'What do you think is the main problem with this organisation?'
For three months Liz and I had been trying to diagnose the ailing culture of our new client so that we could fix it. So we asked to meet with one of its top executives.
'People won't make decisions,' he said without pausing to ponder our question.
'Why do you think that they won't?' Liz asked.
'Because they're afraid of the consequences.' His quick responses affirmed that we were asking the right questions and that he had thought about them a lot.
'What are the consequences?' Liz asked.
'There are none,' he said.
Liz and I left the meeting more confused than when we walked in.
It took me another three months to understand the logic of his answer.
Decisions are like a submarine's sonar pings.
A submarine sends out pulses of sound waves that reflect off objects on the surface and beneath the water around it and return to the submarine. The time that it takes to travel back allows the submarine to know its geographic location and depth in the water and the lay of the underwater land above, below, either side and ahead of it. The submarine can adjust its course accordingly.
Each time that we make a decision we send out information that will return new data back to us that will inform us about our world. Like sonar pings. We incorporate that updated information and adjust our understanding of where we are in our job and life accordingly.
In short - we learn.
Each of our decisions also announces something about our identity, views, course and objective. The same act that informs us about our position also declares ourselves to others and therefore exposes us to the risk of criticism, ridicule, error and judgement.
(Another analogy. Certain military aircraft use radar that is so advanced it can tell them the model, not just the location, of another aircraft that is out of sight of the naked eye. But that same radar is what the pilot uses to direct a missile. So while 'painting' another aircraft with the radar can tell the pilot an enormous amount about its identity, it will be detected by the other aircraft's electronics and could provoke the other pilot into fearing that he's about to be fired upon and thus to fire first.)
Our decisions are often what Joseph R. Badaracco called 'Defining Moments' that reveal, test and shape us.
If a submarine pings and doesn't get a response, it is blind. It doesn't know whether it's about to collide with a reef. It will stop, or at least slow down.
If a person makes a decision and there are no consequences - no affirmation, no acknowledgement, no criticism, no echo back - then they are blind. They will either slow down or stop making decisions. They will become passive consumers of second hand information via other people's decisions/pings.
People and organisations need to have good decision making processes that provide us with reliable information about where we are in relation to our professional and personal Widgets.
We also need Leaders who will affirm.