Author: Dr. Pete Hammett, Visiting Professor

A Series on Decision Making Part 3: How Senior Execs Approach Decision Making: Observations on Decision Making

Back when I worked for a large bank, we would have an annual golf outing for senior management and bank associates each year. During one outing, my team was playing behind four of the bank’s senior executives. At one point while my team stood on the tee box, we could see the group of bank execs ahead standing over their golf ball and picking out various clubs as they struggled to decide what shot to hit. In frustration, one of my playing partners mumbled aloud, “We’ll be here all day. We have four VPs in front of us. They couldn’t make a quick decision if their life depended on it.” This story reminds me of the misperceptions that can be communicated not in decisions themselves, but the process of actually making decisions. Three key examples come to mind: entremanures, asking the choir to pick the song selection and a bad day for space flight on January 28, 1986. 


Perhaps this sounds familiar:

You’re attending a meeting where several senior managers are brainstorming ideas for how a critical business challenge might be addressed. As ideas are brought up, one of the newer managers offers a novel approach she’s seen work at another organization. As the idea gets airtime among the senior managers, the energy for the novel approach comes to an abrupt end when one mangers observes, “Yes that’s an interesting idea, but I doubt it will fly here, because … we tried that before … we’re different … it’s too risky, etc. …” 

Whether influenced by company culture or past successes and failures, more often than not, the entrepreneurial spirit that is critical to inspiring innovation is skillfully repressed with the voice of an entremanure: a person who believes you can kill any idea if you pile on enough manure.

If the challenge to continuously create new and innovative customer-value propositions isn’t daunting enough, today’s leaders need to be equally adept at recognizing and sidestepping skilled entremanures. 

You know you’re working with an entremanure when …

Some of the best entremanures are able to squash an idea with a smile and a pat on the back. Before you realize what happened, the creative idea that woke you up at 4 a.m. is a pile of rubble on the floor. Even so, there are some subtle traits you can watch for that will clue you in on when an entremanure is hard at work. 

Entremanures are gifted at running in place

Entremanures have an uncanny gift for appearing to be actively heading forward while in fact simply running in place. You might find ‘run-in-place’ entremanures in well-established organizations that have a solid track record of success and a perceived market dominance. To a certain degree, these entremanures are trapped by the organization’s own inertia — a success-fueled momentum that keeps focus on continuing with tried-and-true activity.

Entremanures in this environment often mistake small incremental changes with innovative advances. You can almost bet that these entremanures chastise anyone wanting to shake things up with the admonition, “Things are working pretty well as is. Don’t foul it up with any crazy ideas!” 

Entremanures do a lot of reminiscing

Entremanures often have better hindsight than foresight. This regularly plays out in reminiscing back to times when the organization (or they themselves) experienced great success. However, entremanures often have a misguided view of the past, selectively distorting prior events and actual outcomes. This may be displayed in taking undue credit for the work of others and/or overstating results while omitting shortfalls. You’ll typically find these entremanures in highly-charged political circles where sentiment and historical revision rule the day. 

Entremanures can be outstanding problem solvers

One key advantage entremanures do bring to the table is that they are often keenly focused on resolving problems as quickly as possible. They do this by isolating problems into core components in order to simplify resolution. While this tends to facilitate timely results, it does not always yield the best solutions because they fail to look past easy answers to fully understand causes and possible options. This shortsightedness is also a detriment when positive results occur serendipitously, as an entremanure is more delighted in the results (and subsequent credit) and less focused on the cause or sustainability.

Soliciting the choir for song selections

Another decision making challenge is the tendency to seek advice from people who think exactly like us. If a leader has highly talented teams surrounding them and they all think alike and have the same experiences, odds are good they will all come to the same conclusions.

Likewise, leaders can become comfortable soliciting input from sources they know and understand. For example, it should be no surprise that Winston Churchill would be a strong supporter for using the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan. In Churchill’s mind,

“…there was never a moment’s discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used or not. To advert a vast, indefinite butchery, to bring the war to an end, to give peace to the world, to lay healing hands upon its tortured peoples by a manifestation of overwhelming power at the cost of a few explosions, seemed, after all our toils and perils, a miracle of deliverance.”

As an ally, it was important for Truman to confer with Churchill on the U.S.’s decision to use the atomic bomb. However, had Truman limited his decision making to just input from Churchill, the outcome would have been a foregone conclusion. In fact, there were many voices weighing in on Truman’s decision, but many of them were from the same choir with similar mindsets. Unsurprisingly, the military generals advising Truman were in favor of using the bomb to quicken an end to the war. And while there were some voices that were not in favor of using the bomb, their ability to raise concern was ineffective. This is highlighted in a 1960 U.S. News and World Report interview with Dr. Leo Szilard, a physicist and one of several scientists advising Truman on the bomb. Dr. Szilard recalled that he and many of his colleagues were opposed to using the bomb against Japan, but admittedly were unsuccessful in presenting an effective argument in the end.

Clearly, there is much more we could say regarding the process and influences surrounding one of the most significant decisions of modern times. But the point that draws my attention is how Truman himself wrestled with the gravest of decisions, noting in his diary on July 25, 1945:

“We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.” 

While there was and continues to be much debate since that fateful date in 1945, what stands out in my mind are the voices who were essentially choir members weighing in on the decision. They were all connected directly with the war, either in its prosecution, administration or collateral support. How could any other decision come from this collection of voices? Indeed, how could other voices have been added to the decision, given the secrecy and gravity associated with using the atomic bomb?

Perhaps the most insightful observation and question to consider in reviewing the decision Truman faced, particularly in light of the decisions political leaders face in the war of global terrorism, centers not on the decision to use the bomb, but upon which targets the bomb would be deployed. Accounts from Truman’s diary and his address to the public on August 9th announcing the bombing of Hiroshima suggest that he believed the U.S. had targeted purely Japanese military assets. How would Truman’s decision have been affected had he fully understood the civilian composition of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The lessons from Truman’s decision point most clearly to the need to ensure that those around the table influencing decision making are as diverse and varied as possible, and that the choir doesn’t have sole discretion as to which songs will be sung.

At the end of the day, I’m reminded of something my dad would often say: “Anyone wrong in their thinking can find at least three friends to agree with them.”

One bad day on January 28, 1986

On January 28, 1986 NASA launched STS-51L — the Space Shuttle Challenger. On board the shuttle were Pilot Mike Smith; Commander Dick Scobee; Mission Specialists Ron McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka and Judy Resnik; Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis and the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.

I worked in the aerospace and defense industry when the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost. I had written the software that allocated spacesuit components to astronauts, and I was in my office on January 28th at the ILC plant in Frederica, Delaware where the shuttle spacesuits were manufactured. By the time STS-51L had come around, launching shuttles had become routine. The shuttle program was in full swing, and we were in full-up production mode. To give you a sense of the original scope of the shuttle program, the software application I developed to allocate spacesuit components was built to accommodate shuttle launches occurring every nine days. During this time I had the opportunity to meet the first two shuttle astronauts, Young and Crippen, and even met America’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride.

It was a heady time, but like many of my peers at the plant, I had stopped watching the shuttle launches. I was sitting at my desk when I heard screams coming from upstairs. I assumed a field mouse had gotten inside (our plant was in the country) until someone came running into my office moments later saying the shuttle had exploded. I didn’t believe it. Perhaps a booster had malfunctioned or an engine had flared out, but surely the shuttle could have aborted and retuned to Kennedy. Or maybe the shuttle went into the Atlantic and we had a water rescue underway. It wasn’t until I was able to see the video of the flight that I knew — we lost Challenger.

It was surreal at our plant near Johnson Space Flight Center the day after Challenger was lost with some of our employees watching the children of the lost astronauts while their spouses flew to Kennedy. Months later I was at the Morton-Thiokol plant in Huntsville where the O-Rings were made. At this point we knew we had experienced a burn through on the rings. You could not find a more solemn place. In the midst of all this was the unending question, “How did this happen?”

There are reams of reports outlining the technical, mechanical and leadership problems that led to the loss of Challenger. However, in all the recounts of the decision making that led up to the launch on January 28th, I’ve not heard mention of two interesting facts: 1) STS-51 was the first mission with a teacher in space, and 2) the resulting media attention that came with a teacher in space.

Clearly we had significant design flaws, and indeed warning sounds went unheard. But in my mind, another critical influencer entered into the mix with the added media attention from having a teacher in space. There were cameras, people watching and pressure to make it happen. I can’t help but wonder how this pressure built as the launch was delayed the day before due to a stubborn hatch that wouldn’t close and then because of poor weather.

I’ve heard the accounts from the engineers who tried to say that something wasn’t right, but no one listened. I’ve always wondered if their voices were drowned out by the clicking of the cameras anxiously waiting to put our first teacher in space. Whenever I feel hurried to make a decision, I think back to this terrible day on January 28, 1986 and ask, “Why do I have to make this decision now?”