Category Archives: Decision Making

Accuracy of Timespan

“You see,” Pablo continued, “it’s the ‘by when’ that creates the complexity of any problem.”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“The further our intention is into the future, the more uncertainty, the more ambiguity creeps in. In spite of our best intentions, the future is without precision. My friend Murphy* has a law, with which, I am sure you are familiar. From one day to one week, one month, three months, a year, two years, five years, the longer the timespan, the more uncertain those future events. And, yet, in the face of that uncertainty, we have to make a decision today.”

“We were talking about the size of a role,” I tried to bring this discussion back on point.

“Indeed, some roles, production roles focus on today, tomorrow, this week. Supervisory, coordination roles focus on this week, this month, this quarter. Managerial roles focus on this quarter, this year into next year. Executive management roles focus on this year through five years. The CEO role looks out 5 years and beyond. Using timespan, we can accurately measure the size of the role.”

“And, we were talking about the size of a person,” I prompted.

“Most people are capable today, this week, maybe a month into the future. Meaning, they can perceive things around them and are competent at making near term decisions. As the timespan of the decision increases, some struggle. There is a big drop off at one year. Thinking out, and making effective decisions beyond one year into the future, well, far fewer people have capability at that level.”
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*Murphy’s law – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Attributed to Capt. Edward A. Murphy, US Air Force, 1949.

The Measure of Complexity

“Would you agree,” Pablo asked, “there are some simple problems that most people can easily solve?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“And, would agree that as problems become more complex, some people struggle?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“So, how do we measure the complexity of any decision, the complexity of any problem?”

“I suppose,” I started, “it would have to do with the number of variables in the decision, difficult enough for those variables we know about, even more so for those variables we do not know about.”

“And, how would you define a variable, start with one we know about,” Pablo prompted.

“A variable would be something we anticipate, and we don’t know for sure which way it’s going to go,” I replied.

“Like the weather,” Pablo stated. “We anticipate it is going to be cloudy, but we don’t know for sure if it is going to rain.”

“Yes,” I said, not sure where Pablo was taking me.

“And, how do you know it’s cloudy?” he asked.

“I looked outside, no sunshine. Observable, visual evidence, I can see it.”

“But, you don’t know if it is going to rain? Do you take an umbrella?”

“I suppose I might. A minor annoyance if it doesn’t rain, and a handy thing to have if it does,” I assumed it was a smart response.

“So, in the face of uncertainty, you make a decision based on something that is observable right now. Would you make the same decision a half-hour from now?” Pablo baited.

“It looks pretty cloudy, I believe a half-hour from now, I would still take an umbrella,” I hedged my bet.

“So, in a short timespan, you believe you have enough evidence, in spite of the uncertainty, to make a decision to take an umbrella?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“How about a week from now?” Pablo’s eyes shifted and he grinned.

“Well, who knows, a week from now if it will even be cloudy, much less rain?” I asked.

“So, one week from now is less certain than a half hour from now?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“Is it possible to measure the uncertainty of any decision using timespan?” Pablo stopped and rested.

Based on Objective Measures

“But, if a forklift driver has enough experience on the resume, and properly answers a few questions, isn’t that enough for the manager to make the right hiring decision?” I asked.

“One would think,” Pablo replied. “But, it begs the age-old question, ‘How big is the role? And, how big is the person?’ Two questions, pretty simple.”

“I am following you, but, I don’t think it is as simple as you say. Or else, we would have figured it out by now.”

“Often, it is because we are looking, desperately so, in the wrong places. We think if we can simply understand human behavior, it will all fall into place. So, we try to measure human behavior. If you ask any CEO their biggest challenge, it is almost always, right people, right seats. Even psychologists struggle with measuring human behavior. They arrive at psychometric assessments with some statistical repeatability that they call reliable. The problem is, just because I can demonstrate repeatability in one measured system does not mean it is causative or a predictive indicator for something else. Where the art of engineering is built on objective measures of physics, and medicine is built on objective measures in anatomy, physiology and bio-chemistry, the art of management is, for the most part, built on alchemy, which is of little use in predicting decision making and problem solving.”

“Objective measures, in the art of management? Predictive in decision making and problem solving?” I repeated the statement as a question.

Pablo nodded. “Let me give you three buckets of water, one iced-cold, one room temperature and one heated, but not boiling. Put your right hand in the heated bucket and your left hand in the iced-cold bucket. After a moment, remove your right hand and place it in the room temperature bucket. Is the water warm or cold?”

“It will appear cold, because of the change in temperature,” I replied.

“Now, take your left hand from the iced-cold bucket and place it in the room temperature bucket. Is the water warm or cold?”

“To my left hand, it will appear warm, while my right hand in the same bucket will feel cold.”

“Well, which is it?” Pablo asked. “Warm or cold?”

“It depends on the context,” I nodded.

“Change the context, behavior follows,” Pablo smiled. And waited. “And if I placed a thermometer in the room temperature water and said, ‘your experience of the water, whether warm or cold is of little consequence, the water is 75 degrees.’

“Now, we have an objective measure upon which we can all agree, no matter if it feels warm or cold, the water is 75 degrees. What does that have to do with management?” I wanted to know.

“Even more important,” Pablo replied, “what would an objective measure have to do with the art of decision making and problem solving? How big is the role, how big is the person?

Getting Consensus?

Adelle emerged from the conference room after two long hours of debate. She shook her head from side to side, a genuine look of despair. “I tried,” she shrugged, “but we didn’t make a whole lot of progress. What we ended up with was mostly crap.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Oh, we have been trying to figure out the best way to solve this problem and there are a bunch of ideas, but we just can’t reach a consensus on which way to proceed. I am afraid to get started until I know for sure that everyone is on board. But every time we make a compromise, other people drop off and want something different.”

“What happens to the quality of the solution every time you compromise?”

“That’s the real problem. It’s the compromising that kills it. After listening to all the input, I know what we should do and the little compromises just water it down. We might as well junk the whole project because, in this state, it will not do what the customer wants it to do.”

“Whose meeting did you just walked out of?” I asked.

It was Adelle’s turn to ask, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, was it the team’s meeting, or was it your meeting? Let me put it a different way. Who is your boss going to hold accountable for this decision?”

“Oh, I tried that once, blaming a decision on the team. I got the message. My boss is going to hold me accountable for the decision.”

“Then, it wasn’t a team meeting. It was YOUR meeting that the team got invited to. It is your responsibility to listen to the input, and it is also your responsibility to make the decision. And you don’t need agreement, you just need support.”

Adelle had to sit down to think about this one.

Negative Stream

Around the water cooler, have you noticed the tone of conversation?

  • “Did you hear about so and so, can you believe what happened?”
  • “You should have seen this guy who cut me off in traffic this morning.”
  • “Can you believe the gall of that person, why are they so opinionated?”

And, most of this is unconscious. It comes streaming out with little thought, guidance or direction. So easy to find fault, condemn or complain.

Ask a person about something good that happened yesterday, and they will stop, suddenly out of flow. Something positive requires conscious thought, does not come streaming out. We can usually find that positive moment from yesterday, but we have to interrupt our unconscious negative stream to do so.

The negative stream and positive thoughts sit in two different parts of the brain. Negative thoughts, from the primal brain arrive from a mental state of survival. Reflexive in speed, we don’t have to think. Positive thoughts require that we trigger the neo-cortex, fully visible on a fMRI brain scan. Responsive in speed, we have to think. Which part of the brain are you thinking with? Which mental state are you using to solve problems and make decisions?

Bring Value to Decision Making

“So, you believe, when your manager left you to solve the problem, simply by asking you questions, that brought value to your thinking. Are you sure your manager wasn’t just being lazy, maybe indecisive herself?” I asked.

“Oh, no. Quite the contrary,” Kim replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, my manager was clear about decision making. We even had three meetings together just to make a list of all the decisions that needed to be made in our department. Then we grouped the decisions according to who had the authority. Here is the list –

  • Decisions I could make, and didn’t even have to tell my manager.
  • Decisions I could make, but had to tell my manager, after the decision was made.
  • Decisions I could make, but had to tell my manager, before the decision was made.
  • Decisions I had to discuss with my manager, but the decision was still mine to make.
  • Decisions I had to discuss with my manager, but the decision was my manager’s.
  • Decisions my manager would make without discussion.

So, my manager was clear about decision making authority in our working relationship.”

A Different Way to Think (About Projects)

“So, what’s your observation,” I asked. “Moving from a project manager in charge of three projects to a senior project manager in charge of 20 current projects, plus all the projects in the pipeline?”

Andrew looked down, studied the table. “Every single project has a beginning, middle and end. Each project has defined edges to it, resources are specific, and at the end, there is a finished project, very tangible.”

“And?”

“Twenty projects are all in different stages, it’s fluid, the boundaries move. Sure, we create artificial borders and artificial time frames to measure things, compare statistics. But, there is a difference in how you play one, two or three projects and how you play a portfolio of 20. In a portfolio, we may play for a high profile project with slim margins to raise the company’s visibility. We might attempt a new technology, in which we are currently clumsy, to practice, get better. A single project game might fail its gross margin, where a portfolio game might propel the company in a direction without competitors (at least for a while).”

“So, is this just about having more projects in a portfolio?”

“Not at all,” Andrew replied. “Having 20 projects pushed me to think differently, but, thinking differently is more about the timespan of decisions. And we have to do both. My project managers have to be focused on the individual project, and I have to be focused on the future.”

Out of the Chaos

“Managing 20 projects is different than managing three projects,” Andrew repeated. “And, it’s not just that there are more things to do.”

“How so?” I wanted to know.

“When, you have 20 simultaneous projects, you have to look for patterns. In each of the 20 projects, what is the same and what is different? There is no sense solving the same problem 20 times, when you can solve it once.”

“What else?”

“Every project has a start-up phase, mobilization. Every project has a conclusion, substantial completion, punch out and close-out. And, every project has interior milestones. So, there are patterns to find.”

“And?”

“And, if you recognize these patterns, you can build a system, a schematic, a flow chart that gives you a visual understanding how the components go together. In some cases, things become predictable, a natural sequence emerges. Some things can be done simultaneously, some things have to wait until something else is finished.”

“So, that’s the external stuff. What’s going on with you. What’s the inside story?”

Andrew stopped, looked down, then up. “Do I have what it takes. In the middle of the frenzy, will I get caught up in the weeds? Or will I have the fortitude to step back from the chaos and make mental sense of the noise?”

Structure and Creativity – Part II

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

This continues my response to the following question –

Question:
In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
It is easy to fear organizational calcification. Much of management literature rails against terminology about command and control, even the subtle reporting relationship reeks iron fists and thumbs of oppression. This is why our understanding of functional organizational structure is so important. And important to you because of your interest, mandate that an organization be creative.

I define work narrowly looking at two things, decision making and problem solving. This discussion is to firmly attach creativity to decision making and problem solving, within the confines of a structure that eschews rigidity.

First, an exercise, in creativity. I ask a group of student within a 60-second period to name (write down) things that are round, as many as possible in 60-seconds. That’s the goal. You would assume those that name 30 are more creative than those that name six. I immediately get a question, “do you mean round and flat like a coin or round like a sphere?” I say, “there are no rules, no restrictions, it’s up to your own definition.” There is no structure to the exercise save the limit of time.

Inevitably, the clock winds down and most participants have a list of six to eight and most have a look of frustration on their face that they performed so dismally. I ask for sample responses –

  • ball
  • coin
  • planet
  • wheel
  • manhole cover
  • marble
  • watchface

Stop, time’s up!

Remember, the goal is to be as creative as possible and name as many as possible. I say, “ball. What about a tennis ball? A baseball? A basketball?”

“Wait, that’s cheating,” the group responds. I smile.

Here is the point. Instead of instructions where there is no structure, let me create a structure that guides you to be more creative.

Name as many coins that are round –

  • penny
  • nickel
  • dime
  • quarter
  • 50-cent piece
  • silver dollar
  • gold dubloon

Name as many planets that are round –

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Jupiter
  • Earth
  • Saturn

Name as many balls that are round –

  • tennis ball
  • baseball
  • basketball
  • bowling ball
  • golf ball
  • volleyball
  • cricket ball
  • soccer ball

The more structure in the assignment, the more creative, the more possibilities. This is a concept called idea fluency.

I need you to shift your understanding (not change, just shift) about organizational structure where we create working relationships between people where they engage in work using the fullest extent of their capability to make decisions and solve problems.

Elliott’s model helps us understand that there are different levels of decision making and different levels of problem solving. It is incumbent on every manager to understand those levels and engage the fullest capability of their team members in the work at hand.

Placing accountability for team output at the feet of the manager dramatically shifts managerial behavior to create more productive and creative working environments.

It’s Probably Not Important

“How do you know what-you-need to know?” I asked. “You lost the contract, because you understood the problem, had a great solution, but did not know how the decision was to be made. How do you know what-you-need-to-know?”

Jordan thought for a minute. “I guess, the first step is assuming we already know everything we need-to-know. It’s easy to get suckered into thinking that what-we-know matches the reality of the situation. We have to get really clear on what-we-know and what-we-don’t-know.”

“And, what do we assume about what-we-don’t-know?” I pressed.

“We assume what-we-don’t-know is probably not important, that if it was important, we would already know about it, and included it as part of our understanding. That was our first mistake.”

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Hiring Talent – 2020 was released on Mon, Jan 13, 2020. Limited to 20, participants must be part of the hiring process, as either hiring manager, part of the hiring team, human resources or manager-once-removed. Program details are here – Hiring Talent – 2020. If you would like to register please complete the form on the Hiring Talent link. The first 20 respondents will receive a discount code for a $99 credit toward the program.