Never decide to take a long driving trip when there’s a heat wave, if you can help it. If you’re already on the trip then there’s not much to do except pray. Last week, after very nice visits with family in Indiana and friends in Michigan, we headed home to Pennsylvania. Temperatures were expected to hit over 100 F (38 C) so we split the trip into two parts – Michigan back to Indiana for overnight, and then home. The car complained a bit (oscillating gas mileage) and when we arrived in Indianapolis the car showed the outside temperature was 112 F (44 C). The next day we nursed the car homeward, but 4 hours from home with the temperature at 100, the engine light went on. The computer, which normally has multiple informative messages, was somehow mute. Fortunately, we could pull off the highway and park under the shade of an overpass and try and call our dealership. It was Saturday at 4:00 pm, and not only were they open but there was a service rep available (this is a miracle). Probably an emissions control issue, we were told, and it’s safe to drive. We made an appointment for Monday (another miracle), and nursed it home while the temperature hit 105 F (40 C). Sunday afternoon, of course, the engine light went out. No messages. So at this moment I sit at the dealership for at least 3 hours awaiting a report on what the issue is, or was. At least I can conveniently get an oil change and a light bulb replaced at the same time.
This experience hammers home the big issue of incomplete or missing information, something alluded to in my last entry. It took me a while to learn to live with this, being raised as a scientist and starting my career in research. As scientists, we usually push to discover 110% of the information (or data) before we will publish a research paper with our name on it. These papers are designed to last for eternity, so we don’t want to be wrong, at least most of the time. In business, however, we don’t have either luxury. First of all, almost all decisions are never published, and the only way someone will know if the decisions were good or not will be to look at the consequences. The second reason is our Fundamental Principle 6 –
You will never have all the information.
We had a saying for business, “You only have half the information, but the clock is ticking so you have to make the decision.” As a scientist, this was hard to learn and tougher to swallow, but I made it because I also learned the caveat, “But you can reserve the right to change the decision later.” This led eventually to adding some clarity to my decision-making process, which follows:
-First, accept the fact that information will always be incomplete or missing;
-Then, Clarify what the problem is (ask the right questions);
-Determine what available information is really pertinent to the decision, and what is not (chuck or ignore the latter. The difference you (had better) learn by experience);
-Identify what additional information you need (we learn this also);
-Then identify what part of the above is critical, and what is not (also learned);
-And then pin-point that part you can get within the time frame;
-Get it, and by the time the clock strikes zero, decide.
“You can’t make good decisions unless you have good information and can separate facts from opinion and speculation. Facts are verified information…”
The short version of the final moments:
-Tell me what you know (the pertinent information)
-Tell me what you don’t know (the critical missing information)
-Then tell me what you think (the analysis)
-Always distinguish which is which.
It’s like the Where’s My Water? game app – the water’s missing and you need to find it. And some of what you find is bad. You need to find water and learn to distinguish between the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, between the Dead and the Living. In the game it’s more obvious to distinguish between the good, the algae, toxic ooze, triggers, and traps. In life, the bigger the decision, the less easy it is.
A recent prime example is that of Netflix’s Lost Year. All the information wasn’t there and no one went and got the critical missing information, primarily because the top guy wanted to pull the trigger on the strategy before confirming the best tactics. The executive team couldn’t make him see the facts. Hidden lesson: It’s always best to Speak Truth to Power, but it gets dicey when you discover this is really Speak Truth to Ego, and Ego doesn’t want to listen.
You are probably aware of the Peter Principle around you because you’ve watched people’s poor decision-making processes and the decisions and consequences that result. Good. These observations are some of the strongest verifying clues, especially if the observed behaviors are predictable and reproducible. It’s when things are predictable and reproducible that we as scientists (and managers) feel confident that we understand what’s really going on. Or, what should be going on.
So, how can you improve your own decision-making process?
And, how can you help improve the decision-making processes around you?