Decision Making

whose policy is it, anyway?

Had a great conversation the other night with a friend about making organizations flatter and removing the barriers to people doing great work. It’s easy for me to get pretty excited and idealistic about the shift I see happening in companies and the future of work. I was brought down to earth with the memory of a silly process that stayed in place because it existed but no one knew who was responsible for it.

Several years ago a CFO complained about a form used by his accounting department to track training expenses. It was intended to make sure that employees weren’t going on some sort of training spending spree (does that happen?) by requiring several levels of approval before they were able to attend the training.

The reality was NO ONE filled it out in advance. They only completed it when accounting started calling well after the fact and insisting on it to justify the expenses. Plus, it applied equally to all “training” from attending a lunch at a professional organization to a multiple day program across the country. And, many of the people who had to fill it out had company credit cards and discretionary funds – I suspect they simply got around completing the form by not calling it “training”.

So here was the CFO griping that he had to complete a form that he thought was ridiculous and stupid. Although it was a training form, it never passed through anyone responsible for training so it was a form that only his department used. Think about that again. His department’s form. He thinks it’s stupid. He could kill it on the spot. But rather than risk eliminating it (who would protest?), he complained and let it continue. I’ve no doubt he is still complaining about it today.

Stories like that make me think the organization of the future is just a little bit further away than I want to imagine.

What thinks you?

swagger, baby!

Us humans are a walking, talking paradoxical, subjective mass of biases, prejudice, and self-delusion. And that’s ok. Except that one of the side-effects of our subjective mass of biases, prejudice, and self-delusion is that we believe that we are rational, reasonable, objective, and impartial.

I find these biases fascinating because us humans are making decisions every day yet rarely understand how we decide. Laurie Ruettimann (@lruettimann) recently had a post on Fistful of Talent that included video discussing the processing fluency bias. Watch the video, but the gist is we have a bias for ideas that are easier to process or understand even when they are inferior. (I suspect this explains 90% of marketing and political debate. Maybe 100%.)

Now let’s stack on my favorite bias: the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  In short, this is when the unskilled and incompetent grossly overestimate their own skill and believe they have above average ability (you’ve worked for this person, haven’t you?).  The flip side of this is that the truly skilled tend to underestimate their own abilities. Or as, Bertrand Russell put it: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

Examples abound in both the business world and in our personal lives.

  • Who do you hire, the job candidate with confidence/bravado/swagger or the one who seems hesitant or uncomfortable talking about themselves?
  • Which book title would you buy? “The ONE Proven Way to Riches!” or “One Method to Wealth That’s Worked for Several People and Just Might Work for You, Too”?
  • Which consultant would you feel more comfortable working with: the one who matter-of-factly states they have the solution for hiring better people or the one who tells you that there are several potential solutions, but never a guarantee because no selection system can predict the future performance of individuals – it can only improve the overall chances of making better hires?
  • How many people do you know who consider themselves above average drivers? What’s the mathematical possibility of that? From your own experience, how many people do you see on the road who are above average? Exactly.

Our brains are wired to prefer pithy soundbites over complex reasoning and the untalented often believe they truly have skills.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

success secret? (not really)

There are all sorts of books and blogs about the “Secrets of $uccess”. Sadly, they tend to overcomplicate things or make it sound like success is outside the reach of most people, or attainable only through the authors 10 step program. Yet, as I look around, one thing that really sets people apart in their careers (and lives) is an insistence on doing things right. Very few set out to do things wrong, but most seem to strive to do “just kinda ok enough” (that’s a technical term). The number of people striving to do things right is so small that they immediately stand out. Be that person.

To be clear… Right isn’t a moral term. Right doesn’t mean perfect. Right isn’t “my way”. Right is not a generational issue. Right has nothing to do with position in the organization.

Doing things right means:

  • Holding yourself to a higher standard. It’s making decisions and taking actions with the intention of exceed the standards given versus doing just enough to not get fired.
  • Correcting things as soon as you notice they are incorrect or below standard. Mistakes happen, things get overlooked, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out like you expected. That’s a given to living on planet Earth. The bigger question is do you fix it?
  • Making decisions. There is such a difference in outcomes between making a conscious decision based on understanding and weighing the pros and cons of a situation and a “decision” made by not doing anything until it’s too late. It’s one thing to intentionally choose to do something at a bare minimum standard because you decide to focus your time and energy on higher priority items and quite another when do something at a bare minimum standard because you’re lazy or simply don’t care.
  • Accepting (embracing) responsibility for your outcomes. People striving to do things right rarely get caught up in playing the victim, blaming others, or using convenient or glib excuses. This rarely works in the long term and often does nothing more than damage your reputation.
  • Asking questions, seeking feedback, and finding ways to improve.

In short, “right” is simply caring about the outcome. There’s no secret to it. Nothing mystical, esoteric, or complicated. No system or program. Just caring.

Ken Blanchard said it so well: “There’s a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses; only results.

it’s not about you, it’s about the decision

Ever experienced (or maybe created) a situation where someone refused to yield on a decision? They made their preference known and refused to back off – even when it clearly went against the group or good sense?

So often, we’re not arguing for what would be best. We’re not hearing the other views, taking in new information, and reassessing our solutions. Instead, we’re sticking to out guns. No matter what.

And what a waste of time that is.

I was recently involved with a committee that needed to assess several applicants to determine who would receive an award. Each applicant was evaluated on several criteria and assigned ratings. One person collected the ratings from each member of the committee and compiled them into a spreadsheet, comparing the rating in a few different ways. The numbers showed there was a clear division between the top tier and the next level. The top group was certain to be granted the award, but there were a few the committee would need to debate. These were applicants that received mixed ratings across the committee.

On almost a whim, the committee members’ names had been removed from the spreadsheet. Although each could see all of the ratings given for each candidate, no committee member knew who had given which ratings.

Interestingly, with the names removed, the candidates became more important than the raters. No one dug in their heels or got defensive. Those who felt strongly one way or the other brought up their concerns – but it was clear it was about the candidate, not saving face or defending their ratings. Those who didn’t have strong feelings could quietly go along with the group without having to justify their scoring. Debate and discussion moved along quicker than ever, egos stayed in check, real issues surfaced, non-issues stayed away. All in all, a quicker and more effective method than in previous years.

This suggests to me that there are real benefits in any decision making when we can find ways to keep it about the decision. That’s what a secret ballot is all about. I’ve been harping on the idea that people don’t want the best decision, they want their decision to be best. Well, this is one way to remove the “their” part of the equation so that the group can focus on the best decision.

Although, this was for a community award, I’m very interested in using this approach with interviewing and selecting candidates. Or any group decision. Any thoughts?

but does it work in your world?

We human types like to evaluate, compare, analyze, and decide in order to have the very best. This, by the way, is a good thing. Except when the data doesn’t reflect reality. After all, even most exacting logic fails us when a base assumption is incorrect.

Comparison tests for whatever you’re interested in are fun to read and give you a starting point when determining what’s “best”, but are not in any way an absolute indicator of “bestness” (no matter what the magazine wants you to think). A skilled rider on the worst motorcycle in a comparison would slaughter a mediocre rider on the best motorcycle. Every time. Ditto for bicycles, cars, etc. Engineering and manufacturing have gotten to the point where there are truly few lemons and magazines are forced to pick winners based on relatively irrelevant data.

Case in point for results not reflecting reality. In a recent comparison in a popular mountain bike magazine, five bikes were evaluated and a definitive rank order given. Except that, based on the comments, #3 would have leapt past #2 with different tires. Additionally, #4 was hurt by grips, seat, and other minor items. These were $3,000 bicycles and no one willing to drop that much cash on a bike is going to leave it stock. So 4th place (loser!) could be fixed for a relatively small amount by replacing or adding parts that are 1) relatively inexpensive; 2) often replaced anyway based on personal preferences; and 3) would still give the bike a total out-the-door price that’s less than 1st-3rd place. These results are meaningless! [Fourth place bike? Wouldn’t touch it. What? I can make it comparable to the top bikes and it still costs less – done!]

So what’s that mean in business? A few examples, though you can probably think of many more.

  • Personality assessments used in hiring are generally highly overvalued. Whereas they are very useful for development, they rarely provide much useful information for hiring. Sure there’re pretty graphs a and comparison ratings that make us feel like we are really comparing hard data. Just like with magazine comparisons though, they are pretty good at identifying the outliers to avoid, but just don’t give any definitive answers to compare normal folks. [This person is a “7” on sociability versus this other candidate’s “6.5”. But which can do the job better? How much sociability is required? How much is too much? What other personality traits would balance a low or high score? How do you know? How do you really know?”]
  • Turnover rates. We want those as low as possible right? Um, maybe. Some turnover is actually good. You obviously want to retain the high-performers, but do you really want the dead weight sticking around. Low turnover might be a sign of awe-inspiring leadership. Or maybe it’s a sign of a very weak leader not holding people accountable for performance.
  • Expenses – cut those down to the minimum. Well, that doesn’t work as a singular measure. Salary and benefits are a huge expense, but if we lay all the employees off no work will get done and no money will be made. Don’t want excessive inventory, but get rid of all inventory and it’s a little difficult to satisfy customers. Even looking at equipment: is the cheapest the least expensive? Probably not if we factor in maintenance and downtime costs. Same thing but back to employees: the cheapest employee may not be the least expensive when we factor in productivity and ease of managing.

Are any of these bad measures? Nope. It’s just crucial to remember that they aren’t definitive or absolute measures. They provide some, but not all, data. The risk is to draw too firm of conclusion from them, especially when they don’t capture real world use. Although all pieces are necessary to make the puzzle, you can’t make the puzzle from just one piece. The all time classic example of this is the “11 is one louder” scene from “This is Spinal Tap”.

Most decisions are not cut and dried. What works really well for someone else may not work for us at all. Everyone’s situation is different; their needs unique. “More” is not always better and “most” can be counterproductive. Rather we must balance out a number of factors to decide which option best fits our specific individual needs.