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Decision Making Under Pressure - It Never Was Easy

posted 29 Mar 2020, 16:05 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 29 Mar 2020, 16:09 ]
The view is perfect in the rear-vision mirror.....

As many commentators have observed, the Covid-19 crisis presents the most difficult and comprehensive set of global challenges since World War II. Governments, health systems, companies, not for profits and communities are struggling on a daily, even hourly basis to come to grips with a constant stream of disruptive change occurring at every possible level. In the face of this crisis there has been relentless criticism in some quarters of government and company decision-making, often from an ill-informed or ideological perspective. As one cartoonist quipped, social media experts on bushfire fighting appear to have done PhDs overnight and morphed into virologists and population health gurus!

On a serious note, it is important for us to understand that some poor decisions will always made in a crisis. The longer this pandemic goes on, the more bad decisions will be made. It is hard to make good decisions at the best of times, it is even more difficult to make sound decisions under constant pressure, when you don’t have all the required information, where the full range of possible impacts of each decision are not known and when you are personally over-extended. 
I would also point out that it is rarely the case in a crisis that strategic options fall cleanly into baskets labelled ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It is more often the case that the only options available are unpleasant ones. Your job as leader is to decide which of several bad or unpleasant options you choose and for what reasons. For example, do you completely close down the country now and cripple the economy or slow the economy down more gradually and possibly see more people fall ill? Lives will be lost either way. How many lives are you willing to give up or save and at what economic and social cost? Only an armchair critic would see these as simple, clear cut decisions.

That is why hindsight vision is perfect…

Leaders as decision-makers
The role of leaders is to make decisions and judgements.  Jack Welch, the famous CEO of GE once said, “80% of decisions can be made on the spot, 20% can’t. Wisdom is knowing the difference.”   I have great sympathy, even compassion for our Prime Minister, Premiers, business and community leaders and folk such as Chief Health Officers. They have many difficult decisions to make and not enough time to make them in. I believe that they have put in place an enormous range of effective policies and strategies in a very short period of time and made some very tough calls along the way. They have made some poor choices as well – that is life in a crisis. In the end, you make the best decisions you can based on the information available at the time. 

Yet some in our community do not seem to recognise that policy and strategy formation in a crisis is not the same as in normal times. Some critics can only examine the motives and practices of our national leaders through their pre-existing political lens. Conservatives support conservatives and progressives, progressives. Anything done by ‘the other mob’ is always wrong. Others allow their rusted-on cynicism and prejudices to dominate their interpretation of events. They see their role as pointing out other people’s flaws and inconsistencies whilst rarely drawing attention to their own. 

If I was a senior leader in our society now, I would crave a bit more encouragement, compassion and support from the community. Personally, I believe it is better to let history – and the inevitable formal investigations that will take place  – provide the expert commentary. The passing of time and the application of more objective criteria will allow deeper insights to emerge, enabling us to learn from this crisis and apply that learning to the next such event.
Returning to decision-making, no matter how much information and analysis one has access to, leaders are called to make timely decisions. In this, I believe we can learn from General Eisenhower’s approach to one of the most difficult decisions of the 20th century.

The toughest decision of the 20th century?
On the evening of June 4, 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, chaired what has been called ‘one of the most important councils of war in military history’. Allied D-Day plans for Europe were in place, enormous amounts of equipment and people had been irreversibly committed to the task. The largest invasion force of all time was equipped and waiting.  Failure at this point would have set the Allied forces back years and perhaps changed the course of WWII.  Yet the weather in the English Channel was atrocious.  The purpose of this late evening meeting was to give the final ‘go – no go’ order upon which thousands of lives depended. After hearing the best available scientific weather forecasts and engaging in deep discussion it was now up to Eisenhower to make the final decision.

His biographer writes:

‘He (Eisenhower) was obliged to weigh not only the decision itself, but the longer-term impact.  There was utter silence in the room, the only sounds to be heard were the wind and rain pounding Southwick House.’ Beetle Smith, (an English General who attended the meeting), later wrote that he was awed by “the loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken with full knowledge that success or failure rests on his judgement alone.’’’ 

As history shows, Eisenhower rose to the challenge, took what proved to be the correct decision and the invasion commenced the next day. Another writer commented, ‘It was Eisenhower’s moment of trial – and he responded with what can only be called greatness.’ Some might say Eisenhower got lucky, but then luck follows the brave!

Analysis and synthesis
In common with many of today’s leaders, Eisenhower had available to him the very best information and analysis that money could provide – in this case, the combined might of the entire Allied war effort. Yet, no amount of data could actually take the decision for him. Eisenhower alone had to sift, weigh and synthesise the data and make the best judgement he could. That is what it is to be a Supreme Commander. This extreme example illustrates a key principle: analysis alone cannot create synthesis. As leader, Eisenhower’s role was to create a coherent whole from the parts presented to him, not break down the data into even smaller pieces in the hope that somehow the truth would spring forth from amongst the fragments.

Analysis is the process of systematically assembling and logically treating data and information so as to solve a problem or yield a result that is reasonable and defensible. Over time, the process of analysis has been codified into approaches that segment problems into manageable steps. The scientific method is one example of codified problem-solving, as are trademarked rationales such as ‘The McKinsey Way’ or the Microsoft software development process.

In contrast, synthesis has its origins in a Greek word that originally meant ‘to place together’. Great synthesisers seem to generate an instant conception of the whole and in the process ‘place the pieces together’ in imaginative and creative ways. Synthesis and intuition are closely related. Intuition is, according to scientist William Glaser, ‘a not fully self-conscious application of knowledge and experience.’ Originally, intuition referred to ‘spiritual insight’ from the Latin intueri which meant to ‘consider or contemplate’ or ‘to gaze upon attentively’. Good analysis is more of a science whereas synthesis, or intuition, is an art. Just because synthesis is an art it does not mean that it cannot be cultivated. Good musicians transition to greatness through ongoing practice and performance. 

Leaders get better at decision-making, including decision-making in a crisis, through taking timely decisions, not falling into inaction.
New ideas or options (intuitions) are often created in the subconscious when the brain is allowed to burble along in the background not while we are bombarded with reams of data. This is why bad decisions and poor judgement are rife during a crisis – the brain becomes overloaded. The art of good judgement in decision-making draws on both analysis and synthesis, on a capacity to understand the whole as well as constituent parts. Developing a capacity for good judgement requires us to systematically develop our imagination and draw on the imagination of others.  

Being our best selves in the current crisis
Like Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day, the greatest leadership challenges involve making effective judgements in the face of incomplete information and ambiguity. Great decision-makers learn to speedily weigh up data and analysis and move into synthesis.
Relatively few individuals will be major leadership players over the coming months, most people will only have an impact on immediate friends, business colleagues and family. For the latter group, in which I include myself, taking up the challenge of being our best selves in the current crisis requires us to make personal decisions as to where and how we can make positive a contribution. 

I ask two things of us all: firstly, that we each seek to lead as best we can wherever we find ourselves; and secondly, that we encourage and support those making the big, tough decisions. These women and men are human too.

Philip Pogson FAICD, March 2020

Philip has been a company director, Chair and business owner for more than 20 years. He consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors.