For the Big Decisions, You’ve Got to Wrestle Ambiguity

For some reason, I’ve always been attuned to and intrigued by the moments where fateful decisions hang in the balance promising to change everything. These are moments when the drama is so thick you can cut it with a knife. You recognize the gravity of the decision, and you know that the decision to do or not do swings the door open to new and very different timelines with all the inherent intended and unintended consequences. You prepare your entire career for these one or two singular moments.

History as Teacher

History is filled with these critical moments where decisions knowingly and unknowingly change the fate of many.

One of the most profound for the gravity of the situation was then General Eisenhower’s lonely, world and life-changing call to launch the D-Day assault in World War II.

Try and imagine the crushing weight of the call to send the collective might of the Allied forces into the fog for an uphill fight that everyone knew would prove deadly for many. With his advisors split, he is reported to have stared out the window into the mission-threatening fog, eventually offering the world-changing words, “OK, we’ll go.” (Note: there’s some controversy over the exact words uttered by Eisenhower at that moment. Even he couldn’t recall exactly what he said, but most sources have settled on some variation of the above.)

The American Civil War may ultimately have swung on one brave college teacher turned colonel and his split-second decision to issue orders to “fix bayonets” and lead his ammunition-depleted troops downhill into the face of the attackers.

Eisenhower had the benefit of many great minds and trusted advisors, yet there was no consensus. In Joshua Chamberlin’s case, he had just one goal in mind: “Hold the line at all costs.” Both were profoundly lonely decisions where driving for consensus was either impractical or impossible.

Weighty Decisions in the Workplace are Mostly Never About Consensus

The important calls in our organizations are always about direction (strategy) or people. Or both.

And while a great deal of airtime is offered to the drive for consensus, I’ve always viewed consensus as the tyranny of mediocrity. In theory, a group should be able to make a better decision than the smartest individual. That theory is nice until reality, biases, politics, and all manner of filters rise and join the process. Particularly in moments where speed is of the essence.

Humans are messy decision-makers. Humans in groups are potentially disastrous decision-makers. This doesn’t mean you should give up on collaborating on the tough topics. It just means there will come a time when a big decision doesn’t bend to consensus.

The Big Decision is a Lonely, Solo Activity

Our workplace decisions as leaders are significantly less impactful than the fate of the world, the preservation of a union, and the lives of thousands on a single day. Nonetheless, these decisions on direction, strategy, and people are profoundly lonely and essential to the many stakeholders in the situation.

  • Choose the right strategy and match it with the right people and you prosper.
  • Say “no” to that attractive opportunity that doesn’t feel right, and maybe you avoid opening Pandora’s Box on your organization.
  • Draft that candidate no one else believed was a “fit” for your culture, and you might transform your culture for the better.
  • Pick the right person, not the senior person to lead that strategic project in the face of withering criticism, and watch the team come together and succeed.

The Problem(s) with These Moments

The struggle over the big decisions is the inherent ambiguity. The unknowns are overwhelming. Fear of getting it wrong floods our minds and our brains struggle for traction in the muck.

For the most significant decisions in our lives and careers, the outcomes are unknown and the consequences unpredictable. While we spend an incredible amount of time and money and dance with data-driven decisions, there are no sure things. Layer on top of that reality that humans make decisions based on emotions, not logic, and you’ve got a witches brew of potential for misfiring. Nonetheless, someone has to decide.

Why Not You? Stand Up and Be Present In the Moment:

In my ongoing pursuit of insight into how others make the big decisions, there’s no precise formula beyond the recognition that a no-decision is unacceptable.

As one senior manager described to me, “Someone had to make the call. I believed in a direction to my core. All of my experience and logic and emotion said: “go this way.” While everyone else was running for cover from getting this wrong, I had to stand up and decide.

Another offered, “The political costs of getting this wrong were too high for many to back it. The practical costs of not doing this were too costly for the future of the organization to not take the risk. I decided to bear the political costs for the benefit of the organization.

And while many wish they might get a list of “X Things for Making Tough Decision” out of this article, this topic doesn’t reduce to that trivial level. Just know that you will face a point in your career where everything you’ve done to date was merely preparation for what’s in front of you. Remind yourself of this point and stand-up and decide.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Ultimately, the big decisions we make in our lives and careers prompt tidal waves of implications—intended and unintended, with the ripple effects continuing across time. The important thing is to recognize the moment for its importance, and then to be present and be heard at the moment. “OK, we’ll go,” is just fine.

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About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

One Comment

  1. […] Art Petty reminds us that the big decisions are almost always clouded in ambiguity; consensus is elusive, and the decision maker has to embrace the moment. 4 minutes to read. […]

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