Unavoidable decisions are on the cards

Popular culture has it that our brains should defer to our guts, despite conclusive anatomical evidence that guts digest food whereas brains digest information and the success of the scientific method demonstrating that facts and logic are superior to instinct.

Mangement Speak: I didn’t realise I owned that issue.

Translation: I plan to sit on my butt.

— This week’s anonymous contributor explains the relationship between ownership and sessility.

During the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands marched on Washington. A few years ago, Louis Farrakhan organised the Million Man March. I fantasise about holding National Boycott Stupidity Day and getting the same kind of turnout — throngs of citizens tired of popular culture’s celebration of idiocy and ignorance as greater virtues than logical analysis and knowledgeable discourse.

I don’t want to blow this out of proportion. I enjoyed Luke Skywalker’s decision to trust The Force as much as anyone. But Luke’s decision was trusting his own coordination over that of a computer, not “trusting his instincts” instead of logic to make a decision. Popular culture has it that our brains should defer to our guts, despite conclusive anatomical evidence that guts digest food whereas brains digest information and the success of the scientific method demonstrating that facts and logic are superior to instinct. Scientist-managers may hold the key. But, continuing our taxonomy of management decision-makers, let’s take a quick look at marks, zealots and politicians.

You can’t cheat an honest man because a successful con depends on the weaknesses of the “mark” or target. Sadly, many managers make easy marks. Desire makes a mark-manager an easy target. It might be the result of greed, laziness or another of the seven sins. Whichever it is, the mark will readily accept even the flimsiest story if it reinforces his or her desire. Employees sneer at mark-managers and manipulate them without much trouble. It’s easily done: just tell the mark how your program will satisfy a craving.

Then there are zealots. Guided by pure principles, unmitigated by inconvenient practicalities, zealots need few facts to reach a decision. Their principle might be: Microsoft is bad, Microsoft is good, closed source is evil, open source is communism or any other high-concept belief. Whatever it is, it defines the zealot’s universe. Principles are postulates not conclusions, so evidence is irrelevant: when a principle fails, it’s because some heathen prevented success. Zealots rarely succeed in management. The politicians (one category of heathen and the next category of manager) don’t let them.

Whereas zealots are guided by pure principle, politicians are guided by one principle: organisational palatability. Politicians start by judging whether a decision will be acceptable and work backward to an explanation of why it’s a good idea. They’re the cockroaches of organisational ecology — highly adaptable but not particularly desirable. Strong on survival and weak on accomplishment, they’re remarkably hard to eradicate. Leaders who do most of the talking have a hard time recognising politicians. Those who spend more time listening identify them without difficulty, as politicians have nothing interesting to say.

So given science’s inarguable success, you might think scientific decision-making is the way to go. There’s a lot to be said for it. For example, Occam’s razor — the axiom that among all possible explanations of known facts, you should always prefer the least complicated explanation as the one most likely to be true — is smart advice. So is the corollary that there’s always room for doubt, no matter how carefully you’ve tested a theory.

But scientists can become as paralysed as lawyers by the need for more and more data. Although they understand that absolute proof is impossible, they are remarkably adept at envisioning what additional evidence might be gathered to reduce doubt even further.

Good card players avoid this paralysis. Consider bridge, where much of the deck is hidden. Whereas bidding, the dummy, your own hand and statistical probability all provide evidence of where the hidden cards lie, your information is always limited. But you still have to play the hand.

It’s a good metaphor for the manager’s job: to make decisions despite imperfect information, while taking into account every card being played (ie new information) to adjust tactics accordingly.

The important point is this: certainty is impossible, but you have to make decisions anyway. And those who figure that uncertainty is the time to listen to their guts are wrong.

Uncertainty demands the use of your brain. When your gastrointestinal tract talks, it just means it’s lunchtime.

Unless you’re part of the metaphor police, send an email to Bob Lewis. Lewis is president of IT Catalysts.

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