Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Decisions: Cut and Dry?

Is any decision ever an easy one to make? I suppose that some decisions are, but it truly depends on the topic of discussion. For example, when my wife and I recently decided to go to Ruth Cris for Valentine's Day dinner, neither of us spent more than 0.13259876 seconds to come up with a collective "yes" on the matter.

Other decisions, especially business ones, are not so easy. Rarely does a manager have the luxury of deciding something that does not have ramifications beyond the five minutes immediately following the decision (save for where to go for lunch perhaps). Instead, they are frequently called upon to determine the direction that their ship will travel for the next week, month, or even year.

Consider the decision of hiring someone. Susan Docherty who leads the sales, service and marketing for GM's U.S. operations recently described her philosophy around the hiring process in an interview by the New York Times. There's no need to discuss it in detail, but I will mention one thing that is relevant to everyone reading this: such a decision with its potentially far reaching consequences is not taken lightly. In fact, she puts quite a bit of effort into researching potential candidates and inspecting them in person to determine the degree of fit within her team.

I claim that this is the hallmark of a good decision maker. Don't take what I'm saying to extremes, however. While it is certainly possible to over analyze things to the point of paralyzing oneself, it is also possible to do quite the opposite: make a decision off the cuff based solely on one's gut reaction; a recipe for disaster. ("Fools rush in where angels fear to tread," and all that nonsense is applicable here.)

What Ms. Docherty has done is develop a process to do enough analysis to support her when she makes the decision, but still avoids making the decision based solely on what information is available from other sources. In other words, she doesn't depend on the resume alone or even the input of others. Instead, all of these things are rolled up and kneaded like bread dough along with her own impressions she forms after meeting the person.

Once a decision has been made, then the crucial part of selling the decision to others begins. Specifically, any decision on policy, process, etc. will need the support of others - even subordinates - in order to be successful. Otherwise, you will have empty shells of people simply going through the motions, only trying to fulfill the letter of the law instead of the spirit of it. Selling decisions like these takes a certain degree of finesse (not unlike selling goods or services to clients of your company), and this should not be understated.

For example, another interview by the New York Times with George Cloutier yielded some very interesting and even good ideas about how to run a small- to mid-sized business. Yet the means by which he communicated these to the report came off as crass, arrogant, and even obnoxious. Do his ideas have merit? Yes. Would I be as willing as a small business owner to implement his ideas? Perhaps, but not without a lot more convincing as to why his ideas are better than my own. As it stands now, he comes off as someone looking down his nose at those his company serves, and no one likes hubris regardless of the shape or form it comes in.


  1. Well, Larry, just to prove that this networking thing works, I'm responding to your post on my LinkedIn question by arriving, as it were, at your place and find myself talking about decisions. Now, should I or shouldn't I ...

    As a young account manager I was fortunate to sit at the feet of Michal Conroy who later became Chairman of the adverising group Publicis. Michael was probably the most charming and charismatic chap I have known and was wont to philosophise in his soft Irish tone abut any subject that might pop up. His take on decision-making, I remember was something like this.

    Only half the decisions you make in your life have any consequence beyond the next few minutes. Half of them may have an impact for a day and half of those, in turn, may have consequences that stretch to a week. Half of those may influence events for a month or so and half of these might conceivably impact on the year. Very few of these decisions will matter at all beyond that and fewer still are life-changing. So, you barely make any important decisions in your life and when you are making them you don't have a clue which are important and which are not, so you might as well just get on and make them!

  2. I've been busted! I'm happy that you dropped by in spite of the inane answer I gave to your question. :)

    While I understand your position, I would argue that there are the movers and shakers in the world whose decisions _do_ have an impact beyond 5m. In fact, just being ambitious enough to strive for the brass ring requires that you take a longer term view of what impact your decisions will have. After all, one doesn't just stumble into the CIO position at Morgan Stanley, for example.

    A very real example of this occurred when I tried to sell a product at a large account to replace a large installation of a product with a similar purpose. (This was several years ago.) We were unsuccessful because, even though the existing project was a huge failure, the company spent over USD$1.5mm on it so everyone that had the authority to make the purchase were also the people that authorized the current project.

    If they were to have entertained purchasing our product it would have been a tacit admission to the spectacular failure of their decision to purchase the current product. Therefore, they didn't let us progress very far; the project that everyone knew had failed wasn't "officially" deemed a failure; and the company suffered as a result.