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December 3, 2012 / alipeles

4. Don’t let incomplete information block important decisions

–       Action is often more important than certainty

–       Your job may be to decide and take responsibility, even when you’re not sure

–       Bad outcomes don’t necessarily imply bad decisions


Remember this photo of the White House, anxiously watching the strike on bin Laden as it unfolded?

 The White House anxiously watches the strike on bin Laden

Ever think about how easily it could have documented failure instead of triumph: faulty intelligence, downed helicopters, dead civilians, American hostages, or diplomatic catastrophe? President Obama must have been dead certain when he ordered that mission. Right?

Wrong. The CIA gave him between 50% and 80% confidence in bin Laden’s location. I.e. they weren’t even sure how sure they were. They didn’t know how well armed the compound was, how many people it held, or whether the occupants were trained soldiers or amateur bodyguards. Reports tell us that Obama’s staff was evenly divided on whether to launch the attack.

But, we don’t hire our president to be omniscient. We hire him to decide and execute. We want him to make the best decision possible given as much information as he can reasonably gather within the constraints of security, time, and efficiency.

Whether your job is to decide when to take the company public or what kind of paper to put in the printer, you have been hired to make the best decision that you are capable of given as much information as you can reasonably gather within the constraints imposed on you.

We’d all like to live in a Sherlock Holmes world where, if you observe just a little more carefully and work just a little harder, the truth emerges clearly from the noise. But, in reality, facts are often murky or depend on decisions and events that are still TBD. As decision makers, we must act. We weigh, rather than deduce, taking risks and making assumptions to handle the unknown or undetermined, articulating those assumptions and risks when they’re critical.

And the outcomes tell us very little about our individual decisions. (Patterns, of course, tell us more.) If President Obama diligently did all of his homework and weighed all of the consequences, then his was a good decision, regardless of the success of the mission. On the other hand, if the president made a sloppy decision, but got lucky, it was still a bad decision, even though he got the outcome he wanted.

When your boss or your client needs an estimate today, you can’t drill into all of the details. Get the most information you can out of the time you’ve got and then estimate. Bad hiring decisions can wreak havoc. But, not hiring people when you need them can be as bad or worse. Weigh the risk of your uncertainty about the candidate against the risk of being understaffed. And then, decide.

Expect some bad outcomes. When they happen, objectively evaluate why they happened. Figure out whether you can improve your decision making process. But, don’t have regrets. If you worked hard and acted in good faith, then you did your job. Make it your goal to have the greatest number possible of good outcomes given your circumstances.

One Comment

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  1. Orteza na kr_gos_up / Apr 4 2014 3:45 am

    It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people in this particular subject, but you sound like you know what
    you’re talking about! Thanks

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