Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Decisions, Decisions

For the past week, I've been pondering the nature of decisions. I'm doing so mostly because I'm still recovering from a very bad one. It's a bit of an after-action review for me -- trying to understand why I did what I did, but also a chance to ponder the nature of professional work, and how we make our living.

At risk of damaging my professional reputation, I'll explain a bit what happened. It's really a simple story. I decided to act exclusively for one client. I turned down new work, eliminated some other clients, and went to work exclusively for one person. Why? Well, the economy is slowing, the rmb is appreciating, business is tough right now! Moving to secure anchorage in times of storm seems a good decision. It would be, if the anchorage were safe. Now, imagine if the anchorage is actually in the territory of a very hostile tribe, bent on your destruction, and caring nothing for human life!! Ah, this is the anchorage I pulled into. What's worse, I had met the chief of this tribe before. Once, he tried to eat my ear and shrink the heads of my landing party. The next time, he smiled and offered me some type of fermented beverage. I accepted it, I drank, I danced.....I woke up missing an ear.

This decision is not hard to analyze. I made a decision based exclusively on fear -- fear of the looming ecomonic hardships ahead. I acted from the most primative reaches of the reptile brain. In this case, I need only flog myself for cowardice.

Decisions in general (let's assume a higher level of thinking than I displayed) are the basis of our livelihoods. A corporate finance instructor in B'school told me once that grey was his favorite color -- the color of money. Easy decisions don't pay. The more grey, the more money to be made by those who operate in those uncharted waters.

Decisions always involve insufficient information. Good leaders gather all they can. They delay decisions until the last possible minute (not procrastinating, but gathering and analyzing). They analyze, they agonize, but they can't know everything. When the time is come, they decide, based on objective analysis, experience, and their "gut." They then step forward and accept the results of their decisions.

At some point, you have to fall back on "gut feeling" for part of a decision, nobody will dispute that. In my case, it wasn't "gut feeling," it was reptile-brain fear. It was the irrational dominating the rational. "Gut feeling" is not fear, it is listening to your heart (may I say that here?). After all the analysis is done, there should be a time of inner reflection (the situation will decide how much), but if you've got some experience, and some moral compass, one direction will be a brighter shade of grey.

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