As I leaned my Trek into the first hairpin turn, there in the middle of the mountain road, about 20 yards ahead, were two rocks. I gently squeezed my brakes and signaled my biking buddy Jim to watch out for these two loaf-of-bread-sized obstacles. We eased past the rocks and briefly discussed hopping off our bikes to remove them. We decided against it, and continued our descent.
Would you have removed the rocks? (It would have been safe to do so, since the rocks were 20 yards beyond the hairpin turn.) If so, why? If not, why not? More importantly, how would you make your decision?
Information, Knowledge, Wisdom…
When we make a decision, we base it on the information we have and how we think about that information. If the information is accurate, we call them facts. If we think about the connections among the facts within the context of the decision, we call that systems thinking. One way to make better decisions is to consider the relationship between facts and connections, as seen below.
Increasing Facts and Connections
Leads to Wisdom and Better Decisions
This diagram teaches us that wise decisions are a function of seeing the connections among relevant facts. Of course, if we had all the time and money we wanted to make decisions, we could spend it gathering numerous, high-quality facts and then contemplate/assess their connections. We could hire experts, review the latest research, and even conduct our own experiments. However, that's not the way the world usually works. We often need to make split-second decisions with a few facts and little reflection regarding their connection.
Lessons on the Mountain
Jim and I decided not to remove the rocks because we wanted to help those who would follow us down the steep mountain road. That's right; we decided we would actually serve more people by leaving the rocks. We arrived at this seemingly outrageous decision by quickly discussing facts and contemplating their connections:
- The rocks were near the top of the mountain, 20 yards after a hairpin turn.
- There are 37 hairpin turns on this specific mountain.
- Numerous cars and motorcycles race down the mountain every weekend for sport.
- A car racing down plunged off the mountainside right in front of me a few years ago
- (Read about it: http://davejensenonleadership.blogspot.com/2008/12/leading-by-monitoring-your-environment.html ).
- 20 yards provides ample time for cyclists and motorists to avoid the two rocks.
- Racing motorists do not know what is beyond each of the 37 hairpin turns.
- The rocks near the top could serve as a possible warning sign to racing drivers.
Not removing the rocks has a greater chance of helping more people.
Back at Work
Of course, this article is not about the road or the rocks; it's about how to make excellent decisions more consistently. The first step is to gather the facts. This sounds simple, but how often have you seen leaders make decisions based on a biases, opinions, or emotions instead of facts? For example, have you ever:
- Counseled underperformers without knowing the real story?
- Dashed off quick e-mails without verifying the facts?
- Reacted to a colleague or loved one without “seeking first to understand?”
- Pontificated in meetings regardless of the evidence?
- Implemented something new (e.g., policy/procedure, training, change initiative…) based on a popular management book or “flavor-of-the-month” fad, instead of solid facts grounded in research?
Evidence-based management may sound obvious, but as Professors Jeffrey Pfeiffer and Robert Sutton point out, it is not what organizations actually practice. (1) For example, they point out that Hewlett-Packard (HP) conducted extensive internal testing on 13 pay-for-performance programs in the early 90’s. They learned that although pay for performance increased motivation to some, the benefits were not worth the damage done by the programs (lower trust, decreased employee commitment, infighting regarding pay levels…) These facts led them to conclude that pay-for-performance programs were not worth the headache they created at HP. Unfortunately, when CEO Carly Fiorina took over, she let everyone know that she favored pay-for-performance. The boss’s opinion trumped the facts. She implemented the new compensation plans, thus creating the previously proven problems. Perhaps she was not strong enough to doubt herself. Are you? Remember, dogma is dog pooh!
Once we have the facts, it is important to consider how these facts relate to each other within the context of the decision. This involves contemplating the relationship and pattern among the facts in time and space, a process known as systems thinking. Again, this area seldom receives adequate attention from leaders. For example, have you seen:
- New policies or procedures implemented in one area create unintended consequences in another?
- A silo mentality (or a turf war) surface during or after meetings?
- Fragmented approaches to improvement without connecting the dots?
- People spend more time pointing fingers and fixing the blame than fixing the problem?
Like the human body, your organization is a system – “a group of interacting elements forming a complex whole." System thinking is the ability to contemplate these elements (i.e., facts), their patterns, and their interactions with each other. When you think systemically, you realize that 1 + 1 = 3 because of the principle of emergence – “from the interactions of the parts arise characteristics which are not found in the parts.” If you studied hydrogen and oxygen in isolation from each other, you’d never know water. If you observed the behaviors of two partners separately, you wouldn’t understand their marriage. Likewise, making decisions by only looking at the facts in isolation seldom yields insights.
How to Make Better Decisions at Work
To make excellent decisions consistently, I recommend that you conduct your own little experiment. For the next 40 days, write these five fundamental questions on a 3x5-index card every morning (you can use abbreviations):
1. What are the facts?
2. How do these facts relate to each other and the big picture?
3. What might be the long-term, downstream consequences of various options?
4. What would be an eXtraordinary outcome?
5. Who should be involved in answering these questions?
Pull out the index card and answer these questions whenever you need to make a decision that requires some contemplation. Of course, you don’t need them to make simple decisions (where are we going for lunch?). Nevertheless, try them when you need to think about a decision. How surprised will you be when you become a better leader at home and work because you are a wise decision maker?
Let me know how your experiment goes.
P.S. Read a GREAT ARTICLE about how my research on 171,000 leaders can help you be an eXtraordinary leader and decision-maker; click on the link below (or paste it into your browser)
1. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton; Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2006.