Decision-Making

 

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.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    So true! We see this factor in our lives right now. We have a chance to plan some trips, one soon, one in 18 months. And the question keeps coming up, what will be the status of Covid? In fact, what will be the dangerous events of the world?? So we are scheduling, regardless. We simply don’t know what lies around the corner, or two years from now. It’s time to live!

    • #1
  2. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    The classic quote is from Archibald Cox :

    ”Not to decide IS to decide.”

    Some outcome is going to occur.   You can, by your decision, try to impact that outcome.   Or you can, by refusing to decide, give your tacit approval to whatever happens.

     

    Or, you can take the advice of my Dad … a WW2 combat veteran infantry sergeant:

    “The mark of a good officer is the ability to make a decision and stick to it.   If it’s a good decision … so much the better.   The very worst thing an officer can be is indecisive.”

    • #2
  3. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    I have heard the Samurai said that all decisions should be made in the span of seven heartbeats.  That might be extreme but it shows a preference for action over inaction.  I think part of the problem today is we have more data available.  It use to be we were more comfortable making decisions on little or no data.  

    • #3
  4. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    The “Precautionary Principle” infuriates me.  Simply a rhetorical roadblock deployed by elites against deplorable ideas.

    • #4
  5. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Raxxalan (View Comment):

    I have heard the Samurai said that all decisions should be made in the span of seven heartbeats. That might be extreme but it shows a preference for action over inaction. I think part of the problem today is we have more data available. It use to be we were more comfortable making decisions on little or no data.

    Practiced in listening to the gut.

    • #5
  6. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Science, technology and higher education focused on method have created an expectation that specialized knowledge will always provide a solution. Passive deference to non-existent expertise is paralyzing. 

    George McClellan got his butt kicked even when he had superior numbers because he was incapable of acting decisively with incomplete information. He would have been a world champ at board games but not suited for actual war with its inherent unknowns.

    If we believe that there should be a body of specialized knowledge for every situation, we lose perspective, unduly fear uncertainty and risk and don’t know how to make use of the voice of experience.

    The mindset that elected Biden was that sure, he’s an idiot, but unlike Trump he will defer to the right sorts of experts and then it will all be OK because the substance and tone of expert knowledge will guide us. Ha!

    • #6
  7. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Science, technology and higher education focused on method have created an expectation that specialized knowledge will always provide a solution. Passive deference to non-existent expertise is paralyzing.

    George McClellan got his butt kicked even when he had superior numbers because he was incapable of acting decisively with incomplete information. He would have been a world champ at board games but not suited for actual war with its inherent unknowns.

    If we believe that there should be a body of specialized knowledge for every situation, we lose perspective, unduly fear uncertainty and risk and don’t know how to make use of the voice of experience.

    The mindset that elected Biden was that sure, he’s an idiot, but unlike Trump he will defer to the right sorts of experts and then it will all be OK because the substance and tone of expert knowledge will guide us. Ha!

    The problem is essentially in most cases perfect information is impossible.  Hence Hayek’s pretense of knowledge observation.

    • #7
  8. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    I believe part of the problem is that war-gaming hypotheticals is that in any hypothetical there is no right, or wrong answer. A hypothetical is based upon something that may happen, therefore subjective, not objective.

    If was going to be a bit more cynical the more people, and the more distant you are from the problem, the IQ level in the room starts to drop, not increase. At a certain point people in the room begin to be paralyzed by analysis.

    • #8
  9. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member
    MWD B612 "Dawg"
    @danok1

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    Or, you can take the advice of my Dad … a WW2 combat veteran infantry sergeant:

    “The mark of a good officer is the ability to make a decision and stick to it.   If it’s a good decision … so much the better.   The very worst thing an officer can be is indecisive.”

    I forget where I read/heard it (hell, may have been at the USAF SP tech school), but it was along the lines of, “Make a decision. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong, make a decision! At least you’ll take action, which is better than standing there paralyzed by indecision!”

    • #9
  10. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member
    MWD B612 "Dawg"
    @danok1

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    The classic quote is from Archibald Cox :

    ”Not to decide IS to decide.”

    Or per Neil Peart: “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice!”

    • #10
  11. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    If was going to be a bit more cynical the more people, and the more distant you are from the problem, the IQ level in the room starts to drop, not increase. At a certain point people in the room begin to be paralyzed by analysis.

    Interesting. I wargamed potential negative events and what to do under those conditions to construct a scaffold of action in those events. It makes it easier to hold to principles when emotions are especially high… like unwanted pregnancy – what would I do? How would I handle it?

    My husband and I frequently plan out death and job loss course of action. How is this different?

    • #11
  12. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    Stina (View Comment):

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    If was going to be a bit more cynical the more people, and the more distant you are from the problem, the IQ level in the room starts to drop, not increase. At a certain point people in the room begin to be paralyzed by analysis.

    Interesting. I wargamed potential negative events and what to do under those conditions to construct a scaffold of action in those events. It makes it easier to hold to principles when emotions are especially high… like unwanted pregnancy – what would I do? How would I handle it?

    My husband and I frequently plan out death and job loss course of action. How is this different?

    I don’t think that actually invalidates the observation, for two reasons. First only two people.  I think Doug was talking about much larger groups.  Second you are making decisions for yourself so not so distant from the problem.  A Group of “Experts” in DC trying to make policies to affect something in rural Arkansas, might as well be the Soviet politburo trying to set wheat prices and production schedules in a five year plan.

    • #12
  13. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Ekosj (View Comment):

    The classic quote is from Archibald Cox :

    ”Not to decide IS to decide.”

    Some outcome is going to occur. You can, by your decision, try to impact that outcome. Or you can, by refusing to decide, give your tacit approval to whatever happens.

     

    Or, you can take the advice of my Dad … a WW2 combat veteran infantry sergeant:

    “The mark of a good officer is the ability to make a decision and stick to it. If it’s a good decision … so much the better. The very worst thing an officer can be is indecisive.”

    I got parenting advice that was similar. The worst type of parents are indecisive and / or inconsistent. Whenever my kids tease me by calling me a bad mom, I respond: yeah, but I was consistently bad. So you got that going for you. 

    • #13
  14. Gemirish Member
    Gemirish
    @Gemirish

    As my dad always told me: “In a fluid situation, it is better to decide promptly and be right 50% of the time than to delay and hesitate and be right 75% of the time” 

    • #14
  15. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    The idea that made America unique is that decisions were made at the bottom by individuals and their families, then interacting with others and only occasionally by the larger communities and lastly governments.   Military was different in that it had to be at the top, but we gave decisions to a president and gradually the military itself would sort it out.  It  takes them a long expensive time to get things right.  It’s the nature of the beast.  GW, Lincoln and Grant, FDR and Ike.    It’s never easy or direct, but it’s also unique.  Top down systems which deal with everything else confuse it all and usually get everything wrong because they don’t get killed or  become prisoners when they get it fundamentally wrong.  Even the Chinese will screw up and decay, that’s why they needed Biden.  They don’t have time to allow normal American decision making.   

    • #15
  16. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    An essay on decision-making framed an article I wrote for Osprey about my latest book, German Heavy Cruisers vs British Heavy Cruisers. You can find it here. It seems relevant to this discussion and the failure of the US military in Afghanistan.

    • #16
  17. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    An essay on decision-making framed an article I wrote for Osprey about my latest book, German Heavy Cruisers vs British Heavy Cruisers. You can find it here. It seems relevant to this discussion and the failure of the US military in Afghanistan.

    Good read.  I am reminded of the American response at Samar.  Halsey had taken off after the big chunk of the Japanese fleet leaving some destroyers and light carriers with the transport ships.  Adm Kurita then arrived with a vastly superior force.  Sprague gave the order to attack and the absurdly brave commanders of three destroyers made a direct torpedo run at bigger, badder Japanese ships while mostly unarmed aircraft heaved anything they had (including empty Coke bottles) onto the Japanese ships.  And like the German decision you mentioned, the Japanese commander thought it too risky to commit big valuable ships when he might have wiped out MacArthur’s invasion fleet if he kept going at the weak American force.

    • #17
  18. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    iWe: 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.

    Let me dissent. You’re only looking at part of the data. You’re only looking at or considering the times where the delay turned out to be unwarranted. What about decisions where the delay and verification of the facts turned out to be a correct decision. What about time you think you had Osama in the cross hairs but it turned out not to be him and you would have killed an innocent man?  Or what about times where the decision could have had too many collateral deaths of innocent individuals?  There are complexities that may cause you to reassess the situation.
    I wish Biden had been less impulsive in his plan to leave Afghanistan. What an impulsive decision made in complete haste. Impulsive decisions need to be checked over when life and death are at stake.

    • #18
  19. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    iWe, your post makes a good point.  People sometimes need to make decisions based on limited information.  You wrote: “There is almost a universal instinct to hesitate, to insist on more information, to get a second or third opinion – to delay. “

    True enough.  What do you think of the flip-side of this particular coin?  I think that there is almost a universal instinct to stick to a bad decision, even after additional information indicates that you ought to change your mind — to double-down.

    It seems to me that both of these tendencies may be problems in particular circumstances.  Am I missing something?

    There’s another possibility.  Sometimes, delay might be the wise decision.  I remember a lot of talk in the 1980s about how the Japanese were going to take over the world.  There were suggestions that we take a wide variety of actions to counter this.  We really didn’t.  But the problem didn’t come to pass.  Japan has been in decline.  So in that instance, I think that delay was the proper decision.

    • #19
  20. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    There’s another possibility.  Sometimes, delay might be the wise decision.  I remember a lot of talk in the 1980s about how the Japanese were going to take over the world.  There were suggestions that we take a wide variety of actions to counter this.  We really didn’t.  But the problem didn’t come to pass.  Japan has been in decline.  So in that instance, I think that delay was the proper decision.

    Nor so much delay as political and legal barriers to creating an American MITI and protecting monopolies and keiretsu vertical integration.  A lot of people wanted to do that.  Each dominant company (Mitsubishi, Toyota etc) had its exclusive suppliers and its own favored large bank.  Ultimately, propping up the whole edifice will absurd valuations of commercial real estate caused the crash and the lasting recession.

    American CEOs were reading bogus books on Samurai leadership and policy wonks were salivating over a new avenue toward centralized economic planning but nobody was listening to Soichiro Honda or the founders of SONY about how they succeeded in spite of the government “experts” at MITI who tried to talk them out of their undertakings.

    • #20
  21. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Manny (View Comment):

    iWe: 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.

    Let me dissent. You’re only looking at part of the data. You’re only looking at or considering the times where the delay turned out to be unwarranted. What about decisions where the delay and verification of the facts turned out to be a correct decision. What about time you think you had Osama in the cross hairs but it turned out not to be him and you would have killed an innocent man? Or what about times where the decision could have had too many collateral deaths of innocent individuals? There are complexities that may cause you to reassess the situation.
    I wish Biden had been less impulsive in his plan to leave Afghanistan. What an impulsive decision made in complete haste. Impulsive decisions need to be checked over when life and death are at stake.

    Biden’s decision (if it was truly Biden’s) was not impulsive.  It took 7 months.  Evacuating Bagram happened months ago if I have that right,  And the State Dept. was keeping track of the Taliban advances for months as well.

    • #21
  22. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    The group of terrorists running the Taliban is doing a better job than the United States in establishing a mission and goals and making the decisions needed to reach them.

    • #22
  23. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    MarciN (View Comment):

    The group of terrorists running the Taliban is doing a better job than the United States in establishing a mission and goals and making the decisions needed to reach them.

    How much deep thought was required to defeat Joe Biden or to walk up and take what was handed to them?

    • #23
  24. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    or to walk up and take what was handed to them?

    I think this is the key.

    • #24
  25. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    The group of terrorists running the Taliban is doing a better job than the United States in establishing a mission and goals and making the decisions needed to reach them.

    How much deep thought was required to defeat Joe Biden or to walk up and take what was handed to them?

    I did not make my point clearly.

    Even the lowest terrorist organization on the planet is doing a better job than the United States in setting goals and reaching them.

    Successful corporations do this routinely. Who are we? What do we stand for? What are our core principles? What do we wish to achieve? How do we achieve it?

    We have a crisis in our country: there is no apparent executive decision-making ability anywhere in our government.

    As I write that, I realize what the real truth is. It isn’t just Joe Biden. It’s the entire Washington bureaucracy that is engaging in this evil this week in Afghanistan.

    May the Lord have mercy on us.

     

    • #25
  26. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    iWe: 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.

    Let me dissent. You’re only looking at part of the data. You’re only looking at or considering the times where the delay turned out to be unwarranted. What about decisions where the delay and verification of the facts turned out to be a correct decision. What about time you think you had Osama in the cross hairs but it turned out not to be him and you would have killed an innocent man? Or what about times where the decision could have had too many collateral deaths of innocent individuals? There are complexities that may cause you to reassess the situation.
    I wish Biden had been less impulsive in his plan to leave Afghanistan. What an impulsive decision made in complete haste. Impulsive decisions need to be checked over when life and death are at stake.

    Biden’s decision (if it was truly Biden’s) was not impulsive. It took 7 months. Evacuating Bagram happened months ago if I have that right, And the State Dept. was keeping track of the Taliban advances for months as well.

    Well, if you make a decision and delay and do no reflection or assessment during the delay then you are essentially making sn impulsive decision with a time gap. ;). It wasn’t seven months though. I think the decision was made shortly after the inauguration and then came the planning and execution. I suspect there was little cross examination in that planning and execution, very little reflection. People need to be fired. 

    • #26
  27. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    MarciN (View Comment):
    Successful corporations do this routinely. Who are we? What do we stand for? What are our core principles? What do we wish to achieve? How do we achieve it?

    There is the stated goal and the real goal.  The primary stated goal is that girls can go to grammar school.  Along with this the implied goal is to oust terrorists and install Western Values socially and governmentally.

    The true goal — well, look at the results: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.  We tore down bad but restraining governments and established chaos and instituted a flood of arguably uncivilized muslim refugees into Europe and now the US.

    This didn’t happen by accident, but by choice; there were other alternatives.  It must have been the goal.

    • #27
  28. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    By the way.  Here is the body of a current e-mail appeal to deal with refugees in Wisconsin and Indiana.  It looks like this is where they are going at present.

    We are working with the Department of Defense to staff Family Medicine and Pediatric physicians to help see the Afghan refugees starting ASAP to work a 7 on/off schedule. There are openings in both Wisconsin and Indiana. We are needing more physicians to help out. Give me a call if you meet the below requirements. Thank you!

    • #28
  29. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Manny (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    iWe: 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.

    Let me dissent. You’re only looking at part of the data. You’re only looking at or considering the times where the delay turned out to be unwarranted. What about decisions where the delay and verification of the facts turned out to be a correct decision. What about time you think you had Osama in the cross hairs but it turned out not to be him and you would have killed an innocent man? Or what about times where the decision could have had too many collateral deaths of innocent individuals? There are complexities that may cause you to reassess the situation.
    I wish Biden had been less impulsive in his plan to leave Afghanistan. What an impulsive decision made in complete haste. Impulsive decisions need to be checked over when life and death are at stake.

    Biden’s decision (if it was truly Biden’s) was not impulsive. It took 7 months. Evacuating Bagram happened months ago if I have that right, And the State Dept. was keeping track of the Taliban advances for months as well.

    Well, if you make a decision and delay and do no reflection or assessment during the delay then you are essentially making sn impulsive decision with a time gap. ;). It wasn’t seven months though. I think the decision was made shortly after the inauguration and then came the planning and execution. I suspect there was little cross examination in that planning and execution, very little reflection. People need to be fired.

    Yeah, I think he was inaugurated nearly 7 months before the troops started leaving.  And Bagram was evacuated months before that.  It was all planned out alright.

    • #29
  30. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    iWe: 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.

    Let me dissent. You’re only looking at part of the data. You’re only looking at or considering the times where the delay turned out to be unwarranted. What about decisions where the delay and verification of the facts turned out to be a correct decision. What about time you think you had Osama in the cross hairs but it turned out not to be him and you would have killed an innocent man? Or what about times where the decision could have had too many collateral deaths of innocent individuals? There are complexities that may cause you to reassess the situation.
    I wish Biden had been less impulsive in his plan to leave Afghanistan. What an impulsive decision made in complete haste. Impulsive decisions need to be checked over when life and death are at stake.

    Biden’s decision (if it was truly Biden’s) was not impulsive. It took 7 months. Evacuating Bagram happened months ago if I have that right, And the State Dept. was keeping track of the Taliban advances for months as well.

    Well, if you make a decision and delay and do no reflection or assessment during the delay then you are essentially making sn impulsive decision with a time gap. ;). It wasn’t seven months though. I think the decision was made shortly after the inauguration and then came the planning and execution. I suspect there was little cross examination in that planning and execution, very little reflection. People need to be fired.

    Yeah, I think he was inaugurated nearly 7 months before the troops started leaving. And Bagram was evacuated months before that. It was all planned out alright.

    Yes that may be. I was just using that as an example to explain my point. Bad decisions can be made impulsively or not, especially by dumb people. Perhaps the more dumb people think on a decision, the more likely they will get it wrong…lol. 

    • #30