“Gut instinct” rarely works. Sure, people get lucky, especially in a subject area where they have experience and knowledge. But, the rest of us, the regular ones, often guess wrong. We all know famous industry leaders, especially hi-tech weenies, who have risen to the top of their game by making quick decisions, and they repeat their stories of glory on CNBC on late-night biographies. In reality, many of them just got lucky. Other people who are as intelligent or more intelligent did not have such illustrious careers, and it is not because they’re not good, but because they didn’t make lucky guesses. It’s sad when you meet someone who’s gifted, intelligent and hard-working who has not had the success they deserve because they keep accepting what fate has in store for them. I’m trying to get them to stop guessing and start developing problem-solving and decision-making skills.
If you want to stop guessing, start learning all you can about two disciplines: problem-solving and structured decision-making. What is the difference between decision-making and problem-solving? Problem-solving involves finding a way to change a process or relationship in order to return to a satisfactory steady-state. For example, we problem solve around a machine that is malfunctioning in order to get it back to running smoothly. The goal is to get past something and return to normal. Maybe we want to get past an issue in a marriage and return to a steady-state of marital bliss. In contrast, decision-making involves anticipating the future, and making choices that will have favorable odds to bring about the best future. (Hint: both work best when you have a little fun with them.)
When problem-solving, spend time researching the problem and digging around just as a hobbyist who is passionate about the subject area. People with intellectual curiosity make the best problem solvers. Want to solve a problem? — be interested! That’s worth repeating. Be interested! Think about this scenario: a guy who is into model railroading has a great train set in his basement, but there’s a problem – when certain engines go around a tight corner, they lose power. How should he solve the problem? First, I suggest that he avoid guessing and avoid thinking that it is anything related to anything that has happened before. Instead, he’s a hobbyist and he should think like a hobbyist, in other words he should have fun and treat the problem as an opportunity to learn. He should dig around, look at the track via a magnifying glass, test the voltage on the track, or try different engines. Without thinking of what the answer is, eventually it will come to him. In technical terms, what he’s doing is a “variable analysis”, but he’s also having fun with his variable analysis and the fun makes a difference. Many variables could cause the problem – and they could be totally different than the “last time” or previous problem. Maybe that section of track is dirty because his son put something on it – like a greasy teddy bear – when our hero was not there, maybe the curve is to tight and the inside wheels lose contact with the rails, maybe the curve puts torque on the train and makes it harder to pull,… who knows? Don’t guess. Investigate. Dig into it. Have fun. And do not guess.
The end-state for this HO train hobbyist (based on a true story from someone I know) is that he finds an unexplained layer of grease on the track – due to his youngest son and a wild sleep-over party involving silly sling putty and a pillow fight. He cleaned the tracks, and then all engines ran the same – not what you would think.
Sometimes, you problem-solve in the short term, to set yourself up to make a decision in the long-term. For example, in a marital spat, you solve the short-term problem, and then decide together what you want to do together or apart in the long-term.
When decision-making, use a structured process. The military, primarily the United States Army, has evolved a process called the Military Decision Making Process. It’s a complex 8-step process with a lot of staff functions in support. General Patton used this process to win the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Another decision-making process is known as a decision matrix. You don’t have to use such complicated tools, but you should use a pencil and paper to try to quantify what the decision is, why you are making it, and the pluses and minuses of each choice. The military outlines what it calls “courses of action” as the potential choices. And then the military uses war gaming to play-out what might happen at each stage during each course of action. At the end, we military gentlemen quantify each course of action and we make a decision, a complicated process, which I will add more detail to in further writings.
If luck goes against you, do not take it personally and retreat to your planning table, gather allies, seek input and develop your next plan. Do not take bad luck as a personal insult. If luck flies against you, blame it on the gods, and start re-planning. It ain’t over until you’re in the grave and maybe not even then.
In summary, take control of your life and stop relying on luck in many aspects of your life: what car to buy, what college to go to, who to marry, where to live, what dog to get, etc… Stop guessing and start living a life according to your problem-solving and decision-making skills.
Mark O’Neill serves in the Army Reserve as an Officer in Information Operations and Intelligence. He has served in Korea, Honduras, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He authored two fiction novels, Slave to the Lender and Bound to Get Burned. He is currently writing a book on the Civilian Decision-Making Process that features deep analysis of General Patton’s use of the military decision-making process in comparison to present-day civilian problems. He lives in Helena, Montana.
He can be reached at mro.producer at gmail dot com
“Play ball!” General George S. Patton said, over the phone.
Play ball? On the phone?
“Play ball” were the code words he had pre-planned so that when he got his plan approved he could call back to the Third Army staff and they would enact his plan on how to react to the German offensive of the 6th Panzer Army into the Belgian Ardennes. General Patton’s divisions were in the south, pushing ahead towards the Rhine and fighting in the hills around Saarbrucken against well-hidden German infantry and anti-tank units. He was not involved in the fighting for the lower, flatter terrain around Belgium. But, Patton knew as Hitler counter-attacked, the Germans were putting their best Panzer divisions in a run into the heart of the allied lines. Patton knew that if the Germans broke through to the allied rear area within northern France, they could create chaos with the allied logistics, which is what Hitler hoped for… General Patton wanted to be included in the counter-attack.
But, to obtain approval and fight north, General Patton had to show his old friend, General Dwight Eisenhower, nick-named “Ike”, that he had a course of action that was possible in terms of logistics, movement and time. General Patton developed his plan and was able to prove that he could turn and drive his tanks that far north in time to make an impact. General Eisenhower made General Patton walk through the pains-taking details of food, fuel, water, and parts consumption for a given march of tanks through the relatively rugged terrain. Of highest concern were fuel and re-fueling. Patton had to show on paper with extensive calculations that he could make the rate-of-march needed to get to the battle and impact the southern flank of the “bulge” given the constraints on fuel, and logistics. Patton wanted to be the anvil to crush the German offensive.
General George Patton had left his position on the front lines to meet with Generals Bradley and Eisenhower, along with the British Generals. He took with him three courses of action, all of which he could show were feasible in terms of logistics: bullets, food, travel distance, bullets and fuel. General Eisenhower and General Patton jointly decided on which was the best option, and Eisenhower approved the plan.
General Patton had taken his commission in the United States Army before General Eisenhower and had been senior to Ike during most of his career. They had known one another since they were both Captains, and Patton turned Eisenhower on to the value of the tank as a fighting vehicle. In fact, Lieutenant Colonel Patton had sent notes to Major Eisenhower on how to pass General Command and Staff College during the 1930s. And they were both fans of logical, formal decision making processes that used the slow, methodical processes that moved decision-making out of the “gut feel” and onto decision matrices, charts, graphs and equations. Generals Eisenhower and Patton turned the “art of war” into the “science of shoot, move, communicate to dominate the terrain and the enemy”. At heart, they were engineers and accountants, designers of human conflict.
You can learn from these men the science of gaining control over your decisions and how to out-maneuver your opponents. It’s not an art, it’s a science and thus any person who puts enough effort into the process, can master it. We need to use the tools of logic and decision that have been developed, such as the military decision making process.
Oh, and the ending? General Patton drove his Third Army hard to the north, and closed in on the Germans as the southern flank of the pincers that squeezed the Germans and killed their offensive. But, ironically, it was the Germans own lack of planning that stopped them “in their tracks” as the slang saying goes from WWII. The Panzer divisions stopped in their tracks because they ran out of fuel. And a tank without fuel is about as useful as a guard dog tied to a stake. The allies crushed the last German units and most of the Germans surrendered, clearing the way for the final assault into Germany.
If this is of any interest to you, contact me at: mro dot producer at gmail dot com
or call me at 310 four zero nine 8159
If you are lost in the woods, what do you do? Your GPS is not working, your cell phone is out of range, and you did not bring a map. In fact, you’ve just been wandering around smelling the flowers and having fun. You thought you had walked down a trail that you came up earlier in the day, but now everything looks different. The trees don’t seem to be the same trees…. Even the rocks don’t look like the same rocks you saw that morning. Aye yiy yiy! One path leads downhill in front of you, into some dark woods, and it splits into two. And the path you came from, goes back up the hill, onto a rocky, windswept hillside.
You gather information. Instinctively, you look up at the mountains or trees for a landmark, you look back on the trail from where you came, you search the area for clues as to where you are. You know that the path you take could mean life or death, so you take your time and try to make the right decision. Wisely, you walk down the path in front of you to get a better look. And you see that it looks like the path continues through the woods. Then, you retrace your steps back up the hill, to see if you missed a turn. Finally, you lay out your options and take the time to make a decision…..
The best decision requires information and a process. Do not make this life or death decision based on your intestinal feelings. Though it’s easier, do not go by instinct. Use the side of your brain that evolved to give you logic.
Now, let’s say you are back in the urban wilderness known as civilization, and you feel lost. You do not know what to do with your life, where to live, what college to go to. The old landmarks your parents gave you are gone. Remember, you have time. Take a deep breath, or two or a hundred deep breaths, and follow a formal decision process. Over time, you’ll make better decisions, one after another, after another, and you’ll get out of the wilderness.
Better your life through rigorous decisions
Imagine you’re a buccaneer and sail on the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Florida. You have a decision to make… what to do next? You could go south to look for another Spanish treasure ship. You could lay low, and replenish supplies, prepare for a better season. Or you could go north, and pick on merchant ships off the coast of New England. (Truth is, the buccaneers had their best luck off the coast of New England, then taking the goods south to be resold in the French colonies where supplies were low because the French Government only allowed licensed Catholic traders to bring goods to their colonies.) How could you make the best decision? How could you plan for your future? The ship rocks back and forth like a time clock on the steady sea….
Imagine smell of the salty tropical waters, while you’re trying to decide, influences creep in and your mind tumbles pictures around…such as: it’s warmer down south, there’s a pretty girl in the port, you have never had luck in Jamaica, but you have in Trinidad…., and you don’t like the storms that you’ve seen off the coast of Carolina, your men are tired and they complain a lot…., etc., etc., etc. Your brain races, while bias and rationalization creep in…
What should you do? You should follow a formal decision-making process and then go through a checklist of biases and ask yourself if you’re being subject to these biases. A formal decision-making process, applied time after time, over your life, will eventually lead you to a better position and generate more wealth for you and your crew.
Here at Decide Best, we make decisions the way that the U.S. Army General Staff does – with a civilianized version of the Military Decision Making Process. Over the next couple months, we’re going to walk through the civilian decision-making process and compare it to psychology texts on bias and rationalization, while we try to eliminate those from our analysis. We’re going to talk in depth about General Patton, and how he won the Battle of the Bulge before it was fought, through good intelligence and great decisions.