This morning I had to decide between baking the last apple pie of the season or to focus on a an ACM paper that might, in the long term, steer the industry. The ACM paper is relevant to my business, career and profession and it’s less obvious that baking the pie is relevant to any of those. I’m sure no one in my constellation would be offended if I were to forego the pie and dutifully edit the paper. My head tugged one way, but my heart tugged the other. It’s not the first time it’s happened. And I’m sure you find the situation familiar yourself.
Freud said that we should agonize about trivial decisions but make life decisions from the gut. We’re advised to flip a coin, ostensibly to let fate decide a difficult issue for us, but more insightfully to gauge our reaction to the result after having intellectualized a tentative direction. Jerry Weinberg says: Feelings are facts.
As a “whole person,” I actually don’t comprise parts to which classes of decisions have been relegated. I’m sure that what I ascribed to my heart above actually plays out in the cerebral cortex. We tend to let feelings play second fiddle because of our profession, because of our self-image, or because of what society has taught us. Reality is probably less complicated.
Any corporate executive who regularly used such an approach and who openly admits so, and who advocates subordinates to do the same, would be viewed as “shooting from the hip.” It is likely that he or she would not be able to hold a position of responsibility long, in spite of repeated good results.
On one hand, stakeholders do want to understand the basis for our decisions, and “I feel good about it” usually isn’t enough. That seems to be a sad casualty of the context we live in, and I’d love to hear from you how to deal deal with such feedback.
On the other hand, an over-rationalized value proposition can lead to stark conservatism or just plain silliness. George Bernard Shaw reminds us that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” The military mind is often calculating and stands either on metrics or on the campaign styles of history. Robert McNamara ran the Vietnam war by body count, sometimes as though he were “a desk officer” (Herring, “The Wrong Kind of Loyalty — McNamara’s Apology for Vietnam,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1995). Though he never relented on the metrics, his broader war management framework haunted him until his death in 1993. His contrition about this outlook and his open apology allowed him to die an honorable man. “The processes used to arrive at the total strategy are typically fragmented, evolutionary, and largely intuitive.” (James Quinn, Strategic Change: Logical Incrementalism, 1978)
AT&T once proved to itself that analog telecommunications was more cost-effective than digital. It felt right to go to digital, but the numbers didn’t bear it out. Northern Telecom’s DMS-100 switching system caught them with their pants down, and they spent years playing catch-up.
Don’t discount that internal voice that distracts you from your “official” mission. The conscience sometimes speaks with a soft voice. It takes sensitivity to discern between a wise voice and the overspringshandling I contemplated in an earlier installment here. Methodical doubt can help your exploration.
A deep urge led me to put aside my task of the moment and write this article. But I’ve got to go now — the timer has gone off and it’s time to rescue my pie from the oven.