Before I studied applied behavioral science, I led data projects from multiple angles. I monitored the quality of data; analyzed data; determined data about data; built tools to house data; governed processes and budget around data infrastructure; managed teams that analyzed data; and, I lead accountability projects relating to data. Over the course of eight years, I witnessed data-driven decision making take over like a “fever.” Decisions, no matter how small, relied solely on what was argued to be objective information found in scorecards or survey data. Few problems were seen as adaptive challenges. Instead, most problems were viewed as technical and pre-defined. This happened around the same time Jack Welch became popular for evangelizing Six Sigma. The data-driven methodology for eliminating causes of defects follows a defined sequence of steps and has specific value targets, for example: reduce process cycle time, reduce pollution, reduce costs, increase customer satisfaction, and increase profits. Every group needed data and lots of it. Scorecards became popular. No manager made a decision without a scorecard. We were, essentially, distracted by and addicted to data.
How do heads of state, presidents of major philanthropic organizations, or CEOs make decisions?
Decision making comes down to feelings. The quality of our memory and the amount of information we can access help, but we tend to make choices and decisions based on feelings. Then we start to rationalize—to ourselves and others. It speaks to our vulnerability as human beings that for all the preparation, thought, intensity, and data we put toward choice, a real decision is delivered from the soul.
Whether a leader is strong or weak, or whether he or she initiates or avoids particular decisions, the same forces and factors shape those decisions. In his book, Decision-Making in the White House, Ted Sorensen argues that judgment is “absolutely the most essential element in presidential decision making (and) far more important than organization, structure, procedures, and machinery.”
All leaders must wield their power of influence under limitations. The larger their influence, the more extraordinary the constraints. It is the limitations that give the problem of choice of its complexity and even poignancy. Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt once remarked, “was a sad man because he couldn’t get it all at once. And nobody can.”
Leaders of major organizations have unique perspectives, immense pressures and high stakes. From my view, the work of such leaders is special but not unique. Appreciating that the scope of their mission is worlds apart from individual craftsmen, the dynamics leaders manage are the same ones that stone carvers, wood turners, metal sculptors—and practitioners in every demanding field manage every day of their working lives. If we overlook the universality of our mental processes, such as judging options, balancing tradeoffs, dealing with uncertainty, we overlook the fundamental capabilities of the human mind.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.