Tuesday, May 03, 2011

High-Level Decision Making Under Pressure

Today's a big day.  The USA announced that Osama bin Laden had finally been killed in Pakistan.  OK, that was actually yesterday, technically.  But this post is not about Osama and the USA's war on terror. It just triggered me to finally write the post I've been wanting to write.

Currently, I'm reading George Bush's autobiography, Decision Points.  I didn't know what to make of his presidency, given that it was filled with so much controversy.  I did always believe that after 9/11, he had to step into a situation he could not expect when he campaigned to become president.  I thus became quite interested in learning about how he led, as I came across many people I respect who admired his leadership style, whether or not they agreed with his policies.  I do believe that he had one of the more complicated presidential terms in recent history.

One driving thought has shaped my ideas about senior-level decision-making over the years.  That thought became crystallized through a conversation with my friend (a current Googler), when I asked him his thoughts on the infamous blog post regarding Google engineering management mistakes.  He made specific points about slide #13.  Here's my chat transcript:
Testimonials from high level engineers were over-valued.
Testimonials from lower level engineers frequently ignored or under-valued.

there's a lot of truth in what he says

no denying it

but its to prevent false positives

lower level engineers really have no idea what a higher level job looks like

it's a sad truth

It is a sad truth.  People usually only see what goes on at their own level, but hardly ever see what goes on in the big picture.  A lot of the big picture is hidden due to the nature of communications, operations, and outright complexity.  Often, it's not that senior folks want to hide what's happening from the common folk, it's just that there is literally no opportunity to communicate and explain what's happening and what needs to happen.  And in fact, if they try, suboptimal decisions get made (inefficiently at that) due to too many chefs in the kitchen trying to placate everyone.  Your precious lamb stew becomes gunk.  This is why common citizens may have no clue what they are talking about when they criticize their political leaders, and likewise common employees when they criticize their executives.  On the other hand, it's the common folk who are on the ground and experiencing many things firsthand, so if it's working, they'd be able to say so; if it's not working, they'd be able to say so.  People on the ground have the ability to give feedback, make criticism, and generate ideas, but not necessarily to make decisions.  Due to things like Dunning-Kruger Effect, many lower-level folk actually suck at making decisions.

I'll never forget that statement when I was interviewing for a venue technology manager position at the Olympics:  "Well, it's obviously we have a pretty smart guy here in front of us.  We're just trying to figure out if you can do the job."

Huh?  It was only later that I understood what the interviewer was saying.  This role was for owning all technology aspects of Olympic venue operations.  Large diverse team, world watching on TV, many important stakeholders, lot of responsibility.  Who knows why they hired me, but I was glad to get the experience.  Senior positions require a large mix of skills, most of which can only be executed well by those with quality experience.  The key term there is quality.  Someone who has 20 years experience as a political aide may quite possibly not have the skills required to become a head of state.  Someone who has 20 years experience as a manager may quite possibly not have the skills required to become an executive; in fact most definitely not.  Etcetera.  You want to see experience in key difficult and complex situations, as well as a clear progression of personal growth and track record of getting things done.  Among other things.

So my telecom manager took me to school.  I was the guy's boss, but he had been through the wars and had a wealth of wisdom, whereas I was clearly a rookie.  After a technical rehearsal exercise turned into a disaster, he sat me down and said, "This is how you make tough decisions in crisis situations.  Kick everyone out of the room except for your key leaders.  Get a summary of the situation from them, get them to tell you what are the options and their advised recommendations, and then make your decision.  But kick everyone else out of the room.  My job is to know my operation well enough to get you the information you need to make the correct decision.  You leave that part to me."  I had done the exact opposite.  Wanting to create a sense of integrated teamwork and wanting expertise from every level, I involved everyone in the decision.  From the lowest tech to the highest manager from every area of my technology team, we had a long extensive discussion that resulted in a lot of confusion and created a disaster. I learned a lot that day and was thankful that it was only a rehearsal.

It's quite interesting to see how many of Bush's own decisions reflected this same style; he hardly ever made knee-jerk decisions, always relied on his key leaders and advisors for input, and sometimes even created entire detailed and lengthy processes to make particularly difficult decisions that didn't need immediate resolution (like the question of releasing funds for stem cell research, where his final decision appeared to actually be quite balanced).

People screw up under pressure, especially if they're inexperienced.  Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent summary on the topic in his book Blink, where he discusses the story of how New York cops shot up an innocent man because they misjudged the situation.  Gladwell learned through discussions with leading psychologists that in high-pressure situations, the mind apparently freezes up and the body reroutes all resources to focus on immediate survival.  Consequently, decision-making is impaired because the brain essentially becomes autistic, unable to perceive common social signals and facial expressions, which is how the cops mistook an innocent guy reaching for his ID to be a thug reaching for a gun.  The only thing to counter this deer-caught-in-headlights phenomenon is to get experience.  That's why a certain security firm interviewed by Gladwell actually puts new employees through simulations of getting shot.  That's also partly why we had a technical rehearsal at the Olympics.  And that's why training is so important, even though many don't value it as much as they should (admittedly, a lot of training programs out there unfortunately suck for many fields).

For the big leaders at the top, I can only imagine you have to get whatever experience you can because you'll probably never beforehand experience anything like what you will experience once you become the real big cheese.  Unfortunate things happen when Dunning-Kruger Effect comes into play and someone tries to get a promotion for which they're not ready (and somehow successfully pulls the wool over everyone's eyes in the process).  I've seen it happen and have worked alongside those people.  Heck, I've been that guy before.  It's an admittedly difficult complex process to identify people who can handle the next level.  Especially for the first jump from worker bee to management.  You're taking people who were awesome accountants, and suddenly asking them to manage people instead of crunch numbers and audit clients.  That's a tad different skillset.

But for those quality people who are the real deal, experience is what will set them apart when it comes to making good decisions in pressure cooker situations.  Think this guy could have landed that plane on that river without all the training and experience he had?  Experienced people also usually have the added benefit of having made many mistakes.  Quality folk learn from their mistakes and are better people due to those mistakes.  It's a survivorship bias, but that's what you need if you want to reduce risk for high-pressure senior positions.  It's like how my brother explains action movie characters to my mom.  In action movies, the main character is the main character because he didn't die.  But in senior positions, the fact that one doesn't die counts for something.  It instills confidence.  I cannot express enough how my experience at the Olympics makes me confident to face any situation as a project manager or IT manager.  It was arguably the worst venue ever due to environmental, technical, and operational issues beyond our control, and seeing how I survived that (though not unscathed) tells me I can survive almost anything a job or life could throw at me.  It's easy to look a deadline in the eye now and stay calm, even if I know that I'll miss it and a lot of people will be upset.  Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches, though you do everything you can to not get to that point.

My main point is that most senior leaders probably become senior leaders because they're qualified and have demonstrated worthiness to hold those positions.  Of course, you'll find a false positive in the mix every now and then.  But when you criticize a senior leader, especially the top leader, you should realize that you, me, and most people out there, more often than not would not do a better job.  We can provide our feedback, criticisms, and ideas, but senior leaders have to make decisions with far-reaching consequences that are not even on the radar at our level.  They make those decisions to the best of their ability with information we don't even know exists, assuming that they care.  And many of them do care.  Am I just being too idealistic on that point?

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