Decisions, Decisions

Roger Collis -

‘Any idea that the buck stops here is bravado, mythology, total nonsense,’ a senior colleague said as I started my last corporate incarnation.

He nodded towards the appalling pile of paper his secretary had just brought in. ‘That’s stuff waiting for decisions of some kind. What I do is make the quick and obvious ones, delegate some to my staff, and chuck the rest out. You can be sure that anything really important is going to come screaming down the phone sooner or later. But you’ll find most things either resolve themselves or get overtaken by events.’

What you might call a balanced view of decision-making. And one which brought Bill an enviable reputation as the most decisive executive in the company (It also brought him a 22-carat handshake – one of the best involuntary decisions he never made.)

Putting Bill’s practice into theory, there are three essential approaches to decision-making.

1. First, tackle the ‘quick ‘n easy’ decisions –ranging from fixing a date for an agency lunch to deciding, on principle, that we must cut variable costs to protect bottom-line profit. (This is an example of a ‘motherhood’ statement, or ‘Phantom’ decision; begging the question of how it can actually be achieved! Which, of course, requires a much more difficult decision, or unending series of decisions.)

2. Delegation. This means transferring your responsibility for a tricky decision to someone else – preferably someone who is after your job. All decisions in an organization have an ‘anxiety value.’ The decisive manager knows how to exploit this by creating an ‘anxiety gap,’ sometimes known as a ‘decision quotient,’ between him or herself and colleagues.

There are often times when you need to convince someone that your decision is theirs. You can do this with a good, bad, or unpopular decision, depending on the circumstances. But never allow anyone else to make an ‘obvious’ decision, which should emanate from you. And, in all cases, make sure you retain the option of second-guessing the outcome.

Collective, or consensus, decisions are a useful form of delegation. Get everybody on board and you sink or swim together. In Japan, this is part of the corporate culture. With us it’s a bit different. ‘So we’re decided on the need for a radical review of our computer software. I’d like to ask Howard to form a task force to recommend what system we should install across the company.’ This shows how a simple, unthreatening, ‘open-ended’ decision can lead to a stressful ‘forced-choice’ decision, especially when it’s made by specialist staff – top management, of course, being unable to understand the pros and cons of the recommendation, which becomes by default, a decision made by Howard’s task force.

3. Procrastination. As everyone knows, it’s how you appear, rather than what you accomplish which gets you to the top. Decisiveness is in the eye of the shareholder, or the beholder. Sometimes, the best decision is no decision. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt: ‘The only thing we have to fear about decisions are the decisions themselves.’ (See Stanley Zilch’s: The Art of Procrastination, or Arnold Fishmouth’s Farting Around in Organizations.)

There’s more to procrastination than a simple Micawber-like propensity for waiting for the right decision to turn up. The professional procrastinator will avoid a decision by convening yet another meeting, a fact-finding trip, or more market research, the results of which can be discussed at another meeting safely in the future – preferably when you have moved on and upwards. Advertising agencies are expert at this game. ‘We sincerely believe that at this point a formal proposal would be premature,’ the new account director prevaricates. ‘We recommend running the concept once again through another set of focus groups, but this time of very frequent users of the product… to gather more attitudinal data which we can then run past the creative boys and girls… develop a new set of storyboards which we can then test…’

‘I’ve made a decision, don’t confuse me with the facts,’ is not quite as flippant as it sounds. For one thing, you may not have the facts – and what’s more important, neither may anyone else. And too many facts can lead to ‘information overload’ – a fatally costive condition. Some of the best decisions are made with too little information.

Some people make a meal of the simplest decisions. There was The New Yorker cartoon with a waitress asking a group of suits engrossed in their menus: ‘Have you gentlemen finished the decision-making process?’

Mind you, I’ve known occasions when a decision to have a third pre-prandial martini (at a two-martini lunch) had awesome outcomes. But by and large, we normally never give a second thought in deciding between steak or chicken breast, or which suit to wear. We probably make a thousand involuntary decisions every day, and nothing goes horribly wrong s a result.

Some people subscribe to the random theory of decision-making – let the chips fall as they may. Others believe that the best decisions are not the ones that you consciously make, but the ones you feel are right. Assuming that you have delegated to the subconscious.

Gary Kasparov, the chess master, has said that some moves in chess should be played by instinct – without hesitation. ‘There’s a danger in thinking too much. A chess player must trust himself in the same way that a concert pianist trusts his fingers.’

My only problem is that I’m the last person I trust to make a decision.

Roger Collis -