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When it comes to making decisions, people are funny. There is almost a universal instinct to hesitate, to insist on more information, to get a second or third opinion – to delay. People certainly do not want to be held responsible for the decisions that they do make, and so most people, even those in a position of decisiveness… defer.
We can see how these mistakes, these cultural reflexes to delay, can lead to far-reaching, and even catastrophic outcomes. Here is one famous and disastrous example:
The US had the opportunity to kill Osama Bin Laden many times before 9/11. If any of these had been taken, then the entire invasion of Afghanistan may well have never happened.
Even after 9/11 – in 2007, according to reports, US forces had Bin Laden in the crosshairs of an armed drone, but sought legal approval before taking the shot – by the time that review was conducted (reportedly it took 16 minutes to get approval) the enemy had escaped.
Now obviously in hindsight, these decisions are easy to second-guess. But remember: they were not really decisions, not in the minds of the people making them. They were just being careful, getting second opinions, gathering more data, trying to make sure they have all the facts, trying to make sure the processes were properly followed. In other words, people were afraid to stick their necks out and make a tough call. Our culture, our institutions, our processes, and procedures all lead this way. Especially in bureaucracies.
This characteristic of large bureaucracies has gotten worse, not better, with time. The idea of a “Precautionary Principle” has been applied across our lives, with the idea that until we know for certain what the outcomes of a decision will be, we should defer action. This principle basically brings our world to a screeching halt, because we never have complete and perfect information, and even if we were to have that information, we can never be certain what the outcome of a given decision will be. If we cannot make a decision, then we slow down and come to a quivering halt.
In normal times, we can get away with being delayed or slow. Additional review cycles don’t seem to matter much in government or massive companies. They can rely on inertia to carry them through. The delays go largely unnoticed when they have no external pressures that endanger them.
But in times of crisis, inertial forces lose. In war, hesitation is deadly. Applying the Precautionary Principle to everything in life means that the approach of “better safe than sorry,” shuts down life as we know it. It is certainly no way to run any organization or country.
Indecision in time of crisis means always – and only – reacting, never leading. Chronic indecision means losing.Published in