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Is a Decision Necessary?

One does not make unnecessary decisions any more than a good surgeon does unnecessary surgery.

Unnecessary decisions not only waste time and resources, but they also threaten to make all decisions ineffectual. Therefore, it is important that you be able to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary decisions. Surgeons provide perhaps the best example of effective decision-making, as they have had to make risk-taking decisions on a daily basis for thousands of years now. Since there is no such thing as risk-free surgery, unnecessary operations must be avoided. The rules used by surgeons to make decisions are:

Rule one: In a condition that is likely to cure itself or to stabilize itself without risk or danger or great pain to the patient, you put it on watch and check regularly. But you don’t cut. To do surgery in such a condition is an unnecessary decision.

Rule two: If the condition is degenerative or life-threatening and there is something you can do, you do it—fast and radically. It is a necessary decision despite the risk.

Rule three: This is the problem in between, and it’s probably the largest single category—the condition that is not degenerative and not life-threatening but still not self-correcting and quite serious. This is where the surgeon has to weight opportunity against risk. And it is this decision that distinguishes the first-rate surgeon from the also-ran.


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Elements of the Decision Process

Ignore a single element in the process and the decision will tumble down like a badly built wall in an earthquake.

Good decision makers know that decision making has its own process and its own clearly defined elements and steps. Every decision is risky: it is a commitment of present resources to an uncertain and unknown future. But if the process is faithfully observed and if the necessary steps are taken, the risk will be minimized and the decision will have a good chance of turning out successful. Good decision makers

  • Know when a decision is necessary
  • Know that the most important part of decision making is to make sure that the decision is about the right problem
  • Know how to define the problem
  • Don’t even think about what is acceptable until they have taught through what the right decision is
  • Know that, in all likelihood, they will have to make compromises in the end
  • Know that they haven’t made a decision until they build its implementation and effectiveness into it

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Organize Dissent

The effective decision-maker organizes dissent.

Decisions of the kind the executive has to make are not made well by acclamation. They are made well only if based on the clash of conflicting views, the dialogue between different points of view, the choice between different judgments. The first rule in decision making is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement.

Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., is reported to have said at a meeting of one of the GM top committees, “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.” Everyone around the table nodded assent. “Then,” continued Mr. Sloan, “I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.” There are three reasons why dissent is needed. It first safeguards the decision maker against becoming the prisoner of the organization. Everybody is a special pleader, trying—often in perfectly good faith—to obtain the decision he favors. Second, disagreement alone can provide alternatives to a decision. And a decision without an alternative is a desperate gambler’s throw, no matter how carefully thought through it might be. Above all, disagreement is needed to stimulate the imagination.

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Building Action into the Decision

A decision is only a hope until carrying it out has become somebody’s work assignment and responsibility, with a deadline.

A decision is a commitment to action. Until the right thing happens, there has been no decision. And one thing can be taken for granted: the people who have to take the action are rarely the people who have made the decision. No decision has, in fact, been made until carrying it out has become somebody’s work assignment and responsibility—and with a deadline. Until then, it’s still only a hope.

A decision will not become effective unless needed actions have been built into it from the start. Converting a decision into action requires answering several questions:

  • Who has to know of this decision?
  • What action has to be taken?
  • Who is to take it?
  • What does the action have to be so that the people who have to do it can do it?

The action must be appropriate to the capacities of the people who have to carry it out. This is especially important if people have to change their behavior, habits, or attitudes for the decision to become effective.

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The Right Compromise

“Half a loaf is better than no bread.”

One has to start out with what is right rather than what is acceptable (let alone who is right) precisely because one always has to compromise in the end. But if one does not know what is right to satisfy the specifications and boundary conditions, one cannot distinguish between the right compromise and the wrong compromise—and will end up by making the wrong compromise.

There are two different kinds of compromise. One kind is expressed in the old proverb, “Half a loaf is better than no bread.” The other kind is expressed in the story of the Judgment of Solomon, which was clearly based on the realization that “half a baby is worse than no baby at all.” In the first instance, the boundary conditions are still being satisfied. The purpose of bread is to provide food, and half a loaf is still food. Half a baby, however, does not satisfy the boundary conditions. For half a baby is not half of a living and growing child. It is a corpse in two pieces.

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Decision Making

Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.

One has to start out with what is right rather than what is acceptable precisely because one always has to compromise in the end. But if one does not know what is right, one cannot distinguish between the right compromise and the wrong compromise—and will end up by making the wrong compromise. I was taught this when I started in 1944 on my first big consulting assignment, a study of the management structure and management policies of the General Motors Corporation. Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., who was then chairman and chief executive officer of the company, called me to his office at the start of my study and said: “I shall not tell you what to study, what to write, or what conclusions to come to. My only instruction to you is to put down what you think is right as you see it. Don’t you worry about our reaction. And don’t you, above all, concern yourself with the compromises that might be needed to make your recommendations acceptable. There is not one executive in this company who does not know how to make a compromise without any help from you. But he can’t make the right compromise unless you first tell him what ‘right’ it.”

The executive thinking through a decision might put this in front of him- or herself in neon lights.

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Decision Objectives

A decision, to be effective, needs to satisfy the boundary conditions.

A decision process requires clear specifications as to what the decision has to accomplish. What are the objectives the decision has to reach? In science these are known as “boundary conditions.” A decision, to be effective, needs to be adequate to its purpose. The more concisely and clearly boundary conditions are stated, the greater the likelihood that the decision will indeed be an effective one and will accomplish what it set out to do. Conversely, any serious shortfall in defining these boundary conditions is almost certain to make a decision ineffectual, no matter how brilliant it may seem.

“What is the minimum needed to resolve this problem?” is the form in which the boundary conditions are usually probed. “Can our needs be satisfied,” Alfred P. Sloan presumably asked himself when he took command of General Motors in 1922, “by removing the autonomy of the division heads?” His answer was clearly in the negative. The boundary conditions of his problem demanded strength and responsibility in the chief operating positions. This was needed as much as control at the center and unity. The boundary conditions demanded a solution to a problem of structure, rather than an accommodation among personalities. And this, in turn, made his solution last.

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Pursuing Perfection

“The Gods can see them.”

The greatest sculptor of ancient Greece, Phidias, around 440 BC made the statues that to this day, 2,400 years later, still stand on the roof of the Parthenon in Athens. When Phidias submitted his bill, the city accountant of Athens refused to pay it. “These statues stand on the roof of the temple, and on the highest hill in Athens. Nobody can see anything but their fronts. Yet, you have charged us for sculpturing them in the round, that is, for doing their backsides, which nobody can see.” “You are wrong,” Phidias retorted. “The Gods can see them.”

Whenever people ask me which of my books I consider the best, I smile and say, “The next.” I do not, however, mean it as a joke. I mean it the way Verdi meant it when he talked of writing an opera at eighty in the pursuit of a perfection that had always eluded him. Thou I am older now than Verdi was when he wrote Falstaff, I am still thinking and working on to additional books, each of which, I hope, will be better than any of my earlier ones, will be more important, and well come a little close to excellence.

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