Leadership Principle #3 – Make Sound and Timely Decisions

As a young Army Officer I was taught that “a mediocre decision arrived at quickly and executed vigorously is always better than a perfect decision arrived at too late”.  Arriving in the Public Service many years later, I realized that the prevailing wisdom there was along the lines of  “Better no decision than a bad decision”.   Notwithstanding the rhetorical bricks that soldiers and public servants sometimes toss at each other, both institutions have long records of success in their own spheres.  Why then this difference in approach to decision making?

I came to realize that “Sound” and “Timely” are, in fact, two ends of a Polarity.  As noted in an earlier post,  polarities cannot be “solved”, the best that can be done is to manage the ongoing tension between the two Poles of the Polarity as effectively as possible.  Within the context of a firefight at the section or platoon level, where confusion, fear and ambiguity reign, speed of response is king.  As an old military adage has it, victory will go to the side that “gets there the firstest with the mostest“.  In this context if your first response is less than ideal, do something else, and quickly – the whole idea is to seize the initiative and compel your opponent to react to what you are doing.  By contrast, in the context of the Public Service, when an ineffective policy is put in place, it could well be years before an opportunity arises to have a modified policy approved by the government.  Depending upon the political implications, it may require a change in government to even get the attention of the elected decision-makers.  In this context, it makes sense that more weight is given to the “Sound Decisions” end of the Polarity.  Of course, a host of other factors come into play, some are explicit,  “We need to be seen as decisive on this issue or we’re going to lose investor confidence”, and some remain unspoken, “This initiative may be just ‘flavour of the month’ – I’m not going to take any action until I know if our VP really supports it.”

One of the traps in Polarity Management is what Barry Johnson calls the “One Pole Myth” – the idea that if I focus exclusively on one end of the Polarity I can completely avoid the downside of the other Pole.  (I fell into this trap a few times in my early days in the Pubic Service.)  In reality, if you ignore one Pole, you will very quickly get its downside.  If you persist in this approach, you will eventually be left with the downside of both Poles. (In this case, bad decisions arrived at with agonizing slowness – sound familiar?)

So, what does a “Sound and Timely Decision” look like in your organizational context?  How will you manage that Polarity effectively?  Let’s talk about it.