Knowledge@Wharton interviewed Michael Useem, the author of The Go Point. Here are some excerpts:
We all make decisions all the time and most of them are highly personal — [such as] what we put on this morning when we got up and got out of the house. A small subset of our decisions, though, has ramifications for people around us, and sometimes those are people we are responsible for. They work for us, we command them, and they may be in our community in some way.
There is a strain of thinking that is probably summed up with the psychologists’ clinical term “decidophobia”; some people,[in considering] even what color clothing to put on in the morning, just simply balk at that decision. If it’s highly personal, that’s OK. The consequence is you don’t get out of the house on time. But when it affects other people, you cannot suffer from that particular clinical syndrome, because you are going to ultimately cause others around you distress, maybe even harm.
Decision making and leadership can be difficult, but it can be learned. And I think the basic premise that underlies the book — I think it just underlies reality — is that decision making as a skill is learned really by making decisions. Critically though, [it means] looking back on those decisions, to make certain we don’t make the same mistake twice, that you have some sense for what went right as well.
By way of example: I interviewed the chief executive of Lenovo — which is of course China’s big PC maker — on this very topic for a couple of hours recently, and I put the question in summary this way (his name is Liu): “Mr. Liu, you came out of a state owned and operated research center. The government of China funded you, that was where your budget was from, but 22 years back you broke off with a couple of friends to create what is now the world’s third-largest PC maker. How did you learn to make decisions along the way — the decisions being how to market, how to brand, how to price, how to hire — when you were doing none of those, making none of those decisions before?”
The answer really has stuck with me. At the end of every week, going back now more than 20 years, on Friday afternoon, he sits down with his direct reports, his top team, the five or six people he’s closest to. They take time to review everything they’ve done that week — what decisions were good, which ones were terrible. He has no MBA degree, no formal training in decision making, leadership, or management.
I say all that by way of coming back to the main point, which is decision making is a learned skill. You’ve got to make decisions and look back on them.
But in addition to that, becoming more self-conscious about getting the right data, having the right timing, talking to people who you know will not provide a biased read or filter through which they’re going to pass their advice — these are among what I would end up calling in the book the tools of leadership. So on the one hand, intuition is very important.
On the other hand, a set of tools is quite important also for helping all of us make good decisions. And just to come back to the main point: they’re all learned.
The book can be especially good reading for entrepreneurs. I have faced (and continue to face) go points all the time. One has to make decisions and live with them. For an early-stage company, a single wrong decision can make things very difficult. Hopefully, Useems book will help us decide right.
Tomorrow: Winning Decisions