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Language

We have looked at the significance of language several times in this blog. We get used to ‘good’ words and phrases. Others we are conditioned to see in a perjorative sense. There are two excellent examples in Decision Making: “Sitting on the Fence” and “Making a U-Turn”. 

Everything I have learned about Decision Making tells me that making better decisions requires a positive approach (the ‘good’ word is “decisive”). But to make decisions better you have to plan meticulously and execute brilliantly. Part of the planning and analysis stage involves setting goals, developing options, and appraising them very carefully.

Executing a decision always requires flexibility. Look at just four obvious examples: 

  • Police work
  • Military campaigns
  • Sport
  • Medicine 

In all cases, carrying out a decision is an iterative process. 

I have warned earlier (16th May) about the early decision trap – confusing making policy and making a decision. I also emphasised on 26th May how important it is to carve thinking time out of a busy diary. Sceptics and gung ho merchants can criticise this strategic and painstaking approach, and say that the decision maker is sitting on the fence. My contention is that sitting on the fence is perfectly acceptable if it buys you time to get the decision right. 

Which brings me to a topical issue. The Coalition Government are under pressure from their political opponents for “making u-turns” on both NHS reform and Ken Clarke’s sentencing Green Paper. 

Whether or not you are an enthusiast for what seems to be consistent behaviour by this Government and its Labour predecessor in terms of rushing out policy and then testing public opinion, it appears to be the default setting. In those circumstances not to make a u-turn in the face of strong public disapproval would be perverse. People were clearly unhappy about GPs being effectively in charge of the NHS, and also about halving sentences for defendants making an early not guilty plea. The Government has in both cases changed its decision (or what we should probably call its ‘initial decision’), and for my money, should be praised for its pragmatism.

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The central tenet of Behavioural Economics is that people are motivated by a lot more things than just financial considerations. Yet how many decisions are announced with a financial spin, and little else? Closing down a factory will save so many millions. Launching a new product or expanding into a new market will make the company even more millions. Governments are as bad. Every policy announcement (and particularly the ones that have clearly been hastily cobbled together) carries a price tag. 

So yesterday’s announcement by GSK CEO Andrew Witty that they are offering to supply developing countries with an anti-diarrhoea vaccine at a discount of 95% on the market price in the west hit the headlines. Was this, as Mr Witty claimed, an example of CSR (corporate social responsibility) in action? Or is it, as Andrew Hill in the FT’s Business Blog said, CSV (creating shared value – as recommended by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, the founders of the FSG social impact consultancy)? Hill argues that for drug companies, tiered pricing makes commercial sense as well earning plaudits: 

  • You act philanthropically by supplying impoverished populations at or near cost price
  • You act commercially in mid-income countries by charging enough to build markets, but price competitively to expand volume
  • And you build in big margins in rich countries to fund your voracious R&D budget 

The motivation issue is really important in decision science. As individuals, families and parents we take a broader view than just financial self interest in terms of making decisions driven by considerations like life style, balance, health, education, enjoyment, culture and leisure. Equally the companies and organisations we tend to admire appear to respect employees, communities, and the environment in making their decisions. 

Also on the financial dimension we need to retain a balance sheet view of things (building and nurturing assets for the future), as well as the limiting short term view that annual accounting – or worse quarterly reporting in the US – dictate. 

As a footnote to yesterday’s GSK story, I listened to a radio interview with a heavy duty fund manager, who simply did not buy that any CEO who used the phrase “People before Profit” (as Witty allegedly did)could be taken seriously by their shareholders. “I can possibly understand ‘people as well as profit’ in certain circumstances”, said the fund manager, “but ‘people before profit’? Never.” 

It really is hard to take seriously any commentator saying that in 2011, when they have lived through a last 12 months in which dictatorships and mighty corporations have paid awesome penalties for decisions which put people last.

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There was some heartening news today. The Times reported on a study of the work habits of 94 CEOs of British, European and US companies. The researchers were from the LSE, the European University Institute and the Harvard Business School – so academically the findings should be unimpeachable. 

And the sources were reliable: the PAs of the CEOs. Arguably a PA has far more idea of what a CEO does than the man or woman in question.

So what did the survey reveal? Unsurprisingly that bosses spend 60% of their time in meetings. They clearly haven’t been reading this blog. Otherwise they would have worked out how futile some of these meetings are – particularly if anyone seriously believes that the meeting is going to lead to a decision. 

Conference and other telephone calls and the events and appearances that go with being a CEO accounted for a further 25%.

The remaining 15%? “Working alone”. What wonderful news. Our leadership elite actually carve out thinking time – as advocated on this URL (26th May). That will do far more to help them make better decisions, better than any number of meetings. When you think about it, 15% of your week is quite a lot. 

But before you all succumb to joy unconfined, there is a bit of information about this study that our friends at The Times underplayed, shall we say. All the CEOs were based in Italy! 

Does this study mean that ALL CEOs EVERYWHERE also spend 15% of their time in their offices? No evidence at all – until the researchers spread their wings and check out work patterns in London, Paris, Detroit etc.

A more interesting interpretation of the findings would be that this goes some way to explain why in recent years, Italian corporations have done rather well, and indeed why so many companies have turned to Italians for the top jobs.

What we now need is comparative data from elsewhere. We could even postulate a formula: 15% or more “working alone” is highly positive, while less than 15% is worrying and may lead to poorer performance.

Just one more thing in the piece worried me. Apparently consultants occupied nearly an hour a day of the “meetings” time. Yet the CEOs regarded this activity as largely unproductive. I do hope this seditious thinking doesn’t spread beyond Milan and Rome!

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In 1999 a business psychologist called Steve Kneeland wrote a slim and straightforward book called “Effective Problem-Solving.
How to Understand the Process and Practice It Successfully”
 

It is sad that so few people appear to have read the book, or made much of it. Why? Because I believe Kneeland crystallised one of the major issues in decision science: where problem-solving ends and decision making begins. Interpreting Kneeland, it goes like this: 

Problem solving

  • Is bridging the gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be
  • It is focused on the past
    • Usually analytical
    • Operational
    • Done at lower levels
  • Four questions to be asked about any problem:
    • What exactly is the problem?
    • How urgent is it?
    • How important is it?
    • Whose responsibility is it? 

Decision making…

  • Is a broader concept
  • It is the act of making a choice between two or more options
  • It is focused on the future
    • Often creative
    • Directional
    • Done at senior levels
  • Kneeland counsels not to ignore the ‘do nothing’ option, but warns that deciding not to decide has the full force of a decision
  • He also is wary about the ‘early decision’ – making a decision before it’s needed
  • He wisely wrote that it is never too late to change a decision. Changing your mind is not necessarily a sign of weakness 

Simple stuff, yes. But faced with endless problems, as we are, it is helpful to have some clear mantras to approach the grown up task of making decisions. Thank you, Steve.

 

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Inevitably we apply a value system to the language we use in the business world. Let’s try some basic categorisation: 

Good

  • Busy
  • Successful
  • Important
  • Decisive
  • Ruthless 

Bad

  • Not very busy
  • Doing quite well
  • Follower, not a leader
  • Open-minded
  • Easy going 

But that’s a view of the world through the eyes of alpha males and females, leaders, and those who aspire to lead. It also speaks volumes about the personality profiles of both the describer and the described. 

None of this is radical. We all know how our psychological make-up affects behaviour, and how we are perceived. Belbin and others have used the insights tellingly to create balanced teams with a higher than average chance of success. 

What worries me is what I believe to be the most obvious casualty of the ethic that is characterised by being (or being seen to be) mega-busy, multi-tasking, and rushing about: having no time to think. 

You can draw simple pie charts for yourself, colleagues, bosses, direct reports, anybody; dividing each day into thinking and doing. Am I wrong, or is there a drastic doing over thinking imbalance in the executive workplace these days? 

I see even in the best companies (especially in the best companies) two dangerous trends emerging. The first trend shows itself as an over-reliance on meetings Here are some of the warning signs:

Too many meetings…

  • …which rob everyone of thinking and analysis time
  • Too many people at the meetings…
  • …with the result that attendees are trying so hard to get in a word edgeways, that they are not listening to what others are saying
  • Too little time spent setting the agenda for these meetings
  • Too little attention to recording what action is required from whom after these meetings
  • Worrying about not being at a meeting. You can’t think if you’re always in meetings 

Trend #2 is about communication – and particularly about computers and mobile devices. Watch out for:

  • Spending too much time sending emails and texts
  • Being over-reactive in terms of putting a priority on answering every email and text you receive
  • Devoting potentially productive time to social networking sites
  • Times when you use email and text to avoid speaking to someone and risking reaction and debate
  • Times when you’re more concerned to engage with people remotely than with people around you
  • Worrying about being out of touch. Switch it off! 

Thinking time is food. It’s fuel. It’s an investment in problem solving and decision making. It’s priceless.

 

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Poor old Dominique Strauss-Kahn. If it hadn’t been for his indiscretion (entrapment?) in the New York Sofitel, most of us would never have picked up the French expression ‘lapin chaud’, meaning a priapic man. I think Hot Rabbit sounds good (even though it’s probably politically incorrect to say so), and I have been researching some more French slang in the hope that I can persuade you to use the literal English back translation. Here goes: 

  • To sing like a casserole (out of tune)
  • To speak French like a Spanish cow (not very well)
  • To get up at milkman time (early)
  • Go and boil an egg (get stuffed) 

It’s rather sweet that in Paris they say ‘capote anglaise’ for a French letter, and ‘filer a l’anglaise’ for taking French leave. All part of the rosbifs/frogs stand off, I guess. 

I was hopeful of finding the female equivalent of hot rabbit, but it apparently doesn’t exist. But if a Frenchwoman tells you ‘je suis chaud’, rather than ‘j’ai chaud’, she’s not talking about the temperature. 

Rather in the same vein, I’ve long felt we could do with anglicising American sporting/business clichés. ‘Stepping up to the plate’ isn’t about sitting down to dinner. It’s a baseball term meaning the batter is getting ready to hit. Maybe ‘taking a penalty’ or ‘taking strike’ would work. I confess I didn’t know that the wretched phrase ‘ballpark figure’ is derived from arriving at the baseball stadium and not having found your seat. So it came to mean only an approximate location. How about ‘Old Trafford figure’? It has a ring to it, and quite appropriate in that it’s about as close as the Glazers will get to knowing what’s going on. 

Plenty of food for thought. I would love to hear your examples. Meanwhile boys, unless you want to come across Fiona Shackleton in court, I would advise fricasseeing your rabbit or cooking it in red wine.

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