Tell me if this has happened to you: you’re faced with a difficult decision at work, and so you ask a friend or colleague about it. That friend, it turns out, just finished reading the hot, business, management book of the day. So they respond with some well-turned phrase from that book:
- Move fast and break things.
- Start with the customer and work backwards.
- Don’t be evil.
- Insist on high standards.
- Get the data.
- Don’t worry about appearing good, worry about achieving the goal.
- Never skimp on quality.
- Set the example for your team.
- Chase your vision, not money.
- If you don’t listen, you won’t get good advice.
If you’re like me, after a while of collecting these pithy principles you start to notice something’s not quite right. For one, it’s hard to turn some very general idea into a specific plan of action. But there’s something even more problematic. Something that makes this whole “set of principles” stuff actively harmful:
Most business principles actively contradict each other!”
And that’s a big problem.
Who do I listen to?
Let’s say you’re a software manager, and you’re finding your team falling behind on the next product release. One of your senior developers comes to you with an idea: you can shortcut the development of a particularly complicated feature with an ugly but functional hack. Doing the hack will get you back on schedule, get your product out into the hands of users, and you can then start iterating. Of course, some customers are going to hate the hack and therefore hate your product forever.
What to do? Let’s appeal to some principles.
“Move fast and break things.” Great. Let’s do the hack, get the product out and then iterate.
“Insist on high standards.” Doing the hack is definitely not a high-standards decision.
“Get the data.” It’s hard to say how many customers will hate the hack until you release it and get feedback.
“Chase your vision, not money.” What was your vision again?
Good business decision-making is hard
The problem aren’t the principles themselves. After all, it’s hard to argue with “insist of quality,” for example. The problem is with the idea that appealing to these lofty principles is going to make difficult decisions easy. The thing about hard decisions is that they’re hard. If there were a magical incantation that made hard problems easy, then they wouldn’t be hard. As they saying goes, “If this stuff were easy, anyone could do it.”
Obviously, there are many factors that make decisions difficult, but one of the most important characteristics of hard decisions is that they involve tradeoffs. And it turns out that thinking about tradeoffs ends up being a very productive way to think about hard decisions.
Tradeoffs, tradeoffs everywhere
Just about anything interesting that humans undertake involves managing tradeoffs:
- Running a short distance (quickly) vs a long distance (more slowly).
- Attacking the opponent in chess vs building a solid defense.
- Hitting a ball a long way in golf or baseball vs hitting it accurately.
- Compiled code runs faster than interpreted code but it’s more difficult to change.
Of course, there’s no rule that says tradeoffs have to live on one axis alone. Consider the following trilemmas, where you can have at most only two of the three:
- Product development: fast, cheap, good.
- Economics: stable prices, full employment, worker protections.
- Political appointees: loyal, intelligent, honest.
- Society: fair, free, equal.
The point of these lists is to realize that dealing well with these tradeoffs is the act of making good decisions. And making better decisions usually involves either thinking more clearly about exactly the tradeoffs you’re faced with, or involves creatively finding ways of trading off just a bit less of one thing to get more of something else. Either way, self-contained wisdom-from-on-high isn’t helping.
So what’s the point of principles?
So we can’t use principles to help us make tough decisions. Does that mean they’re worthless? Far from it; it’s just that they serve a different purpose: principles make easy decisions automatic. Consider our legal system. The point of having laws is so that, most of the time, decisions are pretty automatic. You stole a car and got caught. So you go to jail. Only a small fraction of infractions go to trial because most of the time, the question of what to do is pretty automatic. Trials are reserved for the tough legal decisions.
Principles serve a similar function in organizations. Everyday decisions typically aren’t difficult, and we make dozens of them every day. For those situations, principles help us make decisions without having to agonize and weigh options. The benefits of this are enormous. Instead of having to spend valuable decision-maker time on everyday things, the high-value time is spent on the hard stuff. Having principles frees up your decision-makers to do what they do best: make the hard decisions.
So next time you read the latest multi-millionaire CEO’s book on “how to be”, don’t look for big principled answers to your hard problems. Hard problems are messy, and solutions will always require thinking deeply about the specifics and the tradeoffs. When reading those books, instead look behind the words, to the decision-making culture they try to convey and embody. Platitudes do serve a purpose, it’s just sometimes hard to see.