Leaders like to be deciders. Most leaders think of themselves as decision makers. In 2006 President George Bush, defending Donald Rumsfeld as his Defense Secretary said “I am the Decider. I decide what’s best.” It earned him the nickname “Decider-in-Chief.” Most CEOs echo this sentiment. Most leaders like to define themselves by their decisions.
But whether a decision is good or not is open to interpretation. Often immediately after a decision things may look great. It might appear as if that decision was obvious. And often decisions quickly make a lot of people happy.
As we enter the most intense part of the U.S. presidential election, both candidates are eager to tell potential voters what decisions they have made – and what decisions they will make if elected. And most people will look no further than the immediate expected impact of those decisions.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File
It takes time to determine the quality of any decision.
However, the quality of most decisions is not based on the immediate, or obvious, first implications. Rather, the quality of a decision is discovered over time, as the consequences are revealed – intended and unintended. Because quite often, what looked good at first can turn out to be very, very bad.
The people of North Carolina passed a law to control the use of public bathrooms. Most people of the state thought this was a good idea, including the governor. But some didn’t like the law, and many spoke up. Last week the NBA decided that it would cancel its All-Star game scheduled in Charlotte due to discrimination issues caused by this law. This change will cost Charlotte about $100 million.
That action by the NBA is what’s called unintended consequences
. Lawmakers didn’t really consider that the NBA might decide to take its business
elsewhere due to this state legislation. It’s what some people call, “Oops. I didn’t think about that
when I made my decision.”
Often unintended consequences are more important than first reactions to decisions.
Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, was a staunch supporter of unions. In his book Locked in the Cabinet, he tells the story of visiting an auto plant in Oklahoma supporting the local union. He thought his support would incent the company’s leaders to negotiate more favorably. Instead, the company closed the plant. Laid-off everyone. Oops. The unintended consequences of what he thought was obvious support led to the worst possible worker outcome.
President Obama worked Congress hard to create the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, for everyone in America. One intention was to make sure employers covered all their workers, so the law required that if an employer had health care for any workers he had to offer that health care to all employees who worked over 30 hours per week. So almost all employers of part time workers suddenly said that none could work more than 30 hours. Those that worked 32 (four days per week) or 36 suddenly had their hours cut. Now those lower-income people not only had no health care, but less money in their pay envelopes. Oops. Unintended consequence.
President Reagan and his First Lady launched the “War on Drugs.” How could that be a bad thing? Illegal drugs are dangerous, as is the supply chain. But now, some 30 years later, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that almost half (46.3% or over 85,000) of inmates are there on drug charges. The U.S. now spends $51 billion annually on this drug war, which is about 20% more than is spent on the real war being waged with Afghanistan, Iraq and ISIS. There are now over 1.5 million arrests each year, with 83% of those merely for possession. Oops. Unintended consequences. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
This is why it is so important leaders take their time to make thoughtful decisions, often with the input of many other people. Because the quality of a decision is not measured by how one views it immediately. Rather, the value is decided over time as the opportunity arises to observe the unintended consequences, and their impact. The best decisions are those in which the future consequences are identified, discussed and made part of the planning – so they aren’t unintended and the “decider” isn’t running around saying “oops.”
Think hard about the long-term complications of any decision.
As you listen to the politicians this cycle, keep in mind what could be the unintended consequences of implementing what they say:
- What would be the social impact, and transfer of wealth, from suddenly forgiving all student loans?
- What would be the consequences on trade, and jobs, of not supporting historical government trade agreements?
- What would be the consequences on national security of not supporting historically allied governments?
- What would be the long-term consequence of not allowing visitors based on race, religion or sexual orientation?
- What would be the consequence of not repaying the government’s bonds?
- What would be the long-term impact on economic growth of higher regulations on banks – that already have seen dramatic increases in regulation slowing the recovery?
- What would be the long-term consequences on food production, housing and lifestyles of failing to address global warming?
Business leaders should be very aware of the long-term consequences of their decisions. Every time a decision is necessary, is the best effort made to obtain all the information available on the topic? Are inputs and expectations obtained from detractors, as well as admirers? Is there a balance between not only what is popular, but what will happen months into the future? Did you consider the potential reaction by customers? Employees? Suppliers? Competitors?
There are very few “perfect decisions.” All decisions have consequences. Often, there is a trade-off between the good outcomes, and the bad outcomes. But the key is to know them all, and balance the interests and outcomes. Consider the consequences, good and bad, and plan for them. Only by doing that can you avoid later saying “oops.”
As I write this in 2016, Hurricane Matthew is crashing into Daytona Beach. It is a monster storm, and far from over. But there already is a great lesson we can learn.
Shockingly, after passing nearly half of Florida, including densely populated areas like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, only one person has died. Even as northeastern Florida awaits Matthew’s fury, damage assessments are underway in south Florida. Even though 600,000 homes are without power, utility companies are already restoring power to over 50,000 homes, and that number is growing. The Florida highway system is open, with all roads passable and people are able to reach safety, while realistically expecting they may soon be able to return to their homes. By all accounts, damage is considerable. Yet, few lives were lost and repair is already underway – long before the storm is ending.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The lesson here is that scenario planning is incredibly valuable. Florida’s leaders have been preparing for this storm for years. The many agencies, federal, state, county and municipal, built their scenarios, and prepared action plans. They talked about “what if” various things happened, and thought through the impacts – and actions they would take.
The result is a remarkable demonstration of capability and leadership. Even as the storm progresses, continuing to put more people in harm’s way, the leaders are simultaneously helping those folks prepare and beginning the recovery for those dealing with Matthew’s aftermath.
Then, there’s Brexit. The British currency has fallen to 30-plus year lows. This morning a “flash crash” happened with the currency falling 10% in minutes. Even though the pound recovered much of that loss, the crash left traders and those who do international business shaken. This was just the latest reaction to the British vote to exit the EU.
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
This week people in all parts of the international business community were trying to figure out how to react to Prime Minister May’s speech saying Britain would seek a “hard exit.” This seems to imply a faster, more drastic break from Europe. But as David Buik, market commentator at Panmure Gordon & Co. said, “The media decided very quickly what interpretation to put on the term ‘hard Brexit,’ when most of us are none the wiser as to what Brexit means yet.”
The key word here is “reacting.” It is clear that almost nobody had any plans for undertaking Britain’s departure from the EU, even as the effort to create a vote, and implement a vote, occurred. While there was a lot of talk, nobody in government or business had a plan for what to do if the vote to leave actually passed. Now everyone is reacting, and the consequences are significant fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD), and wild swings in everything from currency values to equity values and even real estate.
Proper scenario planning separates leaders from wanna-bes, and winners from losers. Those who consider what might happen, and prepare for events, inevitably do far, far better than those who react. Lacking a preparedness plan, based on careful consideration of “what-ifs,” it is impossible to implement good decision-making, because you have no idea what markers, or metrics, to watch – and no idea of what actions to take as those metrics vary.
I observed a scenario-planning meeting where the head of planning was asking questions – “what-if…regulations go in this direction…technology accomplishes this level of performance…customer adoption of a substitute increase.” After a series of these propositions were discussed, the CEO said “This seems to be a waste of time. We don’t know what will happen. What if pigs could fly?” Given a lack of facts about the future, he proposed building a future plan based upon the market as it existed at the time, and reacting to changes only after they occurred.
The planning lead responded, “Whether or not pigs will fly has very little to do with the future performance of our company. And that is why we aren’t discussing flying pigs. These variables in the scenarios could have a major impact on future performance, and if we prepare for them we most likely will improve competitiveness, sales and profits.”
Scenario planning is not a wild exercise of imaginary happenings. Scenario planning uses known trends to identify key variables which can be measured. By looking forward on the trend, it is possible to predict possible outcomes – and prepare.
For example, famously, the leadership of Apple in 2000 looked at the trend toward high-speed internet implementation, including WiFi. They started tracking high-speed implementation, and realized that as bandwidth expanded and improved the desire to work on-line would grow as well. They began preparing products for much greater on-line use (iMac) and products based on widely available, low cost internet access. The result was a shift from near bankruptcy to the most valuable traded equity in America in just one decade.
Planning systems are biased toward using historical data, and do not consider big changes. Leadership must constantly fight the urge to assume the future will look like the past, and invest time building scenario plans. Building the skill to predict the future, using trends to build scenarios and plans, is a hallmark of the most successful companies.
Florida’s leaders could have assumed another big hurricane would not hit their state, and simply waited to react when it happened. By thinking through possible outcomes, they have shown an amazing level of preparedness. In contrast, Britain’s leaders did not think through the impact of a British exit, pushed for a vote prematurely, and now are lurching from point to point, reacting to events, unprepared for any outcome – and trying to create and implement a plan “on the fly.”
How prepared is your company? How often do you discuss future scenarios, and actually plan for them? Or do you plan based on history, hoping the future will look like the past? Are you going to use scenarios to be effective in future markets?
Or are you going to wait for events to unfold, react and hope you don’t drown?