Saturday, 20 February 2016

Decisions, Confidence and Comparisons

A couple of posts ago I suggested that the primary difference between a manager and a non-manager was the ability of a manager to make decisions.  That was intended only as a one-off post about something that had exercised me, but a comment from a reader has made me realise that a little expansion is required. (I say "reader", I mean "a mate who reads this blog occasionally and picks holes for his own amusement." But still, he makes a valid point.)

The comment he made was that it was all well and good to talk about decision making as a ladder which you kick away after you've climbed it (thank you to Wittgenstein for the analogy) but how do you climb it in the first place?  I provided a link on learning decision making, but he felt that was a bit of a cop-out on the basis that presumably I felt I'd climbed the ladder, so I should explain how. A fair question, I feel.  However, it might be difficult to explain exactly how I went from not being comfortable making decisions to being comfortable, not to mention boring for the reader.  So rather than expounding on the many incremental advances of understanding and the occasional Aha! moment that I went through, I'll try to enumerate the generic lessons and thought pattern changes that got me from "A decision! Hide!" to "A decision. Decided.".

  • Be comfortable with the possibility of ridicule, especially if it goes wrong.  Some people will take any opportunity to make you feel bad about your failures.  I normally presume it's because they're so lacking in self-esteem that the only way they can feel ok about themselves is to make others feel even worse about themselves.  But whatever, the fact is that there will always be some people who will enjoy the mistakes of others, and a sub-set of those people will enjoy letting you know about it when you make one.  Don't react, because the reaction is what gives them the most enjoyment.  Pity them, for they are too weak to be in your position and are reduced to sniping bitterly from the sideline.
  • I said above that some people will enjoy your discomfort when you make a mistake.  I want to emphasise that it's "when", not" if".  You WILL get a decision wrong. Everyone slips over on the ice at least once.  Don't beat yourself up about it, you're not perfect and you shouldn't expect to get everything right all the time. But learn from your mistakes, no matter how painful, because making the same mistake twice indicates you're too proud to get better. 
  • Understand that what's important is making the right decision, not the popular decision, Of course, sometimes the right decision IS the popular one.  Everyone on your team is convinced that tool A is a better option than tool B?  Your analysis agrees?  Go right ahead and feel their love.  Call it a perk.  But remember that it is just a perk, and is entirely separate from the decision.  If tool B turns out to be the better option, choose that and accept the opprobrium until they begrudgingly come round to your point of view.  Don't ever expect an acknowledgement from the naysayers, let alone an apology.  Oh, and welcome to management.
  • Be prepared to defend your decision from both above and below, from the moment the decision is communicated to others. Have you looked at all the options, read the analysis, listened to the counsel and made the decision you think will be most optimal? Then stand strong and explain yourself.  Never get angry or defensive. Stay calm and talk.  Occasionally a decision will still be over-turned from above; get over it.  If they get it wrong that's their lookout.  If they get it right, or better than you, stay humble and learn from them, no matter what your personal feelings.  That's why they're above you in the pyramid, remember?
  • Don't make grand claims for the benefits of your decision before those benefits are obvious.  Evangelise about the virtues as a method of converting the uncertain, but make no unfounded claims.  You are neither able to see the future nor understand the full ramifications of your decision until those ramifications have come to pass.  Having the power to make a decision is a responsibility and a privilege, not a bragging right.
  • Divorce the decision from your self-perception. Making the right or wrong decision does not define you as a person, nor does it define your worth. Equally, your feelings of self-worth - or lack thereof - do not determine whether you will make a good or a bad decision, and nor do they determine whether the eventual decision is good or bad. The decision and you are unrelated in terms of worth and definition.
  • Despite the above, learn that in general decisions are not "right" or "wrong", but on a scale between "optimal" and "sub-optimal".  No matter what decision you make, it will rarely be the worst possible decision; neither will it always be the best possible decision.  Try to keep your average on the better side.
  • On that note, knowledge is power, especially when you're making technical decisions.  If you're choosing which tool to use then looking at a couple of reviews is unlikely to lead to an optimal decision. Downloading and trying to live with a tool for a fortnight to evaluate it will allow you to make a much more informed choice.  Likewise, there are always people who know more than you.  Ask for their analysis, but not their opinion.  Opinion, including your own, is a mishmash of confirmation bias, unseen and often unfounded assumptions, and lazy thinking.  Analysis gives you concrete facts and considered estimates that can help you make a decision that leans towards the optimal.  Opinions will make you lean towards guesswork and the easy answer.
  • Decision making can only be comfortable if you are confident in the measures you have used to make that decision.  If you lack confidence in the rigour or suitability of your measures, you will lack confidence in the decision that is based on those measures. Notwithstanding that, if you lack confidence in your ability to make the decision, then you are too self-absorbed.  A decision can be made by anyone, because as mentioned above the decision and you are unrelated.  Focus on the decision, not on yourself.  It is a matter of logic, metrics, estimation and educated guesswork.  Note that lacking confidence in your ability is not the same thing as lacking confidence in your knowledge.  It is perfectly acceptable to be concerned that you don't know enough, hence "knowledge is power" above.  In fact, if you never have that concern you're either very, very knowledgeable or you're deluded.  Try to avoid delusion.
  • The difference between self-esteem and self-confidence is that self-esteem relates to your feeling of worth, and self-confidence relates to your feelings of ability.  You can be very confident that you can do something - i.e. believe you have a high chance of success - whilst still feeling like you're not worth much (or anything).  People with low self-esteem often have low confidence in their ability, but people with high confidence don't necessarily have high levels of self-esteem.  Confidence is what you need to make decisions, as long as you can divorce the decision from your self-perception (see above).  Those who talk the talk but can't walk the walk have not negotiated that divorce yet. Be confident in your ability to weigh the evidence before coming to a decision.  That has nothing to do with the esteem in which you hold yourself.
  • Comparing yourself to other people, or your decision to the one that other people would have made (or that you think they would have made) is a fool's errand.  The concept of WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) has value, although Jesus may not be the person to follow when it comes to choosing a software tool.  But the thought experiment of WWBillGatesD or WWMyMentorD may well have merit for your situation. However, whilst it is sensible to seek counsel from people who've made similar decisions before, you will learn nothing if you blindly follow their recommendation, and if the decision is sub-optimal you won't understand why.  The optimal decision will be optimal no matter who makes it, so don't try to pass off the responsibility to someone else, or someone else's thinking.
  • Decisions are not scary.  The ramifications if you decide wrongly are scary. "Wrongly" could mean "hopelessly wrong" or "slightly wrong", depending on what's at stake and/or the arseholery of the people above you in the company. Unless you're in a situation where you could (realistically) kill someone by making a sub-optimal decision the chances are that as long as you've looked at the options, sought analysis from experts and counsel from wise heads, your decision will be closer to optimal than sub-optimal, and that's what you're aiming for.  No-one gets every decision as optimal as they could be.  No-one.
  • Decisions are not hard.  I'll toss a coin: do you want heads or tails?  See, easy. Because nothing was riding on it.  You didn't care if you got it wrong.  How easy would it be if I said you'd get a £1 if you get it right, but have to give me a £1 if you get it wrong?  Still easy, right?  What about £100?  Or a £1000?  What if it was to decide which person would live and which would die?  Same decision, just as easy - heads or tails - and yet you'd probably agonise over it because of the ramification.  Why?  Nothing has changed, it's still a 50/50 chance, you have no way of influencing the outcome and no reason to pick one over the other.  There's nothing either logically or physically you can do to make it anything other than a complete guess.  So just pick one, and don't torture yourself for no good reason. The outcome will be the same no matter what, and the agonising is just pointless martyrdom.  Oh, and don't think that if you wait circumstances might change.  They won't.  Make the call.
  • That being said, speed is not always necessary.  Take whatever time you've got to get the decision right, but don't use this as a reason to procrastinate.  There's a middle ground between a snap decision made emotionally or without thought, and a drawn out process that makes everyone who's waiting on your decision want to kill themselves (or you).  You will never have all of the possible information, and even if you did you can't predict the future.  Yes, if you could know the exact position, velocity and direction of every atom in the universe you could blah blah blah determinism, but that's utterly irrelevant to your decision making. So is the frankly bizarre idea that because of quantum fluctuations it is impossible to predict the future so you shouldn't try.  Apart from showing a blinding lack of understanding of physics, this is also utterly irrelevant.  We use inductive logic to navigate our way through the world every day, and it's a perfectly permissible tool when you're trying to predict the potential outcome of a decision.  Don't let cod-philosophy or sham-physics distract you from the task at hand, or tip you into extreme slowness or extreme speed when making your decision.

In summary:

Divorce your feelings about yourself from the decision, get all the facts, analysis and counsel that is reasonable to ask for, think about it for a small period of time, take a deep breath, make the decision and be prepared to live with it.  Then go home and sleep well.