“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”
The Right Thing
I can’t count the number of times I was faced with insufficient information yet, because of my role and responsibility as a leader I was required to make the call. I’m not referring to legality, morality, or ethics. I’m speaking about functional business decisions. Do we hire more people? Do we pour more investment dollars into an idea? Do we start, buy, or sell a company? In my experience the more strategic and far reaching the decision the less concrete information and insight is available to me. This chapter is about deciding. Deciding appears from the outside looking in, like a simple exercise of power. You’re the boss, you get to decide, so do your thing. If you’ve been a decision maker, regardless of the level of authority or autonomy you had, you know deciding is anything but simple.
Nobody wants to make a mistake. Nobody wants to fail. I know I certainly don’t. Employees often assume their leaders belong to a protected class and therefore are immune to termination for basic errors and transgressions in the workplace. Even some leaders believe this to be true. If you are a leader with integrity and humility, you don’t hold yourself above the rules or the consequences of failure. A visionary leader knows the price of goal stretching, aspirational strategies, and clear eyed optimism about the future, can be failure to achieve. They also understand this level of failure is impossible to hide or cover up. You may lose your position, your industry credibility, or your feeling of professional competency. These are the risks inherent in making most leadership decisions, but they are amplified when vision inspired strategy fails.
I made a great call once. I believed we needed to create an inhouse financial workflow capability that allowed us to see our medical claims data and optimize net revenue or collections. We were being grossly underserved by a small vendor who could not keep up with the parabolic increase in medical procedures, procedures that were converted into insurance claims for our medical group. I saw the problem but spent a year not deciding. The choices were to find a larger claims processing vendor, to buy a claims processing vendor to create an internal capability, or to build our own capability from scratch. When I finally decided to build our own capability, we had a year left on the vendor contract, so I used this year to design and then build the capability. Here’s where I made my second mistake. I decided to make the new capability its own company. A profit center servicing our medical practice group and outside customers.
By the time the new company was created, staffed, and operating, two years had passed since the strategic decision to act had been clear to me. That two year period was a critical window of opportunity when the medical practice group grew exponentially. We also went from one state to five states and added two new medical specialties. The volume and the new complexity were exciting on one hand, but it was crushing the newly minted medical claims company. We were incapable of investing in smarter experts and a better cloud-based platform for processing the work so we did the best we could for two years before pushing most of the effort onto a nationally recognized technology company that specialized in what we did. They could easily scale with both our volume and complexity. So, in hindsight would I act differently knowing that the medical practice group was about to explode in market share? Absolutely. I considered this story a failure to decide in time and as the CEO and primary architect of the failed solution the buck stopped with me. Sometimes doing the right thing appears easy, I’m here to tell you it is not.
Art or Science?
I’d like to begin by making a clear distinction between being decisive and making decisions. Being decisive is often, observed in the moment, real time. There is an obvious choice or choices to make, and the observers know this is the case. They watch the leader expecting him or her to decide. There is no doubt that a decision of some kind must be made. Strategic decision making is less supported by a consensus. Many, including the experts assisting the leader, may not see a need for a decision, especially a strategic one. In this situation the decision maker finds themselves alone. They see an opportunity or a threat that others do not see. If the leader is decisive and endowed with the authority to act, they may do so without the burden of selling the decision to peers, subordinates, boards, or banks. Most leaders do not have this unilateral authority so they must become adept in the art of influence.
Since I’ve been in leadership positions at many levels of authority and autonomy, in and out of uniform, I’ve always had to apply the art of effective decision making, influencing rather than ordering agreement in others. Visionary change comes with a long list of disruptive actions, actions that represent threats to the status quo of the organization and its employees. Usually, the more far reaching and visionary the set of goals are, the scarier they appear to the uninspired. The people hoping to do their day job well, get a raise, maybe a bonus, and never ever get fired. This is basic human nature, fear of displacement, loss of income, loss of professional relevance, and in a few cases, a loss of positional power and authority.
The art of strategic decision making lies in understanding these basic human reactions to change. As a leader you must pay prerequisite attention to the people who will execute your vision with an aim to allay anxiety and inspire commitment through logic, empathy, and instilling confidence in your vision. The science of decision making is a straightforward analysis and planning activity. Create the battleplan, the timelines, and develop the general cost and benefit derived from the new path forward. Once this is in hand, and preferably before presenting the vision to anyone, step back and assume the role of political candidate. Plan your communications campaign, both methods of delivery and messaging.
Your plan may be well-designed but don’t assume a single person will agree to your vision concept. Start humble and honestly think through how to win every “vote.” Make a list of your peers, partners, and the superiors you must convince and inspire. Develop a communications and influence campaign focused on these critical allies, a persuasive message that will bring them over to your cause. Then do the same thing for the key subordinate leaders reporting to you. Finally, identify (by now with assistance from your new allies) a message for the greater number of affected employees. Rumors can undermine your narrative and inflame fear so do all the communicating, at every level, within a few days rather than weeks. Don’t let the counter message create a bow wave that dilutes the enthusiasm and positive nature of your core vision and your expectations for better outcomes. Influencing, persuading, convincing, inspiring, these are the tools and applying these tools in support of your strategic decision to shake things up, is an art, for sure.
If you’ve had an opportunity to read my first book, Be Nimble, you know I spent some time laying out my thoughts regarding group decision making or crowdsourcing decisions. I passionately believe that excellence in design, weather service, product, art, music, is rarely a result of collective compromise. Now I did say excellence. Read about the early days of Apple and the struggle Steve Job’s endured with his nay saying engineers. The MAC computer, ITunes, the Iphone, and the Ipad were all designed as visionary multi-functional devices that would change the world. Their computing power, physical size, usability, and applications were a dream of Job’s. Mozart and Da Vinci didn’t gather up their friends and peers and gain consensus. No, they had a creative vision and with single-minded purpose, produced masterpieces. People all around the world are still in awe of their work to this day. Consensus can create and built things that are functional but things that are truly excellent? Groundbreaking? World altering?
While I’m not a fan of collective decision making in business, I am a fan of collective reasoning. Listening to oblique lines of inquiry, odd sources of insight, and of course the standard company channels for inspiration and information are prudent and reflect sound judgement. I listen and learn, and measure, and contemplate, and then when I feel I’ve absorbed enough to understand the core risks and rewards, I craft a solution for execution. All the decisions I’ve made in my professional life have been heavily influenced and guided by the smart people all around me. When my decisions work out, I shower praise on the team that delivered the prize. When they do not, I accept sole responsibility for the failure. Deciding carries with it the obligation to embrace accountability for your actions. In the end it is your job to make the call and live with that decision.
When I was in the SEALs, we pushed the performance envelope every day and any SEAL will tell you the intensity and complexity of that training usually exceeded actual combat. I watched officers make decisions and suffer through the aftermath of those decisions when men were severely injured or died. My greatest fear as a leader in combat wasn’t for my personal safety, it was the fear that I might make a decision that got one of my men killed or maimed. Leading is hard. Doing it right is even more difficult. Good leaders soak up the brain power and experience of their team before making decisions. Poor leaders take counsel of their own insights and make the call in a vacuum. Collective insights, reasoning, analysis, data collection, are all great ways to get smarter and make better choices. It is true during day to day management and especially true when crafting an audacious vision for change.
It takes a Team
I’ve found over the years that few people are strategic in their thinking and even fewer are visionary. It’s possible to be both and that’s and even rarer combination of leadership attributes. I separate these two similar but different concepts by level of development. I used Steve Jobs as an example earlier. He wasn’t an engineer, he didn’t have an MBA, and he didn’t create meticulous strategic execution plans for Apple or Pixar. His contribution was visionary insight. An insight that melded style with practical application to create wonderful breakthrough products. Steve Jobs’ second contribution to excellence in visionary execution was unrelenting faith and tenacity. You may be kind of leader who sees the future, or the kind that once shown the future, knows how to develop the long range plan to seize that future. If you are one of the rare leaders skilled in both this segment might now apply to you. But for most of us, seeking help to offset a weakness is a smart play.
If you are a visionary, one who is consistently astonished at how your brain pulls together random pieces of information to form a view of what is possible, it is important to find a skilled strategic planner or planners. An architect needs an engineer to see his or her concepts come to life. The same holds true for business leaders who have visionary ideas. I use examples of famous business leaders because we all know their story but being visionary can be a low level requirement, too. At the project team, department, and division level, seeing a better long range path is a critical skill set. If you feel your insight or intuition is screaming there’s a need for big changes but you’re not sure how to structure that change, team up with an intelligent planner.
I was once asked to look at an expensive SEAL mini-sub program because I had shown an ability to see things differently. My ignorance was the key. Those who were experts with years of experience were not only blind to new uses for the mini-sub, but also a reason why nothing new would ever be considered. I did not have this baggage. I was an outsider to the program. I wrote a thought paper as directed and was astounded when I was sent to a SEAL team specialized in mini-sub operations, to make the idea in the thought paper a reality. This is the point where I needed all the technical and operational assistance I could get. Writing the thought piece did not convert me into a savvy, fully certified mini-sub pilot, and navigator. I leaned heavily on at least fifteen experts to flesh out the idea into a concept. Then took the concept and developed a long range plan to make the vision a reality.
It took me an hour to write down my opinion, two months to create a plan with a lot of help, five more months to test the plan’s assumptions, and another six months to deploy the new capability overseas in real world conditions. After that six month deployment the SEAL teams adopted the proven concept as the new normal for the next twenty years. It took a wide range of expertise and leaders with more experience than me to pull all this together. I used to wonder why I, a junior officer with no mini-sub experience, was allowed to lead the conversion of a crazy idea into a valuable new combat capability. I received the answer to that question several years after I retired from the SEAL teams. A SEAL Admiral close to the decisions being made at the time, told me that my very lack of rank and experience made me the perfect fall guy if my idea flopped. No senior officer was going to risk their career and reputation by having their name associated with the attempt to save the mini-sub program and I was too junior to have lofty career ambitions. I was also the most enthusiastic person in the teams when it came to the value of my idea. So, I was set up to both succeed and fail. Thankfully, due to the team of technical people provided to me, we did not fail.
I believe leaders have the responsibility to look to the future and think big thoughts. This may feel odd if no one has asked for your strategic input, but it is a leadership responsibility, nonetheless. Figure out if you are a visionary, a technical strategist, or a combination of both by practicing the vision thing. Look at your industry, your company, your niche within your company, and think big thoughts. Write them down, not as fully developed plans, but as concepts. Do a what if, exercise. Flesh out the why! If you are comfortable doing so, invite one or two technical experts to look at your concept then ask, how? My guess is you’ll see the restrictive nature of tradition, standard practices, and even formal education, come to life to squash your idea. That’s okay, it’s normal. You need these folks so start learning how to select optimistic technical partners and practice your influencing skills. If you’re not a visionary, find one and become a practical part of that person’s vison development and execution.
Marty Strong is a CEO, Chief Strategy Officer, and the author of Be Nimble – How the Navy SEAL Mindset Wins on the Battlefield and in Business –www.martystrongbenimble.com