Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Left Brain, Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions by Phil Rosenzweig

In this new book* Rosenzweig extends the work of Kahneman and other scholars to consider real-world decisions.  He examines how the content and context of such decisions is significantly different from controlled experiments in a decision lab.  Note that Rosenzweig’s advice is generally aimed at senior executives, who typically have greater latitude in making decisions and greater responsibility for achieving results than lower-level professionals, but all managers can benefit from his insights.  This review summarizes the book and explores its lessons for nuclear operations and safety culture. 

Real-World Decisions

Decision situations in the real world can be more “complex, consequential and laden with uncertainty” than those described in laboratory experiments. (p. 6)  A combination of rigorous analysis (left brain) and ambition (the right stuff—high confidence and a willingness to take significant risks) is necessary to achieve success. (pp. 16-18)  The executive needs to identify the important characteristics of the decision he is facing.  Specifically,

Can the outcome following the decision be influenced or controlled?

Some real-world decisions cannot be controlled, e.g., the price of Apple stock after you buy 100 shares.  In those situations the traditional advice to decision makers, viz., be rational, detached, analyze the evidence and watch out for biases, is appropriate. (p. 32)

But for many decisions, the executive (or his team) can influence outcomes through high (but not excessive) confidence, positive illusions, calculated risks and direct action.  The knowledgeable executive understands that individuals perceived as good executives exhibit a bias for action and “The essence of management is to exercise control and influence events.” (p. 39)  Therefore, “As a rule of thumb, it's better to err on the side of thinking we can get things done rather than assuming we cannot.  The upside is greater and the downside less.” (p. 43)

Think about your senior managers.  Do they under or over-estimate their ability to influence future performance through their decisions?

Is the performance based on the decision(s) absolute or relative?

Absolute performance is described using some system of measurement, e.g., how many free throws you make in ten attempts or your batting average over a season.  It is not related to what anyone else does. 

But in competition performance is relative to rivals.  Ten percent growth may not be sufficient if a rival grows fifty percent.**  In addition, payoffs for performance may be highly skewed: in the Olympics, there are three medals and the others get nothing; in many industries, the top two or three companies make money, the others struggle to survive; in the most extreme case, it's winner take all and the everyone else gets nothing.  It is essential to take risks to succeed in highly skewed competitive situations.

Absolute and relative performance may be connected.  In some cases, “a small improvement in absolute performance can make an outsize difference in relative performance, . . .” (p. 66)  For example, if a well-performing nuclear plant can pick up a couple percentage points of annual capacity factor (CF), it can make a visible move up the CF rankings thus securing bragging rights (and possibly bonuses) for its senior managers.

For a larger example, remember when the electricity markets deregulated and many utilities rushed to buy or build merchant plants?  Note how many have crawled back under the blanket of regulation where they only have to demonstrate prudence (a type of absolute performance) to collect their guaranteed returns, and not compete with other sellers.  In addition, there is very little skew in the regulated performance curve; even mediocre plants earn enough to carry on their business.  Lack of direct competition also encourages sharing information, e.g., operating experience in the nuclear industry.  If competition is intense, sharing information is irresponsible and possibly dangerous to one's competitive position. (p. 61)

Do your senior managers compare their performance to some absolute scale, to other members of your fleet (if you're in one), to similar plants, to all plants, or the company's management compensation plan?

Will the decision result in rapid feedback and be repeated or is it a one-off or will it take a long time to see results? 

Repetitive decisions, e.g., putting at golf, can benefit from deliberate practice, where performance feedback is used to adjust future decisions (action, feedback, adjustment, action).  This is related to the extensive training in the nuclear industry and the familiar do, check and adjust cycle ingrained in all nuclear workers.

However, most strategic decisions are unique or have consequences that will only manifest in the long-term.  In such cases, one has to make the most sound decision possible then take the best shot. 

Executives Make Decisions in a Social Setting

Senior managers depend on others to implement decisions and achieve results.  Leadership (exaggerated confidence, emphasizing certain data and beliefs over others, consistency, fairness and trust is indispensable to inspire subordinates and shape culture.  Quoting Jack Welch, “As a leader, your job is to steer and inspire.” (p. 146)  “Effective leadership . . . means being sincere to a higher purpose and may call for something less than complete transparency.” (p. 158)

How about your senior managers?  Do they tell the whole truth when they are trying to motivate the organization to achieve performance goals?  If not, how does that impact trust over the long term?  
The Role of Confidence and Overconfidence

There is a good discussion of the overuse of the term “overconfidence,” which has multiple meanings but whose meaning in a specific application is often undefined.  For example, overconfidence can refer to being too certain that our judgment is correct, believing we can perform better than warranted by the facts (absolute performance) or believing we can outperform others (relative performance). 

Rosenzweig conducted some internet research on overconfidence.  The most common use in the business press was to explain, after the fact, why something had gone wrong. (p. 85)  “When we charge people with overconfidence, we suggest that they contributed to their own demise.” (p. 87)  This sounds similar to the search for the “bad apple” after an incident occurs at a nuclear plant.

But confidence is required to achieve high performance.  “What's the best level of confidence?  An amount that inspires us to do our best, but not so much that we become complacent, or take success for granted, or otherwise neglect what it takes to achieve high performance.” (p. 95)

Other Useful Nuggets

There is a good extension of the discussion (introduced in Kahneman) of base rates and conditional probabilities including the full calculations from two of the conditional probability examples in Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (reviewed here).

The discussion on decision models notes that such models can be useful for overcoming common biases, analyzing large amounts of data and predicting elements of the future beyond our influence.  However, if we have direct influence, “Our task isn't to predict what will happen, but to make it happen.” (p. 189)

Other chapters cover decision making in a major corporate acquisition (focusing on bidding strategy) and in start-up businesses (focusing on a series of start-up decisions)

Our Perspective

Rosenzweig acknowledges that he is standing on the shoulders of Kahneman and others students of decision making.  But “An awareness of common errors and cognitive biases is only a start.” (p. 248)  The executive must consider the additional decision dimensions discussed above to properly frame his decision; in other words, he has to decide what he's deciding.

The direct applicability to nuclear safety culture may seem slight but we believe executives' values and beliefs, as expressed in the decisions they make over time, provide a powerful force on the shape and evolution of culture.  In other words, we choose to emphasize the transactional nature of leadership.  In contrast, Rosenzweig emphasizes its transformational nature: “At its core, however, leadership is not a series of discrete decisions, but calls for working through other people over long stretches of time.” (p. 164)  Effective leaders are good at both.

Of course, decision making and influence on culture is not the exclusive province of senior managers.  Think about your organization's middle managers—the department heads, program and project managers, and process owners.  How do they gauge their performance?  How open are they to new ideas and approaches?  How much confidence do they exhibit with respect to their own capabilities and the capabilities of those they influence? 

Bottom line, this is a useful book.  It's very readable, with many clear and engaging examples,  and has the scent of academic rigor and insight; I would not be surprised if it achieves commercial success.

*  P. Rosenzweig, Left Brain, Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions (New York: Public Affairs, 2014).

**  Referring to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, this situation is sometimes called “Red Queen competition [which] means that a company can run faster but fall further behind at the same time.” (p. 57)