Beware the “Tom Peters Fallacy.” As identified in this space back in 2007, it goes like this:
- Find a great organization.
- Identify a trait in that organization you like.
- Decide that this trait is what makes that organization great.
- Declare that this trait is the panacea for all other organizations.
This week’s perpetrator is the estimable Jeff Bezos. Mr. Bezos started with the dream of selling books online and turned it into the … that’s the, not a … retailing behemoth and the most important cloud computing platform.
And so disagreeing with Bezos about part of his success formula calls for caution.
No, this isn’t a commentary on how Amazon treats its employees. That’s well-plowed turf. It’s about Bezos’s approach to organizational decision-making.
In a wide-ranging interview on the Lex Fridman Podcast, reported by Business Insider’s Sawdah Bhaimiya, Bezos asserts that compromise is a bad way to resolve disagreements. It’s bad, he says, because it takes little energy, but “doesn’t lead to truth.”
Start here: Leaders have five ways to make a decision in their toolkit: They can (1) make it (authoritarianism); (2) make it after talking it over with folks worth talking it over with (consultation); (3) persuade and influence everyone involved to agree to a solution (consensus); (4) give up on consensus and let stakeholders vote on their preferred alternative (voting); or (5) ask someone or other to make the decision for you (delegation).
When Bezos talks about compromise, he’s talking about doing what’s needed to get to consensus. He starts out wrong because if there’s one universal truth about consensus decision-making it’s that consensus takes far more time and effort than any way to get to a decision.
But how about the getting-to-the-truth part?
To be fair, when it comes to his strawman case – deciding how high a room’s ceiling is, he’s right on target: A tape measure yields results superior to compromise. But then, it’s superior to any of the five listed decision styles because, also to be fair, direct observation doesn’t count as a decision, unless you live in a space-time continuum in which alternative facts hold sway.
More significantly, delve into the branch of philosophical inquiry known as epistemology, or just review Plato’s cave allegory, and, in addition to acquiring a migraine you’ll figure out that none of us has access to “the truth.” We can approach it asymptotically (add Karl Popper to your reading list), but so far as the truth is concerned, knowing the answer to a question with confidence is the best we can aspire to. Certainty? Even knowing the height of your ceiling depends on you trusting your measuring tape’s manufacturer.
All of which might strike you as philosophical dithering. But when it comes to organizational decision-making, decisions of any consequence rest in part on unverifiable assumptions, often about the unknowable future. So with all the best of intentions, different participants, making different and conflicting assumptions and forecasts, will reach different conclusions. Which will result in a list of conflicting but equally valid possible right decisions to choose from.
You can either pick one, or find a compromise that’s right enough.
Sometimes, picking one of the alternatives and going with it is the best choice. It’s the engineering optimum, and would yield the best results. As someone once said, no committee ever painted a Mona Lisa.
But engineering optima can face a frustrating constraint: Without buy-in on the part of the decision’s major stakeholders even the most elegant designs will fail, while an inferior, messy compromise to which the whole organization is committed to will succeed.
Bob’s last word: I have one more nit to pick, and that’s Bezos’s implicit assumption that decisions are about discovering “the truth.” That isn’t what decisions are for.
When it comes to organizations, decisions, as has been pointed out in this space from time to time, commit or deny staffing, time, and money. Anything else is just talking.
Decisions, that is, are about designing solutions and choosing courses of action. “The truth” implies these are binary – right or wrong. But competing designs and courses of action are better or worse, not right or wrong. And what constitutes better or worse depends on each evaluator’s personal values and priorities.
No tape measure in the world will reconcile these when they conflict.
Bob’s sales pitch: Stick around. We’re still working through the complexities of handing over the keys to KJR, as it were. And as with just about everything else on this planet, no matter how simple a task looks before someone has to do it, having to do it reveals complexities that someone didn’t anticipate.
We are working on it, shooting for early next year to make it happen.
Watch this space.