As we approach the final surfactants conference, in Singapore, in our 2017 series, I want to write a bit about our central theme for this year, that is decisions. We like to say that our conferences will help attendees be more effective business leaders by making better decisions. So I'd like to explore the nature and complexity of decision-making here - as I do in this year's conference opening remarks, thereby teeing up some issues for our speakers to talk about in the ensuing one and a half days.
As is customary, we start with a video. This time it’s Iron Maiden from their 2011 tour in Santiago, Chile
The song is “The Trooper” and it is about one of those curious events in British history when a tragic failure, a defeat, a rout, is somehow held up and celebrated as a great victory, throughout the ages. Every English schoolboy knows the story and while, it is not clear if the Chilean schoolboys at this concert would be familiar with the details, they are more than happy to sing along with gusto. This particular event took place on the Crimean peninsula in the 19th Century and involved a British struggle with the Russians for control of trade in the Mediterranean.
On the 27th February 1854, Britain issued an ultimatum to Tsar Nicholas 1 of Russia: whose troops had crossed the Danube into Turkey. Leave or face the consequences. Britain was worried that the Russians would seize Constantinople then exert control over trade in the Mediterranean. Something they could not permit.
The Russians did not leave and so, one month later, on 28 March, 1854 Britain declared war on Russia. Britain joined with allies France and Turkey to send a fleet carrying 64,000 troops to Crimea with the aim to taking Sevastopol, home of the Russian Black Sea fleet and sinking that fleet. Things moved quickly in the days before UN resolutions, it seems.
The British established a base at Balaklava which overlooked Sevastopol. On the 25th October, 1854 the Russian army attacked the British base. In defense of Balaklava, 670 members of the Light Brigade of the British Cavalry, charged directly into a battery of Russian artillery guns at the end of a mile long valley. On either side of the valley, looking down onto that mile long track – more artillery and riflemen. Men on horses, armed with swords and lances charged directly at and across banks of cannons firing roundshot and explosive shells. The result of course, carnage and a massacre. What was left of the British cavalry actually reached the guns at the end of the valley – charged through them, killing many of the gunners by running them through with their lances, then engaged the much larger Russian cavalry, stationed, quite sensibly, behind their own cannons. Having forced the Russians back as far as they could go, the British turned around and headed back the way they came, undergoing, again, devastating fire from the guns still on either side of the valley. The whole process, charging up and down the valley, took 20 minutes and achieved in military, tactical, strategic and even political terms, absolutely nothing in return for the devastating loss of life of the men and horses of the light brigade.
So what happened? How did one of the most effective and professional armies in the history of the world decide to send some of its most highly trained and valuable men and horses on a suicide mission for no reason? To understand the decision, you have to understand the people involved in making and executing that decision. There are four principal players in this drama
From top left clock-wise:
Lord Raglan, commander of the British army in Crimea, 65 years old, one arm. He’d lost the other arm fighting alongside Wellington at the battle of Waterloo. He’d last had an active military command 30 years prior.
Captain Nolan, 35 years old, written two books on the cavalry tactics in battle and was widely recognized as the best horseman in the British cavalry. He was also known to be no great respecter of the aristocracy.
Lord Lucan, commander of all the British cavalry regiments in Crimea, 54 years old. Loathed by his men and by British society at large for his cruelty and military ineptitude. And brother in law to the final player in this drama ,
Lord Cardigan, commander of the light brigade, 57 years old. Loathed by his men and British society almost as much as Lucan and at mutually bitter personal odds with his brother in law, Lucan. Yes these two men, Lucan and Cardigan, despised each other.
Now by way of further important background, you’ll notice that there are three Lords and one captain in this group. So two observations here: First, those were the days, not too long ago, when the Lords, the wealthy and powerful elites of society, despite some shortcomings, actually fought in the wars that they started. Second, it was common at that time that a Lord became an officer in the British army by paying for a commission. You actually purchased your way into a position of command such as these men held. Not everyone did but these three Lords, Raglan, Lucan and Cardigan did. Nolan, our 35 year old captain, was there on merit alone.
So here’s how it went down at 11 O’clock that autumn morning, after the first Russian attack on the British base: Lord Raglan – surveying the entire field from a distance, decided the cavalry should try to recapture some British guns the Russians had taken earlier in the day and were trying to haul away from a hill on the right of the valley. Not a terrible order, although lacking in tactical or strategic merit. In those days, losing guns to the enemy was considered a disgrace and so Raglan was not going to allow that to happen on his watch, especially with a reporter from the London Times sitting right next to him. As Raglan only had one arm, he dictated the order to his assistant who wrote it down and handed it to Captain Nolan. Nolan was then verbally briefed also on what the order was. Nolan – the cavalry enthusiast and best horseman in the army, then rode out the written order to the field and delivered it to Lord Lucan
On receiving the order, Lucan was confused. It was poorly written and communicated. He asked Captain Nolan – “which guns am I to attack”. Nolan with some impatience and not a little impertinence when speaking to a superior officer said with a broad sweep of his arm which took in the actual objective and the entire valley “Lord Lucan, there are the guns, there are the enemy, that is whom you should attack”.
At that point, without any further conversation, Lucan rode forward to his dear brother in law, Lord Cardigan and delivered the order that he thought he heard that is to ride straight down the valley into the enemy guns. It took the two men, senior officers and lords of the realm less than 20 seconds to seal the fate of the Light brigade. Here’s how the conversation went, according to a number of witnesses.
Lucan : Lord Cardigan. You are to advance down the valley with the Light Brigade
Cardigan: Certainly sir. But allow me to point out that the Russians have a battery of guns in the valley on our front and batteries and riflemen on both sides
Lucan : I know it but Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey.
And that was it. Lord Cardigan rode, at the head of his light brigade, directly, and unflinchingly, into the valley of death.
But they did have a choice. As a Lieutenant General, Lucan could have discussed the sense of the order with Cardigan, agreed it was senseless and sent Nolan back to ask for confirmation and clarification from Raglan. At that point the mistake could have been realized and pointless carnage averted. Lucan did not do his duty as a British officer and seek clarity regarding an obviously senseless order. These two Lords’ mutual personal antagonism prevented them from a reasonable discussion and analysis that was expected from every British officer, let alone Lords of the realm.
Decisions are not only consequential; lives wasted for no reason, but they are also complicated; so much going on beneath the surface of what should have been a simple, routine, for that time in history, military maneuver.
Decisions, of course, are a part of our popular culture and folklore and the act of decision making is often portrayed as exciting and glamorous. Witness this scene from the classic movie, Lethal weapon 3.
A simple decision, red or blue wire with catastrophic consequences. Notice a couple of things here: At around 2:50, Mel Gibson suggests to Danny Glover that he’s really going to miss all this excitement – and he’s right, decision making is exciting. There’s also something elegant about this situation. There is no way for our protagonists to know which is the right thing to do – which wire to cut. Therefore Glover’s initial instinct to leave it to the bomb squad is likely the right one. Nonetheless they end up taking a coin toss, i.e. following Gibson’s oscillating hunches, on red or blue; putting all their money on red and losing. This being a movie, no-one gets hurt, not even the cat.
In real life; simple red wire / blue wire decisions can be informed by much more than the facts in even the most controlled conditions. This is because of something that not many people fully realize; decisions are physically draining and the outcome of a decisions is often dependent upon the decider’s physical condition.
A hugely important study was carried out by involving judges making the red wire / blue wire decision of whether or not to grant parole to inmates. The decisions were heavily influenced by when the judges last had something to eat. As reported in The Economist newspaper, a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes how researchers at the University of the Negev followed eight Israeli judges for ten months as they ruled on over 1,000 applications made by prisoners to parole boards. The researchers found that, at the start of the day, the judges granted around two-thirds of the applications before them. As the hours passed, that number fell sharply (see chart), eventually reaching zero. But clemency returned after each of two daily breaks, during which the judges retired for food. The approval rate shot back up to near its original value, before falling again as the day wore on.
Did the good guys get put in front of the judges in descending order of goodness starting directly after mealtimes? Of course not, it was a random distribution. So, shockingly, decisions which should have been based on the merits of each case, were more correlated with the timing of lunch and afternoon tea, than anything else! How come? In fact, it turns out that it is the number of cases a judge has heard since his last meal, not the number of hours he has been in court, which best matches the data. That is consistent with the theory, familiar from many other studies, that decision making is mentally taxing and that, if forced to keep deciding things, people get tired and start looking for easy answers. In this case, the easy answer is to maintain the status quo by denying the prisoner's request for parole. It is the psychological load of decision making that matters. Decisions to grant parole took on average more than two minutes longer to reach than the decision to keep the prisoner where he was. Those parole granting decisions also took longer to explain in the written verdicts, clocking in at just less than twice the number of words. The judges may well be trained, experienced professionals but they are also human beings, with the most basic of needs impacting far beyond the occasion tummy rumble.
The fact that decision making depletes energy has implications well beyond the criminal justice system.
Social psychologists, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in their excellent book, “Willpower” explore in some detail the notion of decision making as requiring energy, which is finite in even most high functioning person. They focused especially on those decisions that required trade-offs such as deciding to forego that doughnut now in order to enjoy better health later. Observations of poor and rich people shopping yield the conclusion that poor people are forced to make many decisions about what they can afford and when. Should they buy that cake if it means skimping on essential vegetables. Is that silk scarf affordable in light of the need for shoes that fit for junior. After a day of depleting decision making that a rich person is able to avoid, poor people are much less ready to then decide to exercise rather than watch the TV or study rather than play video games. The long term poverty trap therefore may have less to do with limited money as with limited decision making fuel as it were. Clearly there is more to this subject. The point is that decision making can be exhausting and for some have long term societal consequences.
Finally for me, the idea that decisions are hard and complicated was cemented by that American icon, Oprah. It’s what I have come to call the “Oprah effect”
When I say “Oprah”, everyone knows exactly who I am talking about. Oprah (Winfrey) does not even need a second name to identify herself and her brand. She is one of the richest women in the world and one of the most well known, certainly in America. She got that way, not via inheritance or coming from any sort of privileged background. She built on the talent she has with hard work, discipline and focus. And she persisted, day after day, hour after hour. So Oprah today is incredibly rich, focused, disciplined and relentless. So how is it then that, by her own admission she struggles with simple decisions about what and when to eat and when to exercise. Here’s someone who can afford to (and probably does) have a nutritionist and personal trainer available 24/7. Someone who has the will and focus to make it to the top of a notoriously difficult profession and she still, by her own admission, can’t decide to live the healthy life that she knows she should. Here in her own words is Oprah talking about her struggles.
This is a variation on the “shopping while poor” syndrome but it afflicts even the richest and most powerful among us. Even people with phenomenally strong willpower in the rest of their lives can have such a hard time losing weight. They start out the day with virtuous intentions, resisting croissants at breakfast and dessert at lunch, but each decision further depletes their energy. As their willpower weakens late in the day, they need to replenish it. But to resupply that energy, they need to give the body glucose. They’re trapped in a conundrum: In order to make the right dietary decisions, a dieter needs willpower. In order to have willpower, a dieter needs to eat.
So now we know that decisions are consequential, incredibly complicated and just plain hard for even the strongest and most highly trained – what to do? Just toss a coin? If you’ve read this far hoping for the answer – then I am sorry to disappoint. I don’t have the magic formula. I will offer some pointers hard won over the course of a life in which I know I have both made a lot of bad decisions and been on the receiving end of some unexpectedly terrible ones that I did not see coming. I hasten to add that I have also made some great decisions and benefited from some tremendous ones made by others. But you never learn from your successes (I don’t anyway) – except that you are incredibly talented and deserving. Failures however, there’s a college course waiting to be enjoyed.
First, I would say, even though decision making is hard and tiring, avoid the temptation to restrict the inflow of information. Drink from the firehose – contrary to popular advice.
You can’t boil a decision down to a bunch of powerpoint slides (the most information-poor communication device invented by man) or a spreadsheet. Get many inputs. Understand what is going on behind the scenes and under the surface. What are the personal reasons as well as business reasons for things to be done (there are always both). Another self serving suggestion is to “get out more” – and come to events like our conferences. Mix, mingle and explore issues from hundreds of different angles.
Let’s leave the last word, however, to Baumeister who recognizes the role of exogenous factors, including simple hunger and says that “the best decision makers are those who know when not to trust themselves”.
Actually no, let’s leave the last word to Rush, who say more or less the same thing but much more beautifully. “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”. There are some other lyrical nuggets in there that I will leave you to dig out yourself in the following video. Oh and if you want be transported by the most achingly gorgeous bass / guitar duet, just wait until 3:00, then close your eyes.
See you in Singapore!