Tag Archives: Decision-making

The Fallacy of Worst Case Scenarios

Hurricane Sandy has led to some pretty foolish thinking. Just the other night some high school classmates were involved in some dreary silliness on Facebook about what might have caused Noah’s flood. One, a proud climate change denier and I’m sure strong Christian, opined that perhaps global warming back then was caused by dinosaur farts. (I told you it was dreary.)

Hard to take that conversation seriously but there are other statements in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that strike me almost as inane. Several times I’ve heard officials say some version of “no one thought something like this could happen.” What a strange excuse that! First, of course, the Discovery and National Geographic channels have made some decent money the past decade entertaining disaster groupies with exactly how something like this could happen. Second, anticipatory thinking is an essential element of managing and leading. If you can’t generate vision well at least you might be able to anticipate.

So I think what people really mean  by that statement is that no one wanted to think about the scenario that just happened. No doubt they put it in the category of Worst Case scenario. Once you assign a possible event to the category of worst case scenario you are at risk of succumbing to a dangerous fallacy, one I saw with some regularity in government. To wit: the assumption that “worst case scenario” and “unlikely” are synonyms.

Think back on some of the meetings you’ve attended. Some Cassandra in the room starts warning of a frightful worst case scenario. Some other person, determined to avoid excess ruffling, says: “Oh you’re overreacting. That’s just a worst case scenario!” What they are also saying, of course, is “that’s very unlikely.”

(I am reminded here of something I once heard former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates say. Because he was a notorious “worst case” thinker he was often accused of being a Cassandra–the prophet who predicted the fall of Troy. At which point he would remind us that “Cassandra was right!”)

Severity of impact and likelihood are independent variables. It is entirely possible for a worst case scenario to be quite feasible, if not even probable. But the conflation of worst case with unlikely is quite common and potentially catastrophic. Unfortunately, things that we find unimaginable have a nasty way of becoming inevitable.

I imagine another factor was at play here, one for which I find more sympathy. When they say that they didn’t think something like Hurricane Sandy could happen, what they also might mean is that they didn’t believe the threat was likely enough to justify taking expensive preventative actions given other budget priorities. This strikes me as a much more honest statement and reflects a judgment that public officials must make on a regular basis. Nevertheless, consideration of “likelihood” must still be made independently of any other variable. We humans have a tendency to think we are bulletproof and to assume that bad things are unlikely to happen to us. When in fact the art of living, of government, of leadership in any sector is best captured by how well we deal with calamities.
For those who can, I am linking here to the donation form for AmeriCares, a charity I myself support.

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Sentiment and Leadership are a Necessary Partnership, Like Water and Flour

A couple of Sunday morning metaphors, one illuminates why change is hard.  The second is Lessons from a CIA Manager #23: Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough.

I actually just posted some quick words over at RebelsatWork.com on why rebels need to stop advertising themselves as destroyers of the status quo. By making that your focus, you risk confusing the means with the ends. But you can read more about that here.

In that piece I used some garden metaphors to describe the more subtle relationship between forward change and the status quo. And I was reminded of what people say about home remodeling. Builders always say it is easier and cheaper to build a new home from scratch than it is to remodel extensively an existing structure. And they’re right. Making structural changes while retaining that which is good or necessary of what already exists has got to be just about the hardest of organizational activities. But sometimes that’s the only path that’s available to you as a rebel.

  • To build a new business from scratch you have to stop doing the work and providing the services that presumably people still need. A non-starter.
  • To gain enough backing to start making at least some of the necessary changes, you have to take into consideration the views of those who love the organization and its culture in a Billy Joel kind of way or Bruno Mars. Unless you can figure out how to fire them all, or transport them to a parallel universe, you have to make change happen with the talent you already have.

Second Metaphor. Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough. Here I was inspired by a tweet this morning in the regular Sunday morning tweetchat #spiritchat .

Too much compassion w/o healthy detachment from another’s processes leads to compassion fatigue #spiritchat

 It’s from Debra Reble. (now that’s a cool last name.) And it reminded me of the difficulty I had in senior positions trying to reconcile the desire to be compassionate with the larger responsibilities of leadership. The last ten years or so of my Agency career I actually had an articulated goal of being MEANER, although a coach I worked with convinced me to think of it as becoming more powerful. (That was helpful.) I thought of it as being less sentimental, not having less compassion. But it’s the same thing. I recognized that my responsibilities to a broader group of people meant I sometimes had to take actions or make decisions that were harmful to an individual, perhaps even someone who was a good friend. (You can justify your actions by saying that you are promoting a greater good, but really, are we that confident of the causality between our actions and desirable outcomes? I’m not.)
But the answer I learned was that you can’t abandon compassion/sentiment. You have to balance them constantly against the demands of management like you need to balance water and flour in a dough. Water makes the dough stickier; flour makes it less so. And anyone who has made any pastry or pizza crust from scratch knows that its’s a process of constant adjustment. There is no school solution. It’s all in knowing the feel of the dough in your hands. And only experience will enable you to translate that tactile feel into knowledge for making better decisions and interventions.
Too much compassion without detachment from your personal attachments leads to decision mistakes.
Too much leadership without compassion for human realities leads to group misery.

Why Decisions are Like One-Night Stands, or Lesson 2

In my posting on Lessons from a CIA manager, Lesson 2 was:  “Remember, your decisions are going to have much less staying power than you’re expecting them to have. Decisions are not committed relationships; they are more like one-night stands.” As perhaps this analogy is not eminently or even imminently clear, it deserves some elucidation.

(Writing the word elucidation above, fine Norman English word if there ever was one, reminded me of the distinction between Anglo-Saxon English and Norman English, of which I learned while I lived in London in the early 90s. When William the Conqueror and the other Normans (i.e. French) invaded England in the 11th century, they brought their Latinate language with them. It promptly began to mix it up with the more Germanic/Norse language of the locals, which is one of the reasons why English is such a rich language, with many more synonyms than most others. We have Anglo-Saxon words, such as start, and Norman/Latinate words such as commence. And because the Normans were the conquerors and the Anglo-Saxons the losers, society began to associate or, to use the A/S word, link Norman English with the better, higher class of people. And to this day, many of us slip into Norman English, i.e. use long, fancy words, when we want to impress with our intelligence, or A/S word smarts. But, I digress…)

Much is made of decision-making. And as my responsibilities grew over the years, I began to appreciate the importance of making decisions promptly. I believe that nothing gums up an organization more than interminably-delayed decisions. Even bad decisions are to be preferred over no decisions because, unless they are nihilistically-awful, any decision at least keeps people moving in an organization, which is always preferable to being stopped dead in one’s tracks. It is simply a matter of physics: it is easier to be agile and quick if you’re already in motion. It requires less energy than getting going from a dead start. This is Lesson 18.

It is important, however, to think of decisions as temporal, even fleeting things. Too many individuals and the media these days think of decisions as these EXTREMELY IMPORTANT EVENTS that will have a permance that merits people like WOLF BLITZER talking about them in BASSO OSTINATO tones. Just flash back to the interminable coverage of the Afghanistan decision made by President Obama late last year. The world we live in today has become so fluid and complex that I actually have come to believe it is counterproductive to think of decisions as having much permanence at all. They need to be made but, even more important, they need to be constantly reconsidered. Hence, the analogy: are decisions one-night stands or are they committed relationships? Well, actually most are probably neither–they fall somewhere in between. But the dynamics of our era continues to shorten their lifespans.

I wrote on this issue about year ago in a piece that was published in Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s professional journal. In the piece I was mostly discussing the learnings intelligence officers could draw from the economic crisis, but I also touched upon the delusion that our decisions are or should be permanent or longlasting. The folowing chart was included in the piece.

Decisions are clear because the world is:
straightforward enough to understand
in this world we need intelligence


Decisions are fluid because the world is:
not predictable
outside the control of humans
too complex for rules
in this world we need sense-making

Editorial note: Given that I am unlikely to stop myself from including the occasional, bordering-on-long tangent in my postings, I will delineate them with green text, so the reader can just jump right over them.