The Choice Not Made

I do not know of any person that doesn’t make mistakes, with the possible exception of my mother. And my wife. And my kids. And maybe my dad, but not according to my mother. Maybe I ought to start over.

I know I make mistakes. I try not to make many of them, but according to both my mother and my wife, I am a guy and therefore I will not be able to help myself when it comes to making mistakes. I have witnessed many others throughout my career in business who have also made mistakes. Not all of them were guys. Go figure. Some to a lesser and some to a greater degree, but errors have been made. But that is okay. Usually, in order for an error to be made, someone first had to make a decision. And business is all about making decisions.

When a decision gets made there are pretty much just two choices that can then occur. You can have been right and made the right choice, take a bow and move on, or you can have been wrong and made the wrong choice, in which case you can either blame the decision on someone else, and / or take actions to rectify the situation.

It is only in politics where you can rename a wrong choice as the “alternative correct” correct decision, based on the then alternative facts, and keep moving along. In business you have to eventually fix things and clean up the messes that wrong choices create. There are always Finance people around keeping score.

In business two characteristics seem to be prized above all others. The first, and somewhat lesser of the prized traits, is the ability to make the right choices. The ability to make correct decisions. Management likes this capability, but they only seem to like this ability to only a certain extent. That extent is usually equal to their own ability to make the right choices and decisions. Being right has a tendency to cause others who may have been wrong, some discomfort. Nobody likes to worry that they made the wrong choice and having someone around who makes the consistently right choice can occasionally be problematic.

Being right sometimes can cause you to take an opposing view to what may be desired for the business, even by management. Being right means that by comparison, someone else was wrong. And as I said, very few people enjoy being wrong.

The second and absolutely most prized characteristic in business, is the ability to be able to quickly clean up and correct the situation after someone else has made the wrong choice. I have written about these types of people before. They are called “firefighters”. And like their real-life equivalent hero counterparts, they are viewed as corporate heroes. Having someone around who can come in and quickly right a wrong choice is a highly valued resource to have.

I have actually been in meetings and training sessions where designated corporate firefighters have come in and spoken about how to go about triaging, correcting and cleaning up a situation.

While I recognize and absolutely salute those heroes that put themselves in harm’s way when it comes to firefighting, I am also a big fan of Smokey The Bear, who uttered the immortal words:

“Only you can prevent forest fires”

Fire prevention, as it relates to business has always been my goal. It is far less glamorous than flying in and putting out the fire, but it is far better for the business to avoid the fire instead of having to put it out. Looking forward and anticipating needs and issues are the best way to avoid the flare up of a firefighting situation. This topic is worthy of much more analysis and discussion, but it is not the one I want to cover here.

To this point I have talked about making right decisions and choices, and the potential pitfalls associated with them, And I have talked about making wrong decisions and choices, and the teams and activities that can be inaugurated as a response in trying to correct them. Just about any wrong decision or choice can be rectified once it is identified. Once they are identified just about any wrong decision can be corrected.

It is the interval between the decision and the start of its corrective actions that usually determines the magnitude of the issue and the magnitude of the resources that will be required to fix it. The sooner the identification the cheaper the cost to fix. This by the way, is the essence of all this increased interest in Agile and DevOps project methodologies. I’ll probably write about this sometime in the future as well. Remember, just about any wrong decision can be fixed.

Just about.

The one decision that cannot be fixed is the choice not made.

As process and the fear associated with making the wrong choice has grown, the willingness to make those sometimes difficult choices seems to have atrophied as well. One need only look at our current political situation to see this phenomenon play out on a much grander scale. In politics making a decision or making a choice makes you somewhat vulnerable. Those that don’t agree with your choice can now take an opposing position. Since the results of a political decision, much like a business decision are not visible for some time, support for the choice can weaken and changes can be made.

As a result, it is becoming easier and more acceptable to defer these needed decisions and choices to a later time. They are then the choices that don’t get made. Instead of making the right choice and moving forward or making the wrong choice and then taking steps to correct it and then again moving forward, no choice is made and no movement, forward or backward occurs.

The result is then, that nothing gets done.

I included process in the list as one of the causes of choices not being made because process by its very design does not lend itself to making decisions. Process tells you what the decision should be. Process supposedly makes the choice for you. The safe path is to now always follow the process. If the situation may call for a change in process or a different decision, it will always be easier to not make that choice.

The risk of making a wrong decision that is outside of the defined process will almost always outweigh the benefit of making the right decision. Decisions are responsible for change. Change is what drives progress.

If you are not going to make the choice, you can’t fix the problem. The right choice fixes the issue. The wrong choice lets you know what the right choice should have been, and again allows you to fix the issue. The choice not made doesn’t fix anything.

Herein lies the conundrum. Almost every organization and business without exception will categorically state that want their people to make choices and take risks. They will then systematically implement processes that reduce the opportunity to make decisions and choices, and then provide a series of rewards and punishments that result in a deterrent to taking the risks, making the decisions and choices that organization says they want them to take.

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher who lived in the Eastern Zhou period of ancient China. Sun Tzu is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, an influential work of military strategy that has affected Western and East Asian philosophy and military thinking. (

I have talked about Sun Tzu in the past. His book “The Art of War” was written close to 2,500 years ago and is still taught in military academies around the world today. He is renowned for amongst other things, never losing a military engagement. If he felt he was not assured of a victory, he would not commit to the engagement. He would stall and feint and execute other tactics. If these actions did not result in a more favorable position for him he would either accept a stalemate / draw, or he would withdraw.

Much of what he discussed has also been applied to business in the past as well. The difference between Sun Tzu’s approach to not engaging, and a process-based approach to not engaging, is that Sun Tzu made an active decision. He made the choice not to engage. He chose to protect his men and resources and pick a different time and place to engage when the contributing factors were more to his favor and liking.

In business (as in politics) today the incentive appears to be to not engage, even if the correct choice is available. Because if someone is correct, invariably someone else is wrong. Even if success is probable, there will always be at least a small risk present for failure. The only way to assure that you are not wrong is to not make choices. And while the choice not made may appear to be the safest one for the individual, it is probably the worst one for the organization.

There are some really great quotes on choices out there. The one I think I will leave you with is from Jim Rohn, an entrepreneur and author. He said:

“It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions.”