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Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Art of Little Decisions

I understand about indecision
But I don’t care if I get behind . . .
All I want is to have my peace of mind.

                                                         --Peace of Mind, Boston

         The song by the group Boston is devoted to cool-it advice for folks clawing their way up the corporate ladder. For me, though, the lines about indecision never fail to trigger a personal rerun of emotional horror.     
     It’s about my introduction to the news editor job on a newspaper many decades ago. I got behind every day, and I cared a lot. I nearly died of indecision.
     The daily workload would escalate over three or four hours from an utterly empty beginning and nothing to work with . . . to an onslaught of stuff from the wire, the local area and the region. Demands would pile up, alarmingly, every day.
     Managing the rush called for detailed, rapid and overlapping decisions about editing, content, placement, priorities, and who knows what else. I wanted to make good decisions, but I didn’t know how. I would keep setting items aside, hoping for some moment at which all would become clear.
     It never did, of course.

     Deadline was a brutal inevitability, and whatever was somewhere in the pipeline at off-the-floor time was what would be pushed out, published for thousands of my neighbors to read and judge.
     Needless to say, much of the material was not ready for that, and some of it -- hurriedly edited or edited not much at all – would be plunked into the paper wherever some page make-up man in the back room found a hole.
     Everyone in the newsroom was too busy to help, and I was in that chair in the first place because the guy who knew the job was out sick. Somebody had to do it.
     I botched it every day for what seemed an eternity.
     Why did I do that? What was the holdup?
     How about this for some insight: Thomas Jefferson, writing to John Adams in 1816, referred to “gloomy and hypochondriac minds . . . despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen.”

     That was it. I was acting as if anything I did was more than likely to be wrong . . . and my inaction ensured that very outcome.
     Jefferson was disgusted by such an attitude:
     “To these I say, how much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!”
     Evils that never happened! He was on to something. 
     At the news desk, as I sat dithering, shuffling paper at the crossroads of production, I wasn’t in fear of specific evils. I was just paralyzed by a general dread of making mistakes in judgment that would draw criticism (ridicule?) from my fellow newspeople, my friends and everyone else in the universe.
     I didn’t know what to do. I was panicked, and you don’t learn anything when you’re in a panic state. You can’t make good decisions, either. I was so afraid of making bad decisions that I wasn’t making many decisions at all.
     It did get better after a few turns in the slot, but I never was there long enough to really get a grip on the job.

     It wasn’t just the job I didn’t know. There is an underlying skill I lacked – didn’t even know existed. That skill, that art, is what to do when you don’t know what to do. It’s essential for anyone who must be decisive in difficult circumstances. It is Risk Management, a central function of Project Management.
     It’s based on reality. See, when something has to be decided right now, and there is insufficient information, any decision you make will not do the job. It won’t solve the problem and it won’t settle the issue. But it can inch you toward a successful outcome.
     So you make carefully limited decisions you know will earn you the information you need, but only in tiny drabs at first.
     The very first ones don’t move things forward much, but none of them can cause serious damage. Each successive decision is bolder, because now you have an increasingly larger, more solid base of knowledge to work with.
    When time is short, this inevitably means you aren’t going to produce excellence. But hey – this is no time or place for the perfection problem.

     In practical terms, I needed to understand something. When you’re in combat, all decisions are not equal. You need to do something . . . now! Something more likely to be constructive than not. If I had done it early enough, I’d have had time and context to fix it later.
     All I needed to do at the newspaper back then was to get an adequate product out . . . on time. For the first few days. Then, following the risk management approach, each day’s paper would be better edited, more thoughtfully designed and more efficiently produced.
          At the start of the day, it would mean exploiting the lower volume of early decisions by making each one quickly – evaluating stories, picking reasonably likely spots and placing the completed pieces there. Some of those decisions would later require reversal or revision, but most would not.
     There would be little or no late rush, so there would be time on the clock and clarity in the head to make good decisions.
     This whole pattern had to start with the understanding that poor decisions are not a problem when they are made early.

     It was disastrous to leave all potential decisions – undifferentiated as to importance – up in the air. Nailing down the primary one, in this case timely production, is the first step in priority management.
     Putting on-time performance on top makes excellence secondary, unfortunately. While quality must be a constant consideration, it must contest with possibility. It becomes relative in the process of navigating crisis. Achieving what you can is preferable to pursuing the gold ring to the point of becoming a splat on the wall.  
     We didn’t balance those judgments in my newspaper example because we never thought of it. Every day we just backed up and rammed the same wobbly reed – myself – up against the same uncontrolled avalanche.
     While improvement eventually came, simply through experience, the whole episode was vastly costlier and more damaging than it should have been.  
     The news-desk tale is something of an index to the mindset of a lifetime. Making decisions can be hard. Some require extensive homework and others call for courage and still others suggest a long grind for an uncertain payoff.

     It is so much easier to allow decisions to make themselves. Well . . . they don’t, you know. Other people make them for you, or the accidents of circumstance and happenstance determine what happens to you.
     When you command the process yourself, no matter how good the result and what the price, the sense of satisfaction has no equal.
     So I now understand about indecision, in ways I didn’t over much of my early career.
     It froze me out of decision-making on countless occasions.
     Now I know you can nail it to the ground with little decisions, sort of as the Lilliputians did to Gulliver. Lots of small strands combine to provide control.
     And thanks, Boston, for the line about peace of mind. I enjoy some of that peace now . . . except when I summon up the memory of those long-ago days on the news desk.

Why do we procrastinate? I have lots of answers to that question. I’ll bet you do, too. Let’s trade. Reveal yours in the comment section below.

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