company)? How do you review your decisions, what are checks and balances?
  • How flexible you/your business are in adopting test and trial approach, in employing adaptive, tactical approaches to resolving big and small issues?
  • Is creativity, risk taking, learning from failures part of your company’s culture? Are these qualities encouraged by the management/stakeholders or punished (in real life, not in the company’s policies and formal statements)? What incentives does the company use (either way)?

Think about it. Whether as individual, family, team or company—you will find the very process beneficial. This is what I can guarantee. It is a starting point of a never ending and highly entertaining journey. I will try to be of use, especially at your initial steps, to share my experience and knowledge.

For other articles in this series see Five Simple but Powerful Mental Shortcuts

Five Simple but Powerful Mental Shortcuts

In this series of articles I share ideas on how we make decisions as individuals, groups, and organisations and offer my advice on how to design the decision-making processes that combine traditional methods of analysis with more flexible, adaptive approaches—to be better suited to the problems we face in the Age of Uncertainty. Applications are numerous—from individual choices, to business management, public policies, security and conflict management, and international development assistance. In the posts to follow I will share some practical solutions I have developed for various situations or practice domains and issues. I hope that you find them useful—they are intended to be.


Decisions We Make

In everyday life we make most of our decisions intuitively (some say automatically), without involving much computation. For instance, if the situation seems familiar we will tend to draw on our past experiences. We usually use simple techniques, such as rules of thumb (or heuristics) to make judgements in such situations.

Moreover, we employ the same techniques when making judgements under uncertainty, when we know little about an object or have limited, if at all, past experience. This allows us saving time and navigating not too complex situations, or being under constraints of time and with limited amount of information available. In most cases it works well.

However, behavioural scientists have found that our intuitive decision-making has a number of biases (systemic errors) which hinder our ability to choose an optimal option. They also claim that they are predictable (and thus manageable). Drawing on years-long experimentation, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have developed a prospect theory  back in the 1970’s, to explain how we make certain biased (or statistically flawed) assumptions, especially when weighing probability of something, in the face of uncertainty (years later, Kahneman was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics for their research).

The method used is frequently referred to as ‘heuristics-and-biases’. I am sure many of them are familiar to you, and not only from individual experience but also that of groups, business organisations, government bodies (we remain humans at work, don’t we?):


We usually use assumptions based on stereotypes when judging on probability of some object or event belonging to certain category. For example, we judge someone’s behaviour on the degree to which their actions are representative of a particular category. Apparently, so does jury in the court of law when categorising the alleged crime of a defendant. How many of us, as customers or in entrepreneurial capacity, have been fooled by someone’s behaviour or appearance of business premises of some firm—simply because they ‘represent’ our idea of what a successful businessman/business should look like? Richard Thaler, behavioural economist and co-author of ‘Nudge’ gives an example: ‘People can nudge you for their own purposes. Bernie Madoff [the Ponzi scheme fraudster] was a master in the art of winning people’s confidence and taking advantage of it. I don’t think he needed to read my book. I think he could have written a better version of it himself.’

Stereotypes are powerful; just look around to see how they influence our inter-personal and inter-group relations in society. Understanding how they influence, through representativeness heuristic, our judgements is very important – for preventing crime (especially hate crime which is on the rise both in Europe and in the US), improving relations at workplace and interactions in various public spaces and undertakings.


We employ adjustment from known things (using them as anchors) to estimate unknown things or make predictions. Sometimes the initial value is automatically suggested by problem formulation. What if you defined the problem inaccurately? Or the value of similar case you rely upon is too specific to serve as an adjustable target for your case? As experiments have shown, we also tend to use the information available (often-time what comes to mind first) without critically examining it for relevance. Whatever adjustments you make afterwards it won’t help, because the baseline is already incorrect.

Have you noticed that when negotiating price, terms and conditions of a deal (may be salary, loan conditions, business contract)? Who first suggests the value (numerical, percentile or monetary as relevant to the topic discussed) sets an anchor, and the rest of discussion will in fact be a bargaining exercise around this very value, whatever distant of the other side’s initial idea it is. Try it, if you haven’t done so before and you will see that it works. I see it as a narrow application of a saying that ‘who sets the agenda controls the outcome’: in this case you control the outcome by establishing the mean value that is favourable to you.



We use mental shortcuts to immediate events or facts, as they first come to mind, when making inferences. It equally refers to those evoking positive and negative emotions. We perceive them as more familiar and common (or rare, depending on perspective). And more we are occupied with these facts, more we become convinced. You see a car crash—you start driving cautiously (at least for some time). You read a shocking story (also with pictures) about food poisoning from certain products, you will avoid consuming them. Couple of your former colleagues lost job, and you immediately think unemployment in your sector is high.

Another well known example is lottery. Do you know how many people get encouraged to buy lottery tickets or go much beyond their normal limit of spending immediately after they hear of X winning forty million ‘just like that’? And this effect occurs contrary to the logic of rationality, as an unexpectedly large jackpot won by X will be resetting to a lower level, thus chances eventually decrease to win so much.

Entrepreneurs know it well—news are all around that Y got very rich, and quickly so, by producing/serving/selling something; we immediately think of it as the most promising opportunity for our business growth and thus overestimate the likelihood of success and overspend. Similarly, the availability bias affects the investment decisions: for example, in the years immediately following the financial crash of 2008 investors’ persistent perceptions of a dire market environment was causing them to view investment opportunities through an overly negative lens and thus avoiding risks in favour of ‘safe’ investments, no matter how small their returns.


We tend to overestimate own strengths and capacity while underestimating potential barriers. Partly it is explained by our memory’s leaning more toward positive experiences than to failures (we work hard to forget, to block, or at least to portray in rosier tones past unpleasant experiences, don’t we? This appears to be no good for learning though). Therefore, when planning, estimating scenarios we refer to best-ever achievements from our internal archive. It is quite natural for us—as psychologists claim, we assess ourselves by our best intentions while others judge us by our worst deeds.

This selective reference to positive examples makes us prone to be overly optimistic in situations when more cautious approach is advisable. It frequently results in unrealistic plans (both time and effort, cost-wise) which then have to be revised, sometimes repeatedly. Have been there? Building a vacation house, developing or implementing a project, weighing plans to enter a new market? And it applies to all endeavours, big and small. Take, for example, Sydney’s Opera House. Budgeted at an initial cost of $7 million, it ended up costing more than $100 million and took more than a decade to construct (what makes it the most expensive cost blowout in the history of mega-projects around the world).


One useful method to tackle the optimism bias is to review the initial plan when equipped with the findings of risk assessment. Put under scrutiny timeline, budget, supplies etc. item by item against quantified operational, political, technological, customer and other relevant/applicable risks. You will be greatly surprised to see how ‘shining’ numbers would shrink and the plan would immediately drop from ‘highly advantageous’ to some lower category, if not abandoned altogether. I have seen projects that as a result would go from confidently positive Net Present Value (NPV of cost-benefit analysis) into negative, prohibitive value in fact.

Well, I think it is better than being fooled by your (own or team) overconfidence. You still can go ahead with implementation, but with eyes open this time around. The UK Treasury even uses software to mitigate optimism bias (especially in infrastructure, capital investment projects of the government).

Loss Aversion

Or take a phenomenon known as loss aversion. When evaluating various options and assessing their potential benefits and risks, we weigh losses higher than gains. It appears that loss of things we possess hurts twice more than gains make us feel good. Therefore if the values of potential win and loss are in the same range and probability of losing and winning are equal, chances are high that we will opt for not taking risks. Psychologists like this mental bias because it is easy to prove in controlled, laboratory environments: simply toss a coin. Try it yourself. Imagine that you were offered a gamble on the toss of a coin (that is 50/50 chance) in which you might lose $50. What would be your preferred payoff? I bet you will demand much more than loss, most probably something around $100.

This in part explains another phenomenon known as sunk cost fallacy, when more we invest in something harder it is to abandon it (and we obviously find many reasons to justify our ‘rational’ decision). Just recall your experiences. Very simple one: you drive to an outlet mall to buy a certain product but don’t find it there; you will buy something else. Of course you will justify your purchase that you needed it, but in reality you don’t want go home empty-handed after driving too far.

Or think how many companies you know of, who suffered heavy losses because of stubbornly refusing to give up a project or product they had invested in considerable funds? One famous example: British and French governments continued funding their joint venture of Concorde even when it was crystal clear that the airplane sales would fall short of the expected level of return to keep the business going. Or think of overseas wars: ‘We have invested too much in this campaign for too long. Too many lives lost, too much money spent. We simply cannot stop it now; it would equal to surrender, so we must fight it to victorious end’.


…and many other

There are many other examples of our mind’s work that will amaze you. One of my favourites is halo effect, our tendency to assume that if product X is good for doing Z, it is perfectly suitable for Y and X, too. Or, if product S of a certain company is good, other products N, M, L and W (even from a totally different product line) will be equally good. Or, because certain person is good at doing D they will be good at doing B, A and C (or the reverse—because they are bad at doing A they will be bad at doing B, C and D). Sounds familiar from the workplace?

*                  *                  *

Although everyone seems to agree that we do use various mental shortcuts to make decisions easy, not everyone accepts our intuitive decision making as deficient (as compared to computed solutions) and erroneous. Many management practitioners rely more on so called ‘naturalistic’ methods which make best of our in-built cognitive capabilities, and rightfully so. With regards to using big data and sophisticated software some argue that abundance of information is costly and often-time confusing, while much better decisions (especially under pressing circumstances) are made with less but relevant information.

Both sides have a point to make, and I think that we have to exhibit more flexibility in adopting a variety of analytical methods and use them in a complementary manner. Remember? It is not the quantity or even quality of data but quality of decisions we make upon them that matters.


Myanmar: Building Peace and Democracy Brick by Brick

In this commentary on Myanmar’s recent progress toward establishing democratic governance and ending decades-long civil war, I will try to look beyond the known facts into the background of Burmese politics that frames, directs and conditions the course of developments, but is also continuously influenced by them. That is why this environment is neither static nor monolithic or heterogeneous. I will pick up some pieces of this dynamic puzzle to better understand what is happening in Myanmar and, more importantly, why it happens as it does.

Leaders pose for a photo after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw

(Front row L-R) Myanmar’s Military Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Speaker of the Upper House of Parliament Mahn Win Khaing Than, Vice President Henry Van Thio, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Htin Kyaw, Vice President Myint Swe and former vice president Sai Mauk Kham pose for a photo with ethnic leaders after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, Myanmar August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Another milestone

In the course of four days, from 31 August to 4 September 2016, the government and military of Myanmar held a peace conference with rebel groups over the country’s future political and administrative set-up. The conference in the capital Nay Pyi Taw was the first broad based, inclusive of (almost) all stakeholders event dedicated to this issue in nearly seventy years, since gaining the independence in 1948.

The importance of this event is difficult to overestimate. It was the largest and most representative forum bringing together government officials, members of parliament, political party representatives, military officers, and representatives of ethnic armed groups in decades. Its significance is twofold, given that it demonstrated the legitimacy and credibility of the first democratically elected government and set the course toward the implementation of the negotiated peace that shall result in a new, federal political and administrative organisation of the Burmese State. It was not perfect (what is in political realm?), for it did not live up to (rather elevated) expectations of achieving tangible outcomes except for demonstrating commitment, formally launching the process, and offering all the sides an opportunity to share their opinion. But that is already a firm step forward, in a manner that appears to be characteristic of political processes in Myanmar—testing ground and moving from one milestone to the next as conditions allow.

The conditions are ripe for making the move to another milestone toward peace and democracy in Myanmar, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building a momentum, to be ready by this point in time.

This kind of decision making based on ecological rationality (that is when inferences are made through exploiting the structure of information and the environment to arrive at adaptively useful outcomes) shows itself in many instances in Myanmar, including the timing of holding the conference. Many external observes grew impatient over the prolonged negotiations and the delay with holding this landmark event; they missed the point, I am afraid. The conditions must be ripe for making the move toward another milestone, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building momentum, to be ready by this point in time:

— The military have made another step on their ‘roadmap’, by allowing the democratically elected government to take public office; in so doing they retained their power and control of certain decision-making domains (such as defence, police and border control where they continue appointing the ministers and their deputies).

— The government is fresh and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi commands respect internally and internationally and enjoys credibility with majority of population; thus hopes and willingness to cooperate are high for the time being (this is not going to be always like that, because there will be unavoidable delays and failures in addressing the mounting problems that will eventually lead to certain frustration and disillusionment).

— The rebels are exhausted and they realise that they have achieved maximum of what they could have secured through the armed conflict. It is not a secret to either side that violence leads to more violence which only aggravates the situation but does not bring any result in and by itself. Since the signing of National Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015 all but three rebel groups in the north have put the arms down.

— This explains why all the rebel groups (even those who did not sign the agreement) agreed to its text last year. And in fact accepting the peace agreement is being kept firmly by the government and military, as a precondition for participating in the follow-up peace- and state-building process. On the other hand, the negotiation process was long enough (it took four years) for all the parties to hold internal consultations and to weigh all the pros and cons. In turn, the military’s powerful commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy signing the agreement in person had demonstrated their commitment.

— And finally, the process has got high level of attention and support from the international community. At the moment it is at its pick, which means strong political backing but also availability of financial and technical aid which are much needed to revitalise the economy and to address Myanmar’s numerous social problems (this should be taken with caution though, first, because of ever important to Myanmar strategic goal of balancing its relations with China, and second, recalling the waste in supply and spending when the country first opened for the external assistance in 2011, after the sanctions imposed back in the 1990’s). The fact that the agreement signing ceremony last year was attended by ambassadors of forty-five countries, the UN and World Bank in presence and co-signed by six international witnesses (among them the most important politically and economically neighbours China and India, along with Japan, Thailand, UN and the European Union) already speaks for itself. This year, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the conference, while the former SG Kofi Annan will head a commission for examining the situation with Rohingya Muslims and offering recommendations.

Recognizing the complexity of Burmese society

Any society represents a complex system due to broad variety of societal groups which constitute it and the diversity of their interests and intra-group and inter-group interactions (as stakeholders in an array of issues). Complex systems, as a rule, are characterised by the interaction of their components and therefore the resulting ‘emergent’ properties of the system as a whole cannot be derived from generalized quality of its components but reflect the properties of those numerous and multidimensional interactions between its constituent parts. Those interactions, in turn, tend to constantly change in their dynamics, directions, forms and magnitude. That is why it is so difficult to categorize any society, even when assessed against the criteria of one given category (for example, using political rights and civil liberties for judging the degree of democratic freedom).

Now imagine how complex is society where one-third of population is comprised of ethnic minorities. Moreover, there are more than a hundred of those minorities living together in these territories literally for ages. Add seven decades of most recent violent confrontation between them and the government led by military junta (of ethnic majority)—a civil war resulting in further erosion of social fabric and deeply running mistrust, physical destruction, economic backwardness, poverty, massive scale human rights abuses, hundreds of thousands of refugees abroad and displaced people in-country, and more than one hundred thousand of fighters belonging to a dozen-and-half of armed rebel groups spread across the land (which are linked to each other but do not form a single cohesive entity, thus may act independently).

There cannot be democracy without equality and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that can guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations. 

There are two processes running simultaneously in Myanmar, since its independence day. One is the process of political transformation (presumably toward democratic governance, but in a localised fashion). Another is civil war between the ethnic majority and minorities. In the shadows of it is taking place another localised violent conflict, driven by religious divides. These processes are intertwined, although may vary independently, and what happens is that only a solution (or rather, a set of solutions) that addresses core issues at the heart of them has a chance to be effective and sustainable. It is impossible to meaningfully achieve one goal without attaining the other: there cannot be a democracy without equality and fundamental human rights and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that can guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations.

Understanding the local contexts and institutions

This is a sketchy present-day portrait of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, set within the country’s unique contextual features and underlying institutions. Take just some of them, most prominent ones, and you will see the random events, individuals and groups as parts and parcels of political processes occurring in their natural environment.

The country has a long history of statehood—existed as an independent kingdom, at times strongly centralised, for centuries (since the mid of 11th century until British colonization in the end of 19th century). Therefore, sense of nationalism and pride of own history and traditions, in each ethnic group and nation-wide, runs very deep. Perhaps this is one reason that in spite of violent infighting, almost all the rebel ethnicity centred groups do not seek to secede but strive to have equal rights and autonomy thorough building a federal state within the present borders. They take pride of the fact that Burma did not join the Commonwealth because they ‘refused to accept the British sovereign as head of state’.

On the other hand, the colonial rule not only disrupted the continuity of sovereign rule but also exacerbated and exposed the country’s major social vulnerability by stressing its inter-communal ethnicity based differences. This was recognised at the time of gaining the independence, and political equality was reflected in an agreement of domestic forces. Unfortunately this agreement was not implemented, thus effectively leading to armed conflict between the ruling majority and ethnic minorities.

Religion (Buddhism) has been one of distinctive building blocks of identity in Burma over the course of its long history, and has greatly influenced the individual, group, and inter-community behaviour and relations. However, group identity is not a permanent ‘solid enduring fact’ but rather a ‘situational construct’ which, first, has many layers and, second, evolves as part of the advancement strategy in response to changing circumstances (for example, by changing the hierarchy of its ingredient parts/layers). Therefore the Buddhist identity has not always played a dominant or unifying role in inter-communal relations, especially in the framework of the civil war unfolding.

In addition to ethnic diversity, there is a religious minority of Muslim population living in compact pockets; they are seen as aliens and discriminated against by nationalist Buddhists, at times brutally. In the western state of Rakhine, about hundred and twenty thousand Rohingya Muslims are living in displacement camps after being driven from their communities four years ago (it is also indicative that no one represented them at the peace conference).

Economic inequality has been another driver of the conflict, since the minorities live in most remote and underdeveloped areas but also have been neglected by the central government for long. Decades of civil war have devastated the country’s resources and destroyed its economy’s productive infrastructure while creating the opportunities for illicit economic activities, especially drug related, thus contributing to the conflict’s sustainability.

The revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of community aspirations and a workable mechanism for their relationships.

The change from within

Myanmar has demonstrated that by following its own path it slowly by surely progresses toward the end goal. The goal itself is broadly defined; it is shaped and reshaped along the journey, with multiple intermediary milestones determining the pace, the direction and the current and possible future settlement formats. Its smooth transition from military rule to democratically elected government (even though with the power and special position of military constitutionally guaranteed) took too long in the eyes of many observers, but what is important is that it worked out and already started delivering its first results. Another process, of ending the civil war, has too, entered its maturity phase after many attempts, iterations, and prolonged negotiations.

It well may be that, after decades of dominating mostly grim news Myanmar is about presenting to the world a lesson on how internal differences could be overcome. Whatever comes in the end (both in terms of governance and peace), is going to be a Burmese product, a local model that may not (and most probably because of that won’t) fit into Western or any other models of democratic government and peacemaking or work as a model for replication elsewhere.

I am convinced that the Burmese (and similar) experiences of dealing with their problems deserve to be closely studied and learnt from. I see the success factors of this approach in its domestically-driven energy and localised solutions, built with recognition of political culture, traditions and institutions, with adjustments made to local contexts and, through this interaction, influencing those contexts to allow the change occurring and taking root. The revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of its various communities’ needs and aspirations and a workable mechanism to accommodate them together through diverse and respectful relationships.

The country makes cautious steps in progression and there is a long way to go. But one thing is clear today is that they do it their own way in Myanmar, and even if it does not match everyone’s expectations or standards abroad, it may work well for their people. And that’s what matters in the end.

About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. He has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Azerbaijan. Being posted in the field (such as office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international projects and missions, he has designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives, and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.


Democracy and Conflict: Real-life Solutions vs. Models


We like models, don’t we? We claim that they represent a simplified reality that help us make sense of it and serve as guidance for taking action. Accepted, it does in many instances (especially in well ordered situations when the cause-effect relations are observable and/or future developments are mostly in line with the extrapolated past trend). But what happens when some developments do not fit into any existing model? Then in a customary manner we are quick to dismiss them as an anomaly that has to be brought back to the norm of the known models.

Take, for example the notion of democracy promotion and democratic transition. All former colonies and, in the same vein, post-communist countries were expected to make a quick and effective transition from their non-democratic regimes to elected and then liberal democracies. It was assumed with little consideration given to unique cultural features of those societies and to their readiness to do so. The reality has shown that this is not the case.

Then the notion of ‘grey areas’ was introduced to explain that those countries which did not make it to democracy were lost somewhere in-between but eventually would have to be driven on the predefined route, or otherwise they run risk of reverting back to authoritarian rule—with no third option allowed. Not necessarily, it appears—at least not in such a simplistic manner.

What we failed to appreciate is the difference between the commonly accepted set of defined democratic values and the variety of forms that democracy as a governance regime based on those values may take, depending on local political culture and institutions. Also, the mechanistic understanding of such ‘transition’ fails to take into consideration that in order to become sustainable, the reforms will demand a cultural change which time-wise could be expected to take no less than a generational span (independently of the amount of effort, money and pressure invested externally).

And finally, we tried to model those transitions as flawless and irreversible—yet another failure to appreciate that even liberal democracies keep evolving and there is nothing surprising if at times this process turns into zigzagging and iterations, in an attempt of finding the optimal adjustment of political system to the changed external circumstances, let alone high-impact ‘surprises’.

(There are countries, such as Argentina, known for this kind of iterative democratic development. And it seems that the outcry of ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary and Poland is exaggerated; the policies of their elected governments signal more of a search of effective adaptive strategies in the face of daunting economic and social problems rather than of turning their back to European liberalism).

The same holds true with regard to ending violent conflicts and peacebuilding. So frequently we tend to overestimate the effects of globalisation and see the interaction between local and global as a one-way street, although the evidence suggests that the influence is reciprocal, and to be absorbed by local contexts the global trend (or external influence) has to be ‘glocalised’.

On the other hand, there is another fallacy of assuming that the solutions offered (if not imposed) by the developed/industrialised world actors are superior to those home-grown initiatives of local political players in the developing countries. Even driven by the best of intentions, external interventions may distort the inherent logic of internal conflict, which is a product of an interaction of many factors acting within a unique set of local political, economic, social contexts.

In any case, whether it is democratic reform or ending the conflict–only when the solutions are driven and owned by domestic actors, there is a chance that the meaningful development (including constitution building) or peace deal would be concluded, and respected and implemented afterwards. And we have to be ready to accept that it may take decades for them to come to realise that only through cooperative strategies they would achieve the final settlement (which is never a zero-sum outcome but something that demands concessions from all sides but still they can live with that)—if, of course, the democratic state and sustainable peace are the final goals and the contest/infighting has not turned into a self-sustaining endeavour when keeping the confrontation and thus status quo going is an end it itself and not a means to achieving the goal.

(These fallacies of international assistance have been long recognised and pointed to on numerous occasions and by various institutional agents and leaders over years. For example, the latest, 2015 OECD report on the States of Fragility (formerly known as fragile states), lists fifty such states in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Oceania and concludes that ‘far greater international political will is needed to support nationally owned and led plans, build national institutions’.)

That said there are various types of internal conflict and a variety of conflict drivers interact in any given violent confrontation, and they are set in a certain external geopolitical field with many interests—so I am far from drawing yet another model here, but rather intend at pointing to some fundamental issues which have been somehow neglected in the international community’s involvement in domestic violent conflicts and civil wars across the globe.

Whether ‘give war a chance’ or ‘give peace a chance’ should not be formulated as a dilemma, in my opinion. There is another dimension to transforming and resolving internal conflicts, which may well amalgamate these two within a flexible, adaptive and ecologically rational approach—as demonstrated by some successful experiences in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Among most recent are Colombia and Myanmar—they may not look as attractive as models but they are real and effective. Not such examples in the Middle East yet… or are they in making?

A Potential Game Changer in Syrian ‘Perfect War’

‘When some systems are struck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. …  And ironically, the so-called chaotic systems, those experiencing a brand of variations called chaos, can be stabilised by adding randomness to them. … The magic is that such a change of regime from chaos to order did not take place by removing chaos, but by adding random, completely random but low intensity shocks.’ — Nasim Nicolas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2014)

Looking Beyond the Events:

  • There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all have one thing in common—they are driven by political power and influence.
  • These wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, which no one can control and with no end in sight.
  • Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts, and implement sets of limited tasks to effectively address them, in order to progress toward the ultimate goal over time.

Syrian citizens prepare to evacuate from Daraya. Photo: Local Council of Daraya City via AP

There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all of them are about political power and influence. Today, Syria is a battleground for a number of wars. Each war has it its own contexts, underlying conflict drivers, prize at stake, and actors involved both directly and covertly. They are fought by a large group of local, regional, national, and transnational actors. Many are involved in more than one war and the aims they pursue (and alliances they make) in each war are different. Therefore the phrase Syrian War refers to conglomerate of wars closely related to and reinforcing each other (note: and not the ‘Syria’s war’ as sometimes referred to by observers—it is not, if ever has been, solely Syria’s internal conflict due to many external interests and interventions before and after the violent conflict erupted).

Conditionally, we can distinguish between two groups of wars by their aim: one is fought directly in the Syrian power contest and another group comprises various proxy wars which are about strategic positioning in Syria and in the region (among others, through the favourable to them outcome of the former group of wars).

Three wars are fought for direct power control in Syria. The difference is that two of them are internal Syrian political struggle by violent means, while the latter is the fight against an (originally) alien element.

One is a civil war. It started from the violent confrontation between the opposition-turned rebels and the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, back in 2011. Opposition, in turn, is not united and various rebel groups pursue their own agendas, driven by different ideologies and are supported by different set of external backers (who, in their turn, happen to be rivals in one proxy war but allies or neutrals in others). Both the government and the diverse opposition, however, share one feature—the resolve. The government does not intend to give up the power while the opposition wants to take it all, does not want to share it with Assad (the most recent proposal by opposition is yet another proof).

This winner-takes-all, zero sum game has a number of implications. More protracted it is, more resources it demands, more atrocities are committed, and fewer chances are left for its ultimate resolution. And under the resolution I mean not only a negotiated peace deal but also the post-war governance, stabilization, reconciliation, and rebuilding the country’s devastated physical and social infrastructure.

Another war is the one initiated by militant Islamist groups which took advantage of power vacuum and mess created by the civil war, to occupy territories in pursuit of their own goals. The goal of ISIL is to establish a self-ruled caliphate on Syrian soil. The goal of al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other jihadist militants is to grab as much as possible of power, in order to control the Syrian state in the future. Originally they were alien to Syrian political context, but in the course of five-and-half years managed to become part of it, through military campaign and skilfully manoeuvring and taking advantage of uncompromising stands.

Initially in the shadow of these two but growing prominent over time and creating yet another set of proxy wars associated with it is the war of Syrian Kurds. The Kurds, too, aim at reshaping the power balance in Syria in their own favour—getting at least a recognised autonomous region, if not an independent state. By establishing de facto the territory of Rojava under their control in the north, they advanced their cause but further complicated the issues for external actors working to end the war (in firsthand the complication between two NATO members, Turkey and the US).

Proxy wars derive from those three wars and thus, are diverse and intricate on their own while also overlapping, confusing and conflicting with each other.  Take just a few examples: regime of Assad is supported by Russia and Iran, while the opposition is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia with other Persian Gulf Arab countries. On the other hand the US, Turkey, Russia and Iran fight against ISIL. Saudi Arabia also backs non-ISIL Islamist groups which in turn support Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It appears that Saudi Arabia and Turkey also are backing jihadist groups that fight to bring Assad down. The US strongly backs the Kurdish forces, but Turkey, with support of opposition groups backed by the Turkish Armed Forces, has drawn its troops to the north to counter them under premise of fighting ISIL, but actually seizing over twenty villages from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a coalition consisting of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and allied opposition groups) south of Jarabulus. And the list goes on and on, with these and many other smaller players entering the game.

The wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, with no end in sight. The Syrian wars have one thing in common—all are about power and influence in Syria and for some, broader, in the Middle East region. Because of multiple overlaps, the wars which started with a distinct aim became increasingly integrated over time, thus developing toward single, rounded, all-encompassing ‘Perfect War’.

The wars overlap in their drivers, incentives, and aims. They also wars overlap geographically, with a number of epicentres (such as Aleppo) attracting interests of all parties. They overlap in terms of actors involved in each war (or dimension of it), who keep adapting to fast changing circumstances on the ground, at times pursuing their goals by multiple tactical means, switching sides, merging their campaigns with those actors whom they have seemingly irreconcilable differences at strategic level—and thus contributing to increased intertwining and integration of wars and actors.

The integration of wars is driven mostly through the moves of the actors on the ground. Broad variety of them, from government forces to various governments sponsored militia and paramilitaries, to mercenaries and terrorists are involved on almost all sides. Some of them fight in different fronts even within one war, while others are involved in multiple war endeavours. The uncompromising stand of both indigenous sides to the civil war (Syrian government and opposition) only strengthens the hand of those who want to proliferate from this situation (terrorist organisations such as ISIL and ever more, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham/former Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda), by offering them an opportunity to dig deeper into political process at the expense of Syrian moderate opposition groups.

Syrian opposition movement has not been homogeneous from the outset. However, certain categorisation of them, in terms of ideologies and the means they employed was still possible. Today, and for quite some time already it is very difficult to distinguish between ‘moderate’ rebels and ‘extremists’ as the former are increasingly radicalised and, in desperation, many of them join forces with jihadist groups.

On the other hand, Islamist militants and terrorists gradually become part of the civil war, mix with rebels and thus pose a risk of highjacking the (whatever violent) Syrian internal political contest. This enormously complicates the otherwise ‘wicked problem’ faced by the original parties to the conflict (and those external actors interested in the outcome), as in terms of fighting the war (for example targeting the localities for air strikes) so with regards to agreeing a deal and power sharing in the future political set-up.

The result of this integration is that, by compensating each other’s limitations, the Syrian wars evolve into one self-sustaining conflict—the Perfect War—that is fought for its own sake, is self-sufficient in terms of attracting resources and satisfying its needs, and can last permanently. Some of these currently semi-integrated wars already show indications of being fought for the sake of the fight itself—they became an end in itself for their participants who either don’t have any clear ideological agenda and affiliation or are simply benefitting from the war economically, politically, ideologically, and even psychologically.

Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts and develop and implement a series of limited tasks to address them. The situation in Syria is out of control. There is no such power in the world—individual or collective—that controls or can control it. Before the full integration of Syrian wars happens (and everything indicates that situation evolves exactly in this direction) a fundamentally new approach to finding solution must be employed. One such approach is breaking down the overall task (of ending the conflict and putting the country on the route of stabilization) into smaller tasks that can be managed flexibly and adaptively and can produce results.

In complex environments and systems a failure (whatever small) in one element may unintentionally trigger a chain of uncontrollable failures of large magnitude all around the system and thus lead to disastrous outcomes. This is especially characteristic of systems with interactive, tightly correlated dimensions and elements. The Syrian war definitely belongs to such systems, and we have seen numerous implications of one seemingly small failure complicating and paralysing the entire progress toward resolution.

The general rule is that if there is high uncertainty, many alternatives, and small information available (and thus, high risk) the decision making shall be simple and tactical. For that, an overarching objective shall be broken down into small manageable tasks and sub-tasks adapted to environment and the structure of information and dynamics it offers, and then act upon them carrying out multiple moves, simultaneously and/or subsequently, in various places and directions with an achievable goal set for each. Another condition is that the tasks shall be decoupled (although well coordinated) to extent possible so that to isolate their failures from affecting other tasks. This is where Less becomes More, in terms of the outcome.

Decoupling of processes and system elements has long been recognised as powerful risk management technique. In business, especially when corporations endeavour in a new, risky market  or set a new business line they establish affiliate companies to protect the mother company from damages (financial and image related) from the new project’s failure.

Interestingly enough, this approach is already being undertaken in the Syrian war framework. Take, for example, the attempts of US and Russia to establish a ceasefire in Aleppo, to allow delivering humanitarian aid (in spite of principal differences in stands with regard to the future of Assad). Or consider the recent deal between the Syrian government and the rebels, on surrendering the Damascus suburb Daraya (note: not the surrender of rebels who along with other civilian population were evacuated with weapons, but the locality or whatever ruins remain of it)—an example that small-scale, localised tasks are manageable. Another possible limited task (conditional on the success of ceasefire attempt) is to share the US intelligence in order to enable Russian forces to target Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—something that certain narrow-thinking observers failed to comprehend and appreciate as a demonstration of flexibility and adaptation to circumstances.

The adversaries have been ahead of the game in terms of decoupling, though. Their recent manoeuvring with rebranding Jabhat al-Nusra into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (thus pretending to dissociate from al-Qaeda) and a subsequent ‘defection’ of a fraction from the former, to create their own group—all clearly demonstrate that. The algorithm is simple. Jabhat al-Nusra decouples from al-Qaeda to undertake a new project, to portray itself as and to become solely Syrian actor in order to partner with rebels and eventually influence the political opposition movement. This is a new business, that is why it formally announces the change of name (although does not claim that it cuts ties with the mother organisation thus decouples, dissociates from its global branding while creating new image, localised and tailored to the limited task). But that’s not all. There is more to do for al-Qaeda in Syria, for example attracting other jihadist groups and taking them under own umbrella or continue fighting foreigners, the role left vacant after demolishing the Khorassan group by the US airstrikes. Therefore, another decoupling move follows—this time, creation of a fraction under premise of deflection from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. This new group most probably will deal with Nusra’s traditional business but formally won’t be linked to it, in order not to harm the mainstream activity.

Redefining the strategies and tactics. The goal of establishing a lasting peace in Syria and setting the country and its political system on the route of stabilisation can be achieved by redefining the engagement strategy. Large scale military campaigns can be accepted as only one of a means to an end: pulling out ISIL form occupied territories and decapitating radical militant groups are necessary but not sufficient for achieving the ultimate goal. Neither are high-level (presumably representative and all-inclusive) peace talks with (unrealistic as of this day) agenda of installing new or transitional central government. The daily job of progressing toward the desirable end-state in Syria is through numerous, random, tactical interventions aimed at searching for, understanding, and strengthening the existing opportunities for peace and strengthening local resilient capacity. The way to stabilisation in Syrian lies through those seemingly low-intensity positive shocks that have a potential to end the chaos.


About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.

(IIb/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In complex situations, an opportunity often avails itself in totally unexpected places, directions and forms that are not possible to discover or predict by logical computation (whatever artificial intelligence or big data employed), historic cases and experiences or trend extrapolation; this is where professional intuition of managers grounded in talent and years of experience shall drive the decision-making by using decision-making methods that use clues, heuristics and other tools of cognition. More formalised those methods are, more adept are managers at all levels in applying them higher are chances the organisation will be successful in navigating through surprises of unpredictability and attain its goals even under constraints of limited knowledge and time.


Photo: BBC

In this post I am presenting innovative features of decision making process and methods the Iraqi 3D Strategy’s employs, in order to flexibly navigate the local change agents and other partners toward building lasting peace and sustainable democratic institutions in Iraq.

Part II(b): Decision-making Methods

Strategy Review and Adjustment framework

As discussed in Part II(a), Strategy Review and Adjustment (SRA) is an iterative framework consisting of regularly conducted evaluations. It is a time and effort consuming exercise to be conducted by well-prepared managers. However, as practice has shown in various settings, the benefits of the process outweigh the invested resources. It is also highly recommended to formalise the process and its decision-making instruments from the outset of the Strategy implementation, with written guidance and resource materials provided.

The principal role of the review participants (decision-makers) is to make judgments and choices to bridge the gap between the ideas expressed in Theory of Change (TOC) and planning documents (PD) and reality, and to eventually choose the course of strategic action with highest potential for producing impacts. From assessment of recent developments to action point, each review comprises three blocks with their own management questions and decision making points, to allow arriving at optimal solution. Evaluations occurring at any point greatly influence what will happen in the next stage. A flowchart of generic SRA for the Strategy is represented in Figure 2; below I will describe each block’s decision making and illustrate it through a set of charts.

First block: Initial recommendation

Discussions of first block shall result in an initial recommendation. It is done through five steps: (a) Taking stock (What?); (b) Assessment (Why?); (c) Choice (What is next?); (d) Recommendation to implement (How?); (e) Monitoring arrangement (How we will know?). This is also a critical decision-making point. Figure 5 shows basic elements and flowchart of this block.


There are five option categories with regards to any level, dimension or component of the Strategy being reviewed: (a) Continue as it is; (b) Adjust and go; (c) Hold on; (d) Drop altogether/Terminate; (e) Replace.  The latter option requires a new (or being held in reserve) course of action, with justification.

Second block: Testing

From this point there follows the next block of testing or, if deemed unnecessary, then the recommendation goes to the last block of seeking approval prior to implementation (justification for skipping the testing shall be provided then, along with the recommendation). Testing is an important and highly recommended for those choices which propose a considerable change in TOC, a totally new direction or set of activities (or of local change agents involved). There are essentially three groups of available methods which reviewers will use to test the recommended action, conditionally named as: (a) formal experimental methods (randomised experiments and quasi-experimental designs); (b) formal discursive methods (surveys, interviews, panels, and focus group discussions); and (c) informal methods (such as desk tests, simulations, role plays and thought experiments). Second block’s flowchart is represented in Figure 6 below.


The outcome of testing is one of three conclusions: (a) Affirmative (confirmed, may go); (b) Negative (hypothesis didn’t prove, no go); (c) Undecided (no clear result). Respectively, first conclusion brings the review process into last step of approval and related communication with ultimate decision-makers. Second and third conclusions return the process back to either considering second-best from the options short-listed or redesign it to be better fit for purpose. The new (renewed) recommended option then goes into testing, and so on until the review participants come up with recommendable solution. This is second critical decision-making point in the review process.

Third block: Approval

At this stage, the job of review panel members is to (a) document and communicate their decision through formal channels; (b) make presentations and address questions and concerns raised, in order to convince the Strategy’s stakeholders in (primarily) political advantages and validity of expected impacts, as well as financial, administrative/logistical, and knowledge-specific technical feasibility of the recommended TOC/PD adjustments and the course of action; and (c) get eventual approval, funding (additional, if needed), and commence the implementation.

This seemingly simple process most probably itself will be iterative and even chaotic, and its outcome may depend on a number of external factors not necessarily directly related to the quality and desirability of the recommended adjustments and measures. The outcome here comes along three choices: (a) Affirmative (proceed to implementation immediately upon the agreed plan, which might be slightly or significantly different from the one proposed but consensus between stakeholders and Strategy top managers has been reached); (b) Affirmative but delayed (do not proceed immediately, until further notice or prior agreed date); (c) Negative (adjustments rejected, reasons communicated and accepted by all parties).

The former two outcomes are rather straightforward and resembling the features of somewhat linear decision-making business process. Exception is situations when the delayed choice (for whatever reason) may become outdated and irrelevant over time—which is the case in many situations, especially in international strategies and programmes with high political sensitivity. In turn, in case of a negative outcome the review either goes back to square one or continues the implementation as before (without dramatic changes) until next review. Thus, the third and final critical decision of the Strategy review is made at this point and effectively concludes it.

SRA decision-making toolkit

The Strategy’s operational environment requires management at all levels to be aware of different decision techniques that have been proved successful in complex settings. Some of these methods are better suited to tactical level or to emergency situations under constraints; others work well in solving ‘large world’ problems. What is important: to ensure that guidance on these methods is readily available (including training), that all managers can effectively use them, and that the methods are sufficiently formalised to be employed Strategy-wise.

In the framework of the Iraqi 3D Strategy’s TOC/PD review process, each step employs a number of task-specific (sometimes the same) analytical tools and decision models—some of them are well-known (such as SWOT, PESTLE, Diagnostic trees, Force Field analysis, simplified SCBA, etc.) and broadly practiced and some are rather novel to international development programming (although widely practiced in business and, especially those dealing with urgent decision-making, in security sector).

In this section, I will briefly discuss some of that set of decision-making tools which I think are highly relevant to the Iraqi 3D Strategy (and any other international strategy/programme working in post-conflict, volatile environments) and shall be formally introduced into management’s decision-making, along with traditional methods. I will illustrate them within the TOC review framework, as relevant to the subject of this series of posts.

Multi-criteria decision models

Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) method

Multiple Criteria Decision Models (MCDM) are widely used in business and in public sector, for they can be flexibly adapted to decision makers’ objectives and preferences and help to keep the judgment objectives clear.  I will illustrate this model on the example of Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP), one of techniques to tackle complex problems of choice and prioritisation. What makes this method well suited to the Strategy’s approach are the following: (a) evaluation doesn’t require exhaustive historical statistical data but makes comparative judgments for multiple choices; (b) allows managers to examine ‘what-if’ scenarios and alter their own initial decision by reassigning the weight given to criteria (or factors, depending on the case considered); and (c) gives the team enough flexibility to choose and modify evaluation criteria, depending on situation (i.e. decision-makers may opt to replace one or more criteria of their metrics based on experience gained, and so arrive at better decision).

Decision scenario: The goal of the Strategy’s review team is to select the most reliable civil society partner to lead/coordinate a citizen platform partnering with provincial governorate of Wasit in participatory budgeting initiative sponsored by the Strategy.

As agreed by the team, the factors to be considered are: experience (in similar activities plus reputation); capacity (membership in terms of numbers and skills); inclusiveness (of members–gender, youth, minority); and outreach (localities and their representative populations covered). Figure 7 gives a graphic representation of decision model’s core elements.


Upon completing a series of steps when judgements are scored and weighed, review participants will arrive at decision which is based on scores earned by each candidate against all the (weighed) criteria. What is interesting is that the team will weigh the criteria as they think relevant to local circumstances and thus the same candidates would score differently in another province (say, in Babil) with different context and thus requirements. Matrix in Figure 8 represents the final decision based on a composite weight of all choices against all criteria for this illustrative case.


Decision trees

Probabilistic decision tree

This kind of decision tree illustrates the probabilities of alternative choices and is a proven method for choosing the most feasible course of action, when there is enough data (for computation) to support the decision-making process. I will demonstrate it on the following illustrative case.

Decision scenario: The Strategy’s managers/review team in Diyala province considers working on local economic development initiative, to assist the provincial authorities and their public-private partnership (PPP) platform supporting youth entrepreneurship and small business. The Strategy’s decision-makers have to decide whether to help setting technology business incubator (TBI) or craftsmanship workshop-incubator (PBI).

The decision is taken in the face of uncertainty about (a) whether competition will be undermining the start-ups (the rival products of foreign producers will be imported and imitation will be rapid thus reducing the profitability of pioneers); and (b) whether the local and regional customer markets will be booming or in recession for the initial period of five years.

However, having enough data it is possible to calculate economic and social returns under all of possible outcomes: ROC (return on the investment made by the PPP which is a social enterprise with matched public-private funding); Social effects (wellbeing of the community); Economic effect (jobs, public revenue).

The decision tree for this illustrative case is represented in Figure 9.


Analogy-based models

Advance knowledge as reference

Analogy-based models evaluate the decision object (whether initiatives, projects or strategic directions) by comparing them to known (well-documented) historical precedents of the same class. In development practice, typically managers are using case studies of ‘good practice’ projects in order to learn from them and try make a projection of some successful past experiences elsewhere (with certain, at times significant, conditionality attached due to diverging local circumstances and contexts) to their initiative under consideration.

As discussed in part one of this series, although informative this method alone is not sufficient (mostly due to limits of replicability), especially in such politically complex environments as Iraq today, where developments may take any turn and any point in time thus forcing the managers keep exploring, learning from local developments and adapting to them constantly.

Recognition-primed method

There is another method of this class, which may prove very useful, especially when managers lack information about the context. This is known as recognition-primed method which works under constraint of limited information and thus relies on the decision-makers’ professional experience and intuition. Research findings over decades of observing real-life situations where this method is used (mostly in critical situations, emergency—by military and generally security, fire brigades; but also increasingly by civil agencies and businesses working in environments of high uncertainty and facing decision choices that do not fit into business-as-usual toolbox) prove that this method shall be among formal decision making tools of Strategy management. Conceptual flowchart of this method is represented in Figure 10.


Heuristic decision models

Heuristics are decision-making methods (simply put, rules of thumb) used to solve problems that traditional methods of logic and probability fail to handle. In management practice they have proven to work very well in uncertain settings and are relying on a minimum of time, knowledge, and computation to make choices adaptive to operational environment. In addition to these advantages, these methods are applicable at both strategic and operational levels of decision making. All this qualities make heuristics methods an excellent addition to the Strategy’s decision-making toolkit.

There are various methods (and various designs for some of them) in the class of heuristics driven decision models. Two of them are highly recommended for the Strategy. One is known as categorisation-by-elimination (CBE).

How CBE works? First, a manager/decision-maker or a management’s TOC/PD review team defines a full set of possible choices to be considered. Next, they establish cues (criteria, features, factors) most relevant to the choice decision on a given problem and rank them in terms of their importance. Third, they start evaluating the choices against cues, one at a time, starting with the most prominent cue. There is only one exit per cue, meaning only two choices: yes or no (either choice meets the requirement or it does not). If there is only one candidate choice meeting the criterion at this stage, then the search is stopped and the decision is to go with it as a recommended option. If there are more than one choices meeting the cue requirements, then the set is evaluated against the next cue, and so forth until there is one at a certain stage which is recommended. If all cues are exhausted or no choice meets the cue requirements (meaning that no single choice evolved as winner) then either choice is selected randomly from the remaining sub-set or new cues are added into the search. This means that last cue has two exits, to ensure that a decision will be made in the end.

Another decision tool which is used at individual and group level (especially in emergency situations but increasingly within broader set of settings) and is very effective in complex situations is fast-and-frugal tree (FFT). Its difference from CBE is that this method assesses one object against a set of cues organised by importance. Again, there is only one exit condition from any cue. Therefore it is more suited to situations where there are no alternatives and decision has to be made about that particular object.

FFT Decision scenario: The Strategy’s program in Anbar province supports the Government’s ex-fighter (militia) reintegration programme. At the first stage of the programme, assistance is provided to address the most immediate needs of ex-combatants. Cash payments were opted for at the initiation of programme by the implementing partners, as most effective albeit temporary instrument. However, the Strategy’s Early Warning and Response System (using survey findings) and field monitoring reports indicate that this approach is not as effective as planned and in fact even counterproductive. Therefore the decision shall be taken by Anbar team’s review panel, whether to terminate the assistance in this form or to continue. This illustrative case of decision making using FFT is presented in Figure 11.


What is distinct about this method, when compared to traditional decision trees, is that: (a) it gives a firm decision (that is why called deterministic method) and not a comparative probability between choices; and (2) it allows for reiteration, creativity and alteration (for example, considering the same set of cues arranged in different order according to their significance—thus offering two decision perspectives to compare).


To be continued. Next post II(c): Management Modalities and Operational Environment.

Previous parts of Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Emergency Strategy for Iraq posted on PolicyLabs:

Part I: The Strategy’s Foundations

Part II(a): Decision-making Model and Process

About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.