Thursday, 23 January 2014

Don't get emotional about strategy

Some time ago, a London friend of mine in was diagnosed with a severe medical condition, which required urgent yet complex surgery. The condition is rare but, fortunately, there appeared to be several specialists both in Germany and France who had each treated hundreds of cases during their careers. When it comes to specialist operations, experience is key, so he was going to visit each of them and then make a decision.
However, when I spoke to him again, he had just decided where he was going to have the operation: in the hospital in his hometown in Spain. I was surprised; there was no specialist in that hospital. But he explained to me that he had flown to his home country for another opinion and that the local surgeon had made a good impression and was very pleasant. Moreover – he added – after the surgery, he would have to stay in the hospital for two weeks and it would be nice to do that near his family.

I was stunned. My friend is a rational guy, in charge of a large company.  I have no doubt that, if he had been making this decision for me, he would have immediately recommended me to go to one of the real specialists, wherever they were in the world. He would have told me that where I would spend the two weeks in a hospital bed and whether the surgeon was a good conversationalist are quite immaterial. But, when making this important decision for himself, emotional considerations took over. And unfortunately, the initial operation was not successful, and my friend ended up having to travel abroad to see one of the specialists anyway.

And many of us would make the same irrational decision, with the same troubling consequences. Whether it’s a personal choice or a strategic business decision, emotions often crowd out objectivity. Precisely because they are such important choices, loaded with anxiety and uncertainty, when faced with a major decision people start to “follow their heart”, “rely on intuition” and “gut feeling”, overestimate their chances of success, and let their commitment escalate.

Good leaders don’t let their emotional bonds  cloud their judgment. Sound leadership requires objectivity. What can executives do to remain objective, when it comes to strategic choices: what businesses to enter, what to focus on and invest in, when to pull the plug and abandon a previous course of action?

Make decision rules beforehand. One way is to develop and set a clear decision rule beforehand, when there is nothing concrete to decide upon yet. When Intel was still a company focused on producing memory chips, Stanford professor Robert Burgelman documented that CEO Gordon Moore had emotional trouble abandoning this product, which was losing them money, because it “had made the company” (famously declaring “but, that would be like Ford getting out of cars!?”), in favor of the much more profitable microprocessors. Yet, the change happened, because they relied on their so-called “production capacity allocation rule”.

Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, well before this actual dilemma became relevant, had put together a formula – the production capacity allocation rule – to decide what products would receive priority in their manufacturing plant. When top management had emotional difficulty deciding to abandon memory chips, microprocessors were automatically receiving more production capacity anyway, because middle managers sturdily followed the rule that they had been given before. Because top management had made the decision what sort of product should receive production priority well before it became a concrete issue, the strategic choice became detached from their emotion of the moment.

Tap into the wisdom of your crowd. A second method to depersonalize difficult decisions is to not leave pivotal choices in the hands of one or just a few individuals – usually top managers – but, instead, to tap into the wisdom of the company’s internal crowd. When I asked Tony Cohen – the previous CEO of television producer Fremantle Media, of programs such as the X-factor, American Idol, Family Feud, and The Price is Right – how he decided what new programs to invest in he replied “I don’t make that decision”. He resisted making such crucial investment decisions himself; instead he designed an internal system that identified the most promising ideas, by tapping into the collective opinion of his television executives across the world.

For example, every year, he organized the “Fremantle Market”; an internal meeting in London where Fremantle executives from all over the world presented their new ideas (usually in the form of a trail episode). Subsequently, an internal licensing system made sure that prototype programs that many of them liked automatically got funded. A particular idea that hardly any of them believed in would not receive any investment – even if Tony Cohen happened to like the idea himself. This way, the decision did not rest in the hands of any individual; no matter how senior.

The revolving door approach. Finally, a valuable technique is to explicitly adopt an outside perspective. Andy Grove, regarding his debates with Gordon Moore whether to abandon DRAMs, said “I recall going to see Gordon and asking him what a new management would do if we were replaced. The answer was clear: Get out of DRAMs. So I suggested to Gordon that we go through the revolving door, come back in, and just do it ourselves.”  Taking the perspective of an outsider – a new CEO, private equity firm, or turnaround manager – can help see things more clearly. Research shows, for example, that people are very bad at estimating the time it will take for them to complete a project (e.g., write an assignment; refurbish a house) but they are good at estimating it for someone else. Asking them to take a third-person perspective has been shown to help objectivize a process, making someone’s judgment more accurate and realistic.

When making important strategic decisions, which are going to decide our faiths and those of our organizations, it is important to not let emotions and personal preferences cloud our judgment. Emotional commitment can be good, but not if it gets in the way of sound decision-making. Depersonalizing decisionmaking can sound cold or aloof, but it’s the best way to ensure a better outcome, for ourselves and our companies. 

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