Hidden Business Rule Example

Little girl hiding by covering her face

A business process is not just a sequence of steps.  A business process is a series of decisions and actions.  Some decisions are obvious and can be actively managed.  Some decisions are hidden, and until you discover them, you can’t manage or improve them.  Here is a real-world example of the discovery of a hidden enterprise decision.

Enterprise Decision Management

Over the past couple of years, I’ve collaborated with and become friends with James Taylor, an enterprise decision management guru.  He and Neil Raden wrote the book, Smart (Enough )Systems , you should get it if you don’t already have it.    It is sitting on my desk right now, and every time I pick it up I have to mark another page with a post-it note so I can find that good idea again later.  If you aren’t convinced, listen to this interview with James about their book.

James and I developed a presentation, Getting It Right: Rules and Requirements in Software last fall for the International Business Rules forum.  Below is a slideshare of a shortened version of the presentation, delivered to the Austin IIBA this spring.

Getting It Right

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: tyner blain)

A large portion of that talk was dedicated to discovering hidden business rules within use cases.  The reason we dedicated so much time to rules discovery is that the first step to managing decisions across your enterprise is to discover and isolate those decisions!  In this article, we will look at an example of a decision hidden within a simple business process.

A Simple Business Process

The following is a simple real-world business process.  The details of the steps in the process have been modified to clarify this example.

The process flow example above depicts an automated process that involves searching internal systems for an existing customer (record).  There are three possible outcomes from the search, shown above from left to right: no results are returned from the search, a single result is returned, or multiple results are returned.  When no results are returned, a new customer (record) is created, and the automated process continues.  When a single result is returned, that customer is used and the process continues.  When multiple results are returned, a new customer (record) is created and used, but the automated process is interrupted and a manual intervention is required before the process can continue.

This third path confused me when it was initially presented to me this way by the subject matter expert who explained the process to me. The business creates a new customer (record) even when multiple results are found because they don’t have time to determine which result is the right one, within the automated process.  They would rather create a duplicate customer (record), continue with the automated process, and clean up the mess later.  That’s much better than losing a sale (a very real risk because of delays due to manual oversight.

As part of this elicitation session, I applied a variation on active listening by talking to the diagram above (on a whiteboard) and enhancing it.

Impacts and Decisions

One technique that is effective in reaching agreement, generally, is to inspire the other person to “have your idea” so that it becomes their idea.  Once I understood the process above, I realized that there was an implicit decision in the process.  Instead of making the statement – “you have a hidden decision in your process” and then hoping the business stakeholder (also in the room) would care, I chose to start with the impact.  Presenting the impact of a hidden decision first might expose that decision and trigger acknowledgment of the hidden decision by the stakeholders.  The following diagram shows how I first modified the flow on the whiteboard.

The subject matter experts had told me that when there is a manual intervention in the otherwise automated process, the process is sometimes abandoned.  Imagine customers walking away from an online sale because (for some reason) the sale cannot be completed without an unexpected delay.  I represented this with the “Abandon Process?” decision in the flow.  This decision was never drawn before, because it is the customer’s decision, and it can not be controlled by the business.

I also pointed out that the business makes money only through the last step in the process, “Continue Automated Process.”  My goal was to accentuate that this abandonment decision has a very real value.  The stakeholder and subject matter experts agreed – this was something they had told me previously.  But they had never drawn it directly within their process.

As it turns out, this did not trigger any additional insights.  It did however, set the stage for describing the relevance of the hidden decision.

The Hidden Decision

After setting the stage, I updated the process flow diagram to expose the hidden decision.

The hidden decision is the decision of picking one of the many search results (top right corner of the diagram).  Your first response may be that the business is not picking any of the results.  My response is that choosing none of the provided results is a choice, just as picking any one of them would be.

This view of the process highlights that if the business could automatically choose a “best” result when searching returns multiple results, the business would avoid the risk of abandoned processes due to manual oversight.

With the current process, the business stakeholder acknowledged that the hidden business rule is ” pick none of the results 100% of the time”.  With current project schedules, there is nothing that can be done about that in time for the immediate software release (of the software that embodies this process).

Before our meeting was over, the business stakeholder added determination of future-state business rules to define the “how do we pick one?” decision to the deliverables for the next release.

A Smart (Enough) Decision

James and Neil (I would guess) will tell you that ideally, the decision (should we pick one, and which one should we pick) should be informed by the process.  A feedback loop can be created where we identify the customers (the people who might abandon the process), and determine statistically which ones are most likely to abandon the process.  For those people, it is especially important that we be able to “pick one” from a set of search results, thus completely avoiding the opportunity to abandon the process.  For those people who are unlikely to abandon the process, the “pick one” decision is less important.

If it were easy to “pick one”, we would consider changing the way search is handled to never return multiple results.  In this real world example, that is not an option (I’m intentionally not sharing the reasons, to avoid disclosing too much).  The only option in this case is for the business to respond intelligently (enough) when presented with multiple search results.


This process flow example has two primary outcomes – generate profits, or don’t generate profits.  The first modification of the process flow makes that possibility explicit.  That allows for an analysis to determine if there are any hidden decisions in the flow (there are) that impact the outcomes of the flow.  There may be other hidden decisions, but they do not impact the profitability of this process, so they were not explored.

4 thoughts on “Hidden Business Rule Example

  1. “James and Neil (I would guess) will tell you that ideally, the decision (should we pick one, and which one should we pick) should be informed by the process.”

    Nicely done, but with respect to your parenthetical phrase, why don’t you ask me?

    -Neil Raden

  2. Hey Neil, great to hear from you again. Since you’re here – consider yourself asked. :)

    Also, hidden decisions can be relevant (like this one), or irrelevant (like ‘should I put the customer on hold while I go get a sandwich?’). Is there any approach other than ‘use good judgment’ that you encourage your clients to take, to discover and emphasize hidden decisions like the example in this article?

    Thanks for commenting!

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