Three Mind Blowing Nuances of Decision Making

We make decisions all day long . . . every day . . . until our last day.  Right now, you decided to read this sentence.  You could have chosen to slam your computer shut, hop on a cross-country train and join a traveling carnival.  Here you are again.  Will you read this sentence?

We are a product of our decisions.  There is no plainer way to describe where we are in life – both physically and metaphysically. Given the amount of practice we have in decision making, you’d think that we would be pretty darn good at it.   If instead of making decisions all day long, you juggled all day long, you would, in time, be a world-class juggler.  But are you a world class decision maker?  What is a world class decision maker?

Our society looks at outcomes and generally ignores the process.

Consider a game of black-jack (Twenty-One).  You are dealt a King and a Queen (20).  The dealer has a Jack showing.  What is the correct decision?  Let’s assume you choose to “hit” and were dealt an Ace (21).  The dealer had a Queen underneath that Jack (20).  You win!  But did you make the right decision?

Does the thought process you use matter in answering this question?  If asked, “Why did you choose to take another card?”  Consider the following two responses:

  1. I was counting cards.  Based on the cards that remain undealt, I had a 34% chance to draw an ace and the dealer had a 70% chance of holding a ten, face card, or an ace.  Holding gave me a 30% chance of winning, hitting gave me a 34% chance of winning.  I choose the higher percentage option.
  2. I don’t know.  I just felt confident that I was going to get an Ace.

Let’s face it, we know people that live their life using Answer #2 logic and some always seem to come out on top.  We also know people that use Answer #1 logic and some always seem to fall short.

Assume, your organization is on the brink of a massive project.  The results will impact your organization’s future for decades.  You must select the project manager and have two choices – Jim or Lisa.  Jim’s last two projects were wildly successful (under-budget and ahead of schedule) but he is an Answer #2 person – through and through.  Lisa’s last two projects were abysmal (way over-budget and behind schedule), but she has an extraordinarily gifted Answer #1-type mind.  Lisa’s leadership, communication, and organizational skills are far superior to Jim’s.  Who do you choose to lead the project?

There are more variables to consider and real life is always more nuanced than a hypothetical scenario in a blog post, but most organizations have a mindset that would lead to selecting Jim.  “He must be doing something right.  Look at his results!”

I am about to over-simplify the scenario, but I am confident that the resultant point will resonant.

Isn’t this situation a lot like betting on the roll of the dice?  So far, you’ve placed four bets:

Bet on 2 (snake eyes – “Jim”) – you won
Bet on 7 (the best probability – “Lisa”) – you lost
Bet on 2 (snake eyes) – you won
Bet on 7 (the best probability) – you lost

Now, you now must bet a fifth time and the stakes are higher.  You can only select 2 or 7, which do you select?

I’ve oversimplified the discussion.  There are a plethora of real-world decisions and actions that we could take to increase the likelihood of success of the project.  For example, you would probably want to know why Lisa’s projects yielded disastrous results and why Jim’s were successful.  However, few could argue that organizations often place excessive emphasis on past results when making decisions.
There are several reasons why organizational leaders make this “mistake” and several actions that they can take to increase their decision-making abilities while still striving for results-driven behavior.
Let’s start with the “why”. Consider the following three human weaknesses.

  1. We draw conclusions based on patterns derived from insufficient data. I’ll use my own weaknesses to highlight this example. I wrote an article with the hope of having it published. After the third rejection letter, my instinct was to conclude the article wasn’t good enough. Conservatively, there are 200 hundred publications that I could provide this article to for publication consideration. Is my conclusion rational? Of course not. Keep in mind, my conclusion is not necessarily incorrect, but it is not rational because I have insufficient data to support my conclusion.
  2. We see what we expect to see. Worse, sometimes we see what we want to see. Assume you hired two different consultants specializing in Operational Excellence. Both consultants have excellent reputations and exceptional pedigrees. However, assume that you told each consultant a different story. To the first consultant, you share your concerns that your corporate culture is severely damaged. To the second consultant, you share that you believe your corporate culture is as strong as it has ever been but you are concerned about how to maintain that strong culture. You provide each consultant the same information with the same access to the company. You request a report from each about the health of the company’s culture of Operational Excellence. How do you think those reports will differ?
  3. We are afraid of being wrong and alone. This is why financial bubbles are created. There is a saying about decision makers that is both absolutely true and also impossible. “The majority of decision makers will wait for the majority of decision makers to do something before they will.” Leading up to the financial disaster of 2009, there was ample information available to conclude that the housing market had grown out of control. Yet, the world’s “wisest” investors continued to invest in residential real estate. Why? Presumably, because the majority of the other “wisest” investors continued to do so as well. We are susceptible to valuing the opinions of others above logic and reason.

Fortunately, we can overcome these weaknesses. Well, we can probably never “overcome” them because we are, like it or not, fallible human beings.  However, you can’t fight an invisible enemy. Identifying our innate decision-making weaknesses is the first step in overcoming them.

Download my mini-Ebook, “How to Make Better Decisions in Three Steps” for some additional ideas on shoring up your decision-making abilities.  (It is a no-strings, immediate download through the form below).  If you don’t see the form below, visit to download the mini-Ebook.


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Dear Dad,

An open letter on Father's Day

Dear Dad,

Happy Fathers’ Day.  The words on the Hallmark card I gave you today weren’t mine.  I have a recurring fear that when I finally find my words for you, I’ll be weeping over a tombstone and delivering them inaudibly over muffled tears.  In this fear, some of the tears are because I miss you and the others because I missed you.  I missed the opportunity to give you my words and instead I gave you a three-pack of Hanes T-shirts for Christmas.

“I love you, Dad.”

Not good enough.  I love Mom.  I love my wife.  I love my brother and sister.  I love my dogs, and I love football.

“Thank you for being a great Dad.”

Nope.  Every Dad hears those words.

I might have to dig a little bit.

In kindergarten, I had a father that never called.  The silent telephone never bothered me, because I didn’t know what a Dad was.

In third-grade,  you married Mom.  God smiled upon me that day, but at that age, I thought God always smiled.

In fifth-grade, Mrs. Vandervelt had us draw a picture of our hero and write a few sentences about him.  I drew a picture of Don Mattingly because I didn’t understand what a hero was.

In eighth grade, you and Mom threw me a graduation party.  When the guests left and the house was cleaned up, you sat me down and poured me a beer.  Just you and me, splitting a beer at the kitchen table. The moment was lost on me because I didn’t yet understand that’s all life gives us – moments.

In tenth grade,  you grounded me for deceiving you.  I was angry because I didn’t understand what character was.

After twelfth grade, I left home for college.  I thought this made me a “man”

A lot has changed and much has remained the same since then.  I have no regrets but many battle scars.  If I knew then what I know now:

  • I would have wept with joy when you married Mom because that was the day that my future-self became a possibility.  I could never have become “me” without “you”
  • I would have sketched a picture of you.  When God wasn’t smiling, life had me on the ropes, and darkness consumed me, I drew from your spirit to fight back to the light.  Only in our darkest hours do we know who our heroes are.  You are mine.
  • I would have asked for another beer.  When life hands you moments like that one, you do whatever you can to extend them.
  • I would have thanked you for grounding me.  I am a man of character because you refused to let me be otherwise.
  • When I left home, I would have thanked you, in advance.  I didn’t yet know hardship, pain, or suffering.  I didn’t yet understand compassion, charity, or humanity.  I didn’t yet tangle with disappointment, humility, or grief.  In time, each made my acquaintance.  By the time I understood what you had done for me, I lost the ability to communicate deeper than Hallmark would allow for.  You prepared me to handle these encounters like a “man” and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Thank you, Dad.  I could never have become me without you.

Happy Fathers’ Day.


Your Son

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What Nuclear Submarines Teach us About Leading Millennials

Nuclear Submarines execute some of the most complex missions in our military.  These missions are accomplished in Mother Earth’s harshest environments where the only acceptable standard is one with zero defects.   These 7000-ton, $2 billion warships are powered by a nuclear power plant, utilize some of the most advanced technology on the planet, and the average age of a crew member is 25 years old.

When a Nuclear Submarine is submerged and executing its mission, there are very few management carrots to dangle in front of the crew.  Vacation? Nope. Pay Raise? Nope.  Go home early?  Nope.  However, precise attention to detail must be maintained 24/7 for months on end.  This standard can only be achieved with a crew that is motivated, engaged and talented.

Admittedly, the average person that volunteers for Nuclear Submarine duty is not exactly representative of his generation.  However, leading the younger generation aboard a Nuclear Submarine has taught me some invaluable lessons about leading Millenials in the civilian workplace.

  1.  They crave a sense of purpose.  You don’t need a mission vital to national security to provide them that purpose.  That purpose doesn’t even have to be of the “save the world” type. However, we must challenge them with a well communicated, accurately measured, and challenging goals.  Many companies still accept the notion, implicitly, that it is okay for a new hire to wander aimlessly for a year or two while learning how the company works through trials and tribulations.  This philosophy has never been a stellar one, but companies were able to get away with it —  not any more.One of the biggest differences between millennials and the generations that preceded them is not an ideological one; it is a pattern of lifestyle decisions.  Millennials are, on average, holding off on making binding decisions (marriage, children, houses) in their twenties.  Why?  I’ll let someone else address that, but it’s true.  Their desire to be working towards a “purpose” is no more intense than any other generation, but their decisions to hold off on making commitments that tie them to a steady paycheck provide them with the freedom to explore the job market without being afraid of the uncertainty of the unemployment abyss.
  2. They must feel connected to the organization through senior leadership.  On a submarine, most of the crew sees the Commanding Officer daily.  The best Commanding Officers make themselves as a visible and accessible as possible.  They do this because they recognize that their position as the senior person aboard the submarine provides them a unique opportunity – visibility that represents the organization.  It doesn’t take much, but when the Commanding Officer knows your name, your qualification status, your favorite football team, and what city you grew up in – the itch to be connected to the organization through its leadership is scratched.  The lamentation that Millennials feel entitled to be the VP of Operations before they can spell “Operations” is just not true.  They do however expect the VP of Operations to engage them on a personal and professional level even if they are several levels above them in the chain of command.On the surface, this expectation can appear to be reflective of a disrespectful approach to an organization’s chain of command, but this also isn’t true.  They were raised in the most “connected” and “smallest” world that humankind has ever known.  They interact directly with their celebrity idols on Twitter daily and hold Bill Gate’s email in the palm of their hand.  There is no way to expect this group to embrace a culture where senior leaders do not frequently engage with the future of the company.
  3. Leadership that demonstrates that the organization cares about their future.  Millennials are starved for real leadership.  Leadership that provides light in the darkness of the professional uncertainty suffered by Millenials in our significantly nuanced professional world of increasing complexity.  Where are their leaders?  There is no doubt in my mind that the leadership they crave is available in their organization.  There is also no doubt in my mind that corporate America is blind to the benefits of schedule “white space.”  As we lock ourselves behind closed doors for hours upon hours of marginally productive conference calls, the future of the company stands on the other side of the door yearning for mentorship which often only needs to take the form of – “How’s your week going?  Tell me about project x that you are working on.”At no point in our career do we spend more time hand-wringing our career options and alternative paths than in our first decade in the workplace.  Despite what some claim, Millennials are not demanding a roadmap to a C-level position, but they are expecting leaders and mentors that are available to lead and mentor.  Because of the 24/7 lifestyle that a Nuclear Submarine demands, each crew member interfaces with their leaders and mentors daily. This availability for interaction, alone, goes a long way towards keeping the younger crew members motivated.

    A mentor of mine, Captain (retired) Ken Swan once reminded me that “your people won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

  4. Access to information.  Millenials are conditioned to have a world of knowledge at their fingertips since they were children.  Therefore, if they find themselves in an environment rife with figurative “access denied” or “Error 404 – page not found,” their discontent should come as no surprise.  Their desire to know more about the rest of the organization is a blessing, not a curse.  Millenial engineers want to know about the company’s marketing plan.  Millenial graphic designers want to know about the company’s quarterly financial results.  The “stay in your lane” adage was never an award-winning management style, but now it’s suicide because Millenials will not remain in a working environment where they feel locked out.  Embrace this unprecedented surge in intellectual curiosity through cross-training programs, more lenient information access policies, and more informal discussions about the company’s operations.On Nuclear Submarines, it is almost impossible not to know about the activities of other divisions and departments.  Further, cross-training was not only allowed but encouraged.  I was on a submarine where one of the cooks qualified sonar operator, and he became a damn good operator in his spare time between making 150 meals four times a day.
  5. They need to be heard.  This desire is the most generationally distinct element in our list.  This generation does not subscribe to the conventional wisdom of “wait your turn” and “your day will come.”  From where this change of philosophy stems is deserving of its own article, but suffice to say, it exists.  I have observed no evidence, inside or out of the Navy, to suggest that this is a generation that thinks it has all of the answers, but it is a generation that knows that sometimes they do . . . and they are right.In the Nuclear Submarine community, we honor a deeply engrained and time-tested principle called watch team backup.  This principle encourages everyone to be constantly listening and processing all that is going on around them, and if they hear something that doesn’t sound right or they believe they have a better way, they not only have the opportunity to voice their thoughts, but they have the obligation to do so.  I cannot count the number of times when the most junior person in the control-room saved the day because he saw something or thought of something that no one else did. I’ve observed an unspoken but rather active principle to the contrary in corporate America.  The perceived validity of an idea is often more related to the seniority of the person sharing it than the virtues of the notion.  This, my friends must change.

Unraveling the secrets behind the mysterious breed of human beings called the Millennials is certainly en vogue.  Given the unique nature of the Nuclear Submarine culture, this military community gets a “sneak preview” of each generation.  My experiences in the Nuclear Submarine community and outside of it, bestow me with confidence that the Millennials represent a generation full of energy, ambition, and unprecedented abilities.  Ultimately, as we adjust our organizations to accommodate their unique approach to their careers, and simultaneously assimilate them to our existing operations, both groups will emerge from the process stronger and better equipped to handle the rapidly shifting demands of our organizations’ future operations.

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Living a Fourth Quarter Offense

7 Ways to Start Living with a Sense of Urgency

NFL teams score approximately 30 percent more points in the 4th quarter than they do in the 1st quarter.  If you’re a football fan, this shouldn’t surprise you.  The success of the “two-minute drill” is astounding.  With only 60 minutes to play, I would think a team should treat each second of the first two minutes of a game as sacredly as the last two.  Of course, there are physical stamina issues in an NFL game to consider, but conceptually I hold my ground.

In our lives, very few of us have physical stamina issues to consider in regards to achieving our dreams.  However, why do so many of us live life like it’s the first quarter instead of the fourth quarter?

I’ll get to that later.
Tomorrow, I’ll tackle that.
Maybe next year, I’ll launch out on my own.
I’m not ready for that yet.

Sound familiar?

Living with “fourth quarter” passion has nothing to do with age.  I’m reminding us all that our time on Earth is limited, there is no tomorrow.  Today is the only day where anything can be achieved.  Truly.

Here are seven ways to consider when transitioning from first-quarter living to fourth-quarter living?

  1. Gratitude.  Spend at least five minutes a day reviewing the things in your life for which you are thankful.  Be sure to include “time” – be grateful for the time you have been given and for the time you have in front of you.
  2. Don’t count sheep at night.  Instead, repeat the word “now” fifty, yes — 50, times before you go to sleep at night.  In the morning, repeat the word “now” during your morning routine.  Play with the word – now, now!, now?, now?! but just keep repeating it.
  3. Move the needle.  Assume your progress towards achieving your dreams is being monitored on a gauge.  Are your actions moving the needle forward?  Sometimes, we fool ourselves into thinking we are taking actions towards achieving our dreams by stay busy, but “busy” isn’t synonymous with “productive.”  Need a litmus test – imagine you had only one month to achieve your dream, what would you be working on and what would you let go?
  4. Measure.  Quantify an element that is central to your success and then measure it, every single day.  Further, place your measurement on a chart in a location that is highly visible to you.  The power of visually seeing the progress, or lack of progress, towards your goal cannot be understated.   If you think you have a dream that you would like to achieve that cannot be quantified, contact me.  I am certain that I can assist in disabusing you of that notion.
  5. Peer Pressure.  Many people do not share their dreams because they fear that if they don’t achieve them that they will appear foolish to those that know about the dream.  You are not going to lose.  This is the fourth quarter, you need all of the help that you can get.  Let the world know what you intend to achieve, or at least let a few close friends know.  There is unspeakable power in this single act.  You will find yourself shifting into fourth quarter living when your reputation is at risk.In writing this, I’ve motivated myself.  “My dream is to become a New York Times best-selling author.”  There I said it.  You can too. 
  6. Flip the script on your fears.  Between you and your dream is a substantial amount of fear around which there is no path.  You will have to go through this fear head on – fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of rejection, etc.  There are no loopholes.  To make matters worse, each day that passes where you ignore or avoid these fears, they grow stronger.  These fears have been haunting you for so long, isn’t it exhausting?  Isn’t it boring?  There is a lyric from a Ray LaMontagne song that I often reference when my fears are getting the best of me

    “Well, I looked my demons in the eyes
    laid bare my chest, said “Do your best, destroy me.
    You see, I’ve been to hell and back so many times,
    I must admit you kind of bore me.”

  7. Never wait for motivation.  Motivation is a thief – a thief of time and opportunity.  He promises to call soon.  He promises to spend more time with you.  Motivation arrives through one path, and one path only – action.  Action creates motivation.  The grand illusion is that motivation creates action.  In the first quarter, we can believe this fallacy, but in the fourth quarter, it’s time to admit that motivation is a lark.  Action creates motivation.  Therefore, no matter how beat down you may feel, if you want to motivation to join you in your travels, you must act first.  Action – now, now, now, now, now, now . .
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“You” Incorporated

7 things that companies do, and you should too.

A company is simply a group of people working towards a common goal.  That common goal is ultimately the sustained strong financial and operational performance of the company.  Don’t we want a similar outcome for ourselves – sustained strong financial and operational performance?  If so, we would benefit from observing some of the most basic principles of corporate operations and decision-making.  Consider implementing some, or all, of these basics in your life.

  1.  Companies implement internal metrics to decide what investments are worth pursuing.  The most basic of these metrics is the “simple payback period.”  A $1000 investment with a required 10-year payback period, must generate, on average, $100/yr in order to be considered viable.  Consider implementing a payback period standard for your investments.  The measure of “payback” and “investment” can be modified because we don’t measure life success purely in dollars and cents, but some assessment of our standard for a return on our investment (time, money, resources) is better than none.
  2. Smart companies use smart metrics.   If we wish to improve or accomplish something in our lives, measure it and review it often — if possible, daily.
  3. Have we seen this before?  When a company is faced with a dilemma, one of the very first questions asked and answered is “Have we seen this before?”  If the answer is “no” – the follow-on is often “Who has seen this before?”  Although past performance is not a guarantee of future performance, our decision-making abilities would improve if we looked for a past precedent on which to base our toughest decision.
  4. Dead weight is cut. A company cannot afford to carry people that do not contribute towards the company’s goals.  A good corporate rule of thumb is “be slow to hire and quick to fire.”  In our lives, what people or things drain our resources, especially time, but do not contribute towards our goals?  Drop them.
  5.  Charity is not only good for a company’s public relations, but it is the right thing to do.  There is always room for charitable donations of our time or money in our life.
  6. Pay a dividend.  After a company pays its expenses and taxes, it evaluates what to do with the money that remains.  The amount that is not invested is paid to its shareholders in the form a dividend.  Most people pay themselves a dividend, but it is not deliberate.  Ensure you are investing the amount that supports your future goals first, and then determine the size of the dividend that you can afford to pay yourself.
  7. Conduct periodic assessments.  A company compares its stated priorities to its actual performance often – usually monthly. If it’s performance is substandard or not consistent with its stated priorities, it will modify its plan or adjust its priorities.   What are your biggest priorities?  How often do you compare your actions to these priorities and adjust accordingly?
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