Leadership : The Go Pointer’s Guide to Unforced Errors
Michael Useem, the author of The Go Point and The Leadership Moment, is the William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management at the
All in all, our decision-making equipment is pretty sound. We don’t follow the lead lemming over a cliff. We can’t be fooled into thinking that a 99-cent lure is a meal. We don’t try to catch car fenders with our teeth. Then again, it wasn’t a dog who launched New Coke. So there are a few bugs – little design flaws of the mind – that can have big consequences.
People are clinically overoptimistic, for instance, assigning zero probability to events that are merely unlikely (such as a massive iceberg in the path of a really big ship). We see “patterns” in the random movements of stocks the way our ancestors saw bears and hunters in the scatterplot of the night sky. We make choices that justify our past choices and then look for data to support them. Not only do we make these errors; we make them reliably.
That’s the good news. Predictable errors are preventable errors. And a few simple techniques, like those below, can help you steer clear of the most common wrong turns. They can get you to your go point, that decisive moment when the essential information has been gathered, the pros and cons weighed, and the time has come to get off the fence.
Problem: Authority Is Not Bestowed
Tool: Pursue Responsibility
For some, responsibility is simply bestowed: a princess is handed the kingdom upon the passing of the monarch; a favorite son inherits the family business. For most, however, the authority to make decisions must be actively sought.
Born in the
Madhabi Puri Buch did much the same at ICICI, one of
Problem: Unfamiliar Responsibilities
Tool: Appraise the Past
In embracing new responsibilities, past decisions can serve as a natural curriculum for avoiding future mistakes.
Liu Chuanzhi was working at the
When Liu left the state-sponsored research laboratory in 1984, he knew nothing about how to build an enterprise, so he set about learning to do so by studying his own go points in minute detail. At the end of every week, Liu and his top aides met to review major decisions of the past five days. Many errors were committed, he told me, but the weekly debrief helped “to ensure that we don’t make [the same] mistakes in the future.” Thanks to the reviews and lessons drawn from them, Lenovo was able to weather
The after-action review can be monthly, quarterly, yearly, or even daily, depending on the decision-making tempo. In July 2004, I watched a wildland fire crew in action against a raging blaze in
Problem: Inexperienced Gut
Tool: Educate Your Instincts
“Go with your gut.” “Follow your intuition.” “Trust your feelings.” The sayings are commonplace, but do our instincts make good decisions? In fact, blind instinct cannot be trusted, but it can be educated. The main purpose of flight simulators, for example, is to allow pilots to experience unlikely surprises so many times that, should one actually occur, their response will be reflexive. “Train like you fly and fly like you train” is how they put it at NASA’s astronaut training program at the
Practice does not always make perfect, but it certainly helps. When he was named Episcopal bishop for the diocese of
“If you get educated about something and then you live that, the line blurs between what your instincts used to be and what they are now,” General Peter Pace explains. “Your mind touches on resources it’s not even conscious of touching on.” In the words of Blink author Malcolm Gladwell, that is the “power of thinking without thinking.”
Problem: Analysis Paralysis
Tool: The 70 Percent Solution
Only professors and journalists get paid to say, “On the one hand….” When the rest of us continue to mine and massage the data in pursuit of perfect knowledge – and thus perfect certainty – we are edging toward that clinical condition of decidophobia, fear of facing a go point.
The Marine Corps battles this syndrome with the “70 percent solution.” If you have 70 percent of the information, have done 70 percent of the analysis, and feel 70 percent confident, then move. The logic is simple: a less than ideal action, swiftly executed, stands a chance of success, whereas no action stands no chance. The worst decision is no decision at all.
Analyze, but not overanalyze: that is the message Hewlett-Packard executive vice president Ann Livermore sends to HP’s Technology Solutions Group, a $30-billion-plus business that en-compasses enterprise storage and systems, software and services, and employs 95,000 IT professionals. She places a primacy on “fast enough” – decision making based on sufficient information, not perfect data. GE teaches the same at its retreats. By requiring ranking managers to vote up or down, individually and publicly, on a variety of proposed changes, GE avoids the endless analysis that compromises decision tempo.
Drawing upon his own tumultuous experience as president of
Problem: Mistakes Happen
Tool: Tolerate Them – Once
Short of perfect information and analysis, mistakes are sure to happen. The secret, says Peter Pace, is: “Don’t beat yourself up. If you’re not making mistakes, I don’t need you in my organization,” which in his case includes some 2.4 million uniformed troops. “I want you doing 90 percent right in a big universe rather than 100 percent right in a small universe.”
Charles Elachi directs the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s contract agency for unmanned space missions, including the 2004 Spirit and Opportunity Mars landings that found evidence of water between layers of volcanic rock. Given the technical complexity of space flight, Elachi insists that every significant pre-mission decision at JPL receive intense peer appraisal and even outsider review. To ensure disciplined decision making during a mission, he also insists on resilience. “We operate under very heavy pressure,” he says. “Many critical things are riding on our decisions. You have to have nerves of steel. Everyone involved in the project has to keep calm and composed so that we can think clearly about what is happening. Anyone who panics under pressure is just in the wrong business.” To instill those steel-like nerves among his 5,500 employees, Elachi requires less experienced workers to witness JPL veterans making decisions.
Predictably, though, some of JPL’s decisions do go wrong. A mission to Mars in 1998 ended in such a high-profile, costly failure that the mission’s top two managers were ready to resign. Elachi would not let them. “Normally, when a project fails, people look around for someone to blame,” he says, “but if you hang the person who made the mistake, you’ve also lost a lot of experience.” Instead, Elachi told the two managers, “We have spent $400 million training you. You have to learn from those mistakes, and I’m sure you will not repeat them.” Six years later one of the managers was serving as a mission director and the other as a deputy manager for the highly successful Spirit and
Problem: Rush to Judgment
Tool: Preserve Optionality
Many decisions come with looming deadlines: the battle is lost, the market opportunity gone if you do not act in timely fashion. Even without a deadline it can still be tempting to get the hard business of choice making over with. The more one can tamp down the uncertainties and let the pieces fall in place before deciding, however, the more likely one will reach the right go point.
As CEO of Scottish Power, an energy producer with major operations in the
Not surprisingly, Russell takes his time in making such choices. “Let’s be careful,” he warns, and to that end he works to ensure that his team understands the decision options, appreciates their upsides and downsides, and knows what might go wrong with each so that the company does not look “foolish in a year’s time.” For decisions of such scope, Russell counsels waiting three, six, or even twelve months to diminish complexity and reduce uncertainty as much as possible before pulling the trigger.
Reprinted from THE GO POINT: When It’s Time to Decide. Copyright © 2006 by Michael Useem. Published by Crown Business, a division of Random House, Inc.
Copyright 2006 - Michael Useem