Every month, thousands of developers apply for X-Team. To find the right person for any job opening, we developed an ecosystem of internal apps that filters through all applications. That ecosystem of apps is called the X-Platform, XP for short, and I'm the Product Manager for it. My name is Paul, nice to meet you.

To build out XP, we use a decision-making framework called holistic decision making. This article will explain what holistic decision making is, how we use it at X-Team, and how it could become a useful framework to filter your personal and professional decisions through as well.

Why Holistic Decision Making?

Before I address what holistic decision making is, I want to explain why we chose this framework over a regular product development framework, like Baremetrics, Untools, or the various other options that were on our radar.

We felt that most product development frameworks focus too heavily on things like marginal analysis, max ROI, and other hard metrics. They were too focused on the goals and thought processes of engineering and economics.

We wanted something that was focused on people. Something that gives room for gut feeling, happiness, relationships, reducing stress, and whatever else we'd consider important alongside complexity, cost, and ROI.

What is Holistic Decision Making?

Holistic decision making is a framework by permaculturist, Dan Palmer. It is inspired by the work of Allan Savory, the Zimbabwean ecologist who created the holistic management framework, which has been praised widely by cattle farmers in Africa.

Savory wanted to understand why so much of the world was turning into desert. He eventually realized that the only common factor underlying desertification is how humans make decisions. Without the right framework, we make poor decisions and it hurts the land and the people who live on it.

So he developed the holistic management framework, which takes into account "the whole" and how you can create a "context" through which you can make better, holistic decisions.

Dan Palmer expanded on Savory's work, incorporating other techniques and influences and making it available for not just farmers and ecologists, but anyone who wants to make decisions that are socially, environmentally, and economically sound in the short, medium, and long term.

How to Get Started

Before you can use any new framework, you need to set it up properly first. The below image does a great job of explaining what X-Team needed to do before we could start using the holistic decision-making framework.


We'll explain the terminology as we go over each part. For now, just know that we needed to:

  1. Clarify the whole
  2. Articulate a holistic context
  3. Make decisions towards the holistic context
  4. Use a feedback loop to make sure we're always on track

Clarifying the Whole

Before we start talking about purpose, goals, actions, and all that good stuff, we needed to specify exactly what we'd be making decisions about. That's "the whole" and for us it was the X-Platform.

We also identified who would be involved in the decision-making process. Which groups of people have veto right over decisions made about XP? For X-Team, those were our CEO, CTO, the Business Development team, Recruitment Team, Dev, DevOps, PM, and PO.

We also listed all the resources we have access to. This included entities such as the X-Team community, prospective developers, internal team members, the apps we use, how much money we have available for internal engineering, and anything else that we could leverage to make decisions.

Articulating Context

Next, we had to articulate our context. This, in itself, is composed of four important elements:

  1. Statement of Purpose. What the whole was formed to do and why it exists. Should be short and sharp.
  2. Quality of Life (QoL) statements. Things that the decision-makers want to be true of the whole.
  3. Enabling Actions. What you need to do in order for the QoL statements to come true.
  4. Future Resource Base. Which resources you depend on and wish to always improve upon.

All this combined creates a "true North" that makes it much easier to make good decisions. Mind you, this isn't something that you come up with and then it's set in stone. Your context is a living, breathing reference point, and will likely change over time.

Here's what the holistic context for the overall ecosystem in XP looks like:

the holistic context of XP

As you can see in the legend, the large square in the middle is our Statement of Purpose. It's why I get out of bed in the morning (at least one of the reasons). We want XP to "facilitate the welcome of motivated new community members, enriching the lives of all X-Teamers."

The medium-sized squares around our Purpose are our QoL statements. The things our decision-makers want to be true of XP. We want XP to ease collaboration and reduce stress, strengthen the X-Team community, and so on.

The smallest squares around the QoL statements are our Enabling Actions. What needs to happen in order for our QoL statements to come true. At the moment, most of our QoL statements only have one Enabling Action, but these will likely increase organically over time.

Regardless, they're already useful. For example, in order to "overcome challenges in the simplest way possible" we make use of "lightweight, Agile processes."

Underneath all the squares is our Future Resource Base. For example, the X-Team community needs to be a "positively energized place". This needs to remain true to if we want to keep satisfying our QoL statements and our Statement of Purpose.

Here's a quick overview of how we cycled through this process and made our holistic context more visual:

Overview of making a visual holistic context

Making Decisions Toward the Holistic Context

Okay, so we have all that now. How can we use it to make better decisions? Enter filtering questions. Before you decide on something, run your decision through these questions:

  1. The Greatest Movement: if you're making a decision about a single action, does it give you a decent amount of movement towards your Statement of Purpose, QoLs, and Enabling Actions given the resources it will require? When comparing more than one action, which action gives you the greatest movement toward those things?
  2. The Future Resource Base: if you take this action, will it lead toward or away from the future resource base described in your holistic context?
  3. The Root Cause: if you are taking an action to solve a problem, does it address the root cause of the problem?
  4. The Energy/Money Source and Use: does the energy or money required for this action come from the most appropriate source in terms of your context? Will the way in which those resources are used progress your context?
  5. The Weak Link: Does the action you're considering address a weak social, ecological, or economic link? Is there any sense in which this action could create an undesirable weak social, ecological, or economic link?
  6. The Most Profitable Enterprise: if you're comparing two or more enterprises, which returns the most gross profit / the most towards covering business overheads?
  7. The Gut Feeling: how do you feel about your action now?

Here’s an example of how we cycled through these questions for a recent decision:

How we make decisions against the holistic context

What's important here is that you shouldn't get too carried away with each question. The point of them is to get you thinking a bit more thoroughly and systematically about your holistic context.

Using a Feedback Loop

Once we've then made a decision, our job is still not done yet. We must monitor the success of our decision and correct course if it deviates from our holistic context. Here's what Allan Savory said about this:

Once a plan is made, monitoring becomes essential because even though the decisions involved have been tested, events rarely unfold exactly as planned. Monitoring can mean many different things, but in Holistic Management it means looking for deviations from the plan for the purpose of correcting them.

Simply put, it's being prepared to change in case of an unexpected outcome. This will happen sooner or later, and if you don't notice it and respond appropriately, there's no point in having a plan in the first place. We must always plan, monitor, control, and replan to make true our holistic context and make our future resource base a reality.

Keep Moving Forward

It's still early days for us on our holistic decision-making journey. We still have a lot to learn through this feedback process. But we've already been pleasantly surprised by the power and versatility of this process and its application.

I've also used this framework in my personal life. You can read about that over here. And, if you're interested in better understanding the holistic decision-making framework, I highly recommend Dan Palmer's blog, his podcasts, and maybe even Allan Savory's book on Holistic Management if you want to go back to where it all started.

With these resources and a small bit of effort, the holistic decision-making framework can help you make better decisions in your professional and personal life.