Thursday, October 21, 2010

What if...

A game I often play is the “what if” game. What if I had stayed in that job 20 years ago…how would my life be different today? What if I had gone up to that really sexy person and asked them out? What if I hadn’t gone up to that really sexy person and asked them out? Playing the game is rarely productive, occasionally instructive and allows me to look at decision making in a fresh light.

Making decisions is something I love to do, something I thrive at and something I am usually very accomplished with. A typical business the day is filled with a constant opportunity to make decisions. It allows me to weigh the pros and cons of a particular situation, evaluate how the issue fits in with the strategic goal/mission of the organization and what its impact might likely be. I use as many concrete data points as I can, but, ultimately a decision is the ultimate form of what if. Having been largely successful my decisions generally pay off more than they don’t.

I was faced this week with a decision that was one of the hardest that I’ve had to make. Yes, more difficult than some of the agonizing choices that we as a family had to make during my Dad’s 5+ year medical crisis. I was faced with a choice: follow my instinct, follow virtually every data point that supported one option or defer to another’s advice, one who is well compensated and well respected for their counsel. The stakes were personally important with nominal consequence on the greater world. Do I stay true to who I am and what I believe and what I know to be right or do I avoid further conflict, take advantage of the counsel that I engaged and have the issue at hand be resolved in the moment.

A good friend, colleague and mentor of mine described me as a bit of a gambler. “More of a risk taker…but after you evaluate and strategize you generally take the path with a greater chance of success or failure.” It’s a true description. I calculate and then make a choice based on best available information and my internal instinct – which is why I either deliver dramatic success stories or significant setbacks. Perhaps I’m emulating former President Bush?

President Bush (43) said "I'm the Decider."  He meant the description more in the vein of Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” statement than perhaps the contemplative weighing of pros and cons that I imagine.

Politicians campaign and are elected on a set of principles – and most actually believe what they say and intend on following through on their beliefs. Governance in American, however, isn’t a dictatorship – one opinion doesn’t rule the others. Compromise is needed. This is the rub. As a country we are largely split 50/50 on the major issues of the day. Looking at just Presidential election results there is a bare majority of the popular vote that has gone to the victor. For each presidential election from 1992 to 2000 no candidate won more than 50% of the popular vote. We have to go back to Richard Nixon to find a time when the candidate won more than 60% of the popular vote. Yes, Nixon! For generations there is a near even split among the electorate – so how we navigate decisions is the challenge without clear consensus.

“Compromise is when all parties walk away unhappy.” This motto is one that I keep in mind (and often say) during all negotiations. If one party comes away ecstatic, then likely the other party has been unduly taken advantage of and the deal is probably unfair or at least unbalanced. Finding a compromise isn’t a 50/50 solution where side A gives a little bit and then side B gives a little bit. The reason each party is in the negotiation is unique to that party – and they need to give-and-take based on their strategic goal and mission.

Being principled allows for compromise. In my own instance I held onto my principles, and it appears to have paid off on one particular point. I had to cede totally on numerous other points, none of which make me happy. This situation wasn’t an equal deal if one analyzed the total number of issues that went one way versus the other, but it was in my own personal best interest that this one point was met regardless of all the others. Hence a compromise was met.

In a time where doing what’s in the best overall interest for society is itself at issue, finding common ground is nearly impossible. It isn’t sexy. It’s hard to sell to a distracted and scared electorate. It’s hard to promote the value of compromise when we can’t even agree what’s “right.” The partisanship, sniping and fighting will continue to be the preferred method of “resolving” issues until each side pays a consequence for the tactics. Once that happens, a give-and-take on the issues of the day can begin in earnest, with nobody walking away happy. Said another way: What if politicians looked out for the greater interest rather than their own? Now that’s a game I’d like to see played.

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