≡ Menu
Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

In Defense of Difficult Decisions

In Defense of Difficult Decisions post image

I made quite a bunch of difficult decisions in my professional life. I underestimated their negative impact a few times. I received a lot of flak for making them in the first place. And I would probably make vast majority of them again if I had a chance.

I also restrained myself and didn’t make a few harsh decisions. Sometimes I wanted to do it but couldn’t, sometimes I could but didn’t have guts and sometimes I just didn’t want to deal with consequences. Given the chance I would likely act differently in these situations.

It seems I’m a bit gung-ho when it comes to fighting status quo. Why?

Well, first thing is that whenever you’re reading a story how a company was turned around the story always has this big change, which eventually results in a new, better situation. If you’re doing great that’s fine – do more of whatever you’re doing.

However, pretty few of us are in a position where we can say that we’re doing totally fine. It means that we need to try, sometimes hard, to change things around us. It means that we need guts to make difficult decisions on occasions.

What kind of decisions you ask? Well, so far the most difficult decisions I made were somehow connected with people. It was either about letting them go, which may be just a neat metaphor for firing, or not giving them what they wanted, or moving them out of their comfort zones.

After all, if everyone around is happy with your decisions, they aren’t difficult.

So we come back to the question which so far I’m trying to avoid answering to. Why am I willing to face unpleasant consequences instead of just accepting status quo?

One answer would be that I’m physically unable to accept mediocrity. I mean, in the long run. It doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to work in an organization that sucks. I did, at least once, and even though the starting point was really appalling, the thing which kept me there was a chance to change things around. The thing which frustrates me way more, and mean much, much more, is when you aren’t allowed to improve the situation even if you want it badly. Then, it doesn’t really matter what the starting point is. It may be decent but if it isn’t going to change my frustration will grow. And I don’t like to be frustrated, thus guts to make difficult decisions.

Another answer would be that the real change more often than not requires difficult decisions. I like a metaphor I learned years ago from one of my friends: “powdering shit.” It doesn’t make it smell better or be more pleasant. It’s just fooling yourself – “it is powder, you see, not shit.” Well, no, not really. It smells like shit, looks like shit, it is shit. Sorry. Powdering it doesn’t improve it. At all. You want to change the aroma? Clean the mess. Get your hands dirty. There’s no easy way. The only way is difficult (and unpleasant). Thus difficult decisions again.

It doesn’t mean that bold decisions are a way to go in each and every situation. No. The problem is, it’s way easier to find people who prefer accepting mediocre status quo than painful changes for the better. 4 out of 5 people (OK, I’ve just made up this statistic) will prefer to wait to the least possible (possible, not reasonable) moment before they make a difficult decision. Sometimes this waiting takes years. Years of mediocrity or, even worse, years of witnessing how the situation slowly deteriorates to the point where company goes out of business.

And this is another reason for difficult decisions. There are few people having guts to make them. People, in general, would likely accept them, even though some of them would complain, but they don’t make them. Ever. Unless forced. Even if they say otherwise. After all, who likes to do unpleasant tasks? So yes, my gung-ho approach sort of compensates ultra-conservative approach of majority, thus difficult decisions once more.

Now, don’t understand me wrong – difficulty that goes along with a decision doesn’t automatically make it a good one. You can be wrong with a difficult choice as well as with an easy one, except in former case it will hurt you badly. No risk, no fun, they say.

However, when I think about wrong decisions I made, somehow majority of them are those which seemed ease at the time of making them. It was sort of accepting status quo. “It was always like this, why would you want to change it?”

To make it better. To make our teams better. To make our work better. To make our products better. To catch up with ever-changing business environment. Or, in other words, to keep the organization alive in the long run. Not a bad motivation, eh?

in: personal development, software business

2 comments… add one

  • Lech Ambrzykowski February 4, 2012, 1:19 pm

    Food for thought, Pawel. And no small matter too. Thank you for sharing.
    I appreciate reading about this from you in particular — I know you are in the position to describe this from practice rather than theory only.
    There are two things that make me wonder though:
    Can we be sure we have the perspective to introduce the “right changes?”
    What if we are wrong?



    “Maybe next time?”

    Of course, we can always be wrong with our definition of the problem and the resulting solution. The difference being… involvement of other people.
    What allows one to introduce “harsh measures” in order to make things — seemingly — better? And then… define “better.” Efficiency? Employee satisfaction? ROI? There is a degree of relativity here. We have our conviction, we have a certain track record, and hopefully — there are the people who thank us for stretching them (a sure sign something must be working).
    Bottom line — I strive for excellence in my own life and I expect no less from any endeavour I undertake (there’s no place for average). But more and more I am bugged with a question:

    Who am I to believe “I know better" (when others are concerned)

    I feel responsible for my judgements obviously. And I am wary of them especially with other people involved.
    The grace of patience
    Some (most?) changes need time — taking a step back for others to have the space to grow. I am learning how to be patient myself.
    Sometimes though, there is no time. During one of PMI’s (Warsaw Chapter) recent seminars a Project Manager referred to Jack Welch’s approach:

    Each year, Welch would fire the bottom 10% of his managers. He earned a reputation for brutal candor in his meetings with executives. He would push his managers to perform, but he would reward those in the top 20% with bonuses and stock options.
    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Welch

    This reminded me of yet another leadership typology…

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 5, 2012, 10:25 am

    @Lech – You ask a few different questions here.

    1. How do you know you’re right with your ideas?

    You can never be 100% sure. To some point it is a guess. An informed guess, but still a guess. You don’t work with a simple mechanism but with a complex system. What more you’re likely to worsen the situation. Even if it doesn’t happen because you make a wrong decision you should remember about J curve. With almost every change at first the situation seems a bit worse and gains come later.

    The difference which is important here is the attitude. If you stand on a position of status quo defender you are basically against any improvements, besides those completely driven by the outside world, e.g. big positive change in business environment. On the other hand, if you have the experimentation mindset and you treat failures as learning opportunities in the long run you’re going to improve the organization even if you’re wrong on occasions.

    So I don’t consider any specific change a right or a wrong one. It is the attitude which is a differentiatior here. Atomic changes are only building blocks of the attitude.

    2. How can you measure the outcome of your decisions?

    Well, with this one it’s easier. Sort of. It depends on a decision, but usually you can find meaningful measures to show the impact of the decision in the long run. You can look at financials, satisfaction, retention, etc. You can even try to measure good atmosphere or how likely it is that great engineers would join your org.

    But even then you use all these metrics as support and rely on very informal view of the organization. Ask your bosses and peers how they perceive the old difficult decision of yours now. You may be surprised how their optics has changed. Ask your people whether they see a difference, now that they can take another look at the decisions from a perspective of time. You might be surprised how many supporters difficult decisions can get after some, once everyone realizes they just work.

    3. Who am I to believe that I know better?

    First, it doesn’t matter who you are: a C-level exec or an intern. What matters is that you can convince people around to let you try. Or get enough power to decide by yourself. It’s not that you are sure that you know better. It’s that you dare to try.

    Second, after some time you have a track record. Personally, I was promoted to more prestigious/powerful/responsible role in each and every organization I worked for. Of course I could have assumed that all my managers were wrong, but I prefer to use the fact to support the belief that attitude I use is a) successful and b) still rare. And that I can help teams and improve organizations.

    There’s one more perspective here: accountability. I never dodged responsibility for my decisions. Even for the worst of them. Even for the most painful ones. I paid for them in sleepless nights, ostracism and huge setbacks in relationships with my teams. If nothing else I know what it takes to make a difficult decision and live the consequences. And I never chose to avoid responsibility pointing to someone up in the pecking order.

    If you aren’t ready to face the consequences of your choices you aren’t ready to make your choices in the first place.

    4. Should you adopt one of well-defined approaches (like Jack Welch’s one)?

    No. At least not as a rule or a default action. I mean it’s better to know all these management models, to have them in your toolbox, but use them if and only if you believe this is the best solution in your current situation.

    Personally I can’t imagine myself following a simple formula: bottom 10% is out and top 20% is highly rewarded. What if you’re a part of best of breed organization and your bottom 10% is way above industry average? What if your organization itself is totally flawed and top 20% are those who most successfully exploit the system? What if you need a team of team workers and not stars and shining individually and not adding value to the rest of the team doesn’t really help? There are many what ifs.

    Know your craft. Know your situation. Use your craft the best you can to improve you situation. The more flexible you are the better choices you’re going to make.

Leave a Comment