Wednesday, April 12, 2020

The Lure of Quick (and Seductive) Solutions

People under pressure rarely have time to think—at least, that's what they tell themselves. When you probe a little more deeply you find they replace thinking with a series of inferior alternatives.

When you're harassed, stressed and feel you're out of time, you're looking for more than a quick answer; you're looking for certainty, so you won't have to revisit the problem—or commit more time to defending what you've done. Thinking, reflecting and exploring are often avoided because they require time you believe you don't have; and, in every case, they make you responsible for the decision.

People under pressure want still more responsibility like they want a social disease. If a decision made by thinking for yourself turns out to be a mistake, the accusing fingers point straight back at you. The same applies to those other non-intellectual choices, gut instinct and personal experience. Neither offer certainty nor a way out of later criticism if they prove wrong.

There are, however, ways of deciding that appear to do both. And while they offer only a modest a degree of certainty, each comes with an in-built defense mechanism. The more pressured people are, the more attractive they look.

The first—and simplest—is conventional wisdom: call it rule of thumb, or "what everyone has done for years." It's quick, always to hand and has a rough respectability from its age and ubiquity. It's also what people point to when you don't do it and things go wrong. "It was obvious," they say. "Surely anyone with any commonsense would have done that." That's also its inbuilt defense: to suggest it was only what 99 out of 100 other people would have done in the same circumstances. It was the simplest, most obvious course of action, so that's where you began. Now it hasn't worked, maybe you'll try something else.

The next step up the twin ladders of certainty and defensibility is applying a set rule or procedure. It has more substance than a simple rule of thumb. Someone, at some time in the past, established it as the correct action. If you ignore changing times (and most people do), you can suppose it will still hold good (sadly, it almost certainly won't, given how much change there is today). But if it fails, you can blame the person who set up the rule in the first place. It's the bureaucratic version of the age-old defense "I was only following orders."

Next in the hierarchy is numerical analysis. Many people who ought to know better revere numbers and formulae—mostly, I suspect, because they look scientific and are rarely fully understood. This approach produces decisions based on "the numbers" in financial statements, market research, customer complaints or quality control data. The ideal is to establish an automatic link between some supposedly objective measure—a ratio, a variance, or a threshold number—and a specific response.

Because the arithmetic is certain (or should be; mistakes in calculation are common, even with computers), that certainty rubs off on the decision itself. It also has the huge advantage of being impersonal and reassuringly technical. In truth, everything depends on the quality of the supposed link between numbers and reality, so you're back to another kind of rule. One that's as subject to deterioration through change as anything else—and that may have been illusory in the first place. Besides, the accounting and similar scandals of recent times have somewhat tarnished the image of "the numbers" and reminded people how easily they're manipulated, so it's not quite as attractive a defense as it was once.

At the top of the hierarchy is the expert opinion from an acknowledged authority. If consultants have proliferated in the past few decades—and they've spread faster than a pandemic virus—a major part of the reason is the urge to appeal to external authority. Not only does it seem to promise great certainty—as long as the authority is as knowledgeable as he, she or it claims—it provides an obvious defense in times of trouble. Don't punish me, the blame lies with the expert who advised me.

What all these answers have in common is a combination of surface acceptability and inner weakness. Managers and leaders aren't paid to rely on rules of thumb, written rules, past procedures, the prescriptions of numbers and computer programs, or the advice of supposed experts. If that's all you want, hire anyone—cut out the manager altogether—and save a great deal of money. Middle and senior managers are supposed to make decisions themselves—using their own knowledge, intelligence and expertise—and carry the responsibility afterwards. That's why they're paid more than others.

It's easy self-righteously to blame old chestnuts like the sorry state of American management, the creaking education system, and even more unlikely culprits like television and video games. The true villain is the prevailing "wisdom" on how to run a business. If you pile on the work and don't give people time to think; if you train people to fear any mistake; if you demand results while stinting on what's needed to obtain them; and if you criticize people based on 20:20 hindsight and ignore the real circumstances when the decision was made, you'll produce a culture where thought is penalized and it's more important to have a ready excuse than find the right answer.

Slow Leadership means giving people time to do their jobs properly—and that includes ample thinking time. It means acknowledging mistakes are inevitable and forgiving honest errors. Slow Leaders criticize people for blindly following mechanistic rules and supposed experts, not for using their brains to reach an independent judgment. There are no rules. Life is way too uncertain for that. And following expert opinion is still a judgment call, not a way of avoiding responsibility.

Leaders are there to lead; which means thinking for themselves, not passing off decisions to others. If they don't always do this, it's the organization's fault as much as their own. The constant demands for "making the numbers," even if they're nearly impossible, and resource cuts that force people to work 60-hour weeks, are creating a culture of reliance on almost anything but what you carry between your ears. It's time to forget the excuses and allow leaders to do what they're paid for.

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Anonymous said...

Brilliant blog you've got going and this was another spot-on post. I've been a tech writer for going on six years now. My current team lead, who is leading about four different teams at the same time, asks all writers to update a spreadsheet every week. This spreadsheet contains our own estimates of the work that different items require and our own estimates of our progress in these items. Every week, team lead looks in the spreadsheet to check our progress and never asks us any questions, never holds meetings with us to find out more about what we're doing, problems we're facing, etc.

I once said that I did not fully understand how to translate my progress into percentages. The answer was just to put whatever percentage made sense to me. So, not only is the spreadsheet the only means by which the team lead tracks the projects, but the percentages for each writer are based on idiosyncratic criteria, making the whole thing worthless.

Ah, I could go on about the number of decisions that are made from reading the tea leaves...uh, spreadsheet, but I've already griped enough in your ear. Thanks for listening, and thanks for the post!

10:09 PM  

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