Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Die is Cast. Decision Making in a Random World.

When Julius Caesar stood on the banks of the Rubicon River, he could have added up the number and quality of his forces and compared them to those of Pompey and arrived at any number of predictions. Some of the ways to crunch the numbers seemed in his favor. Others indicated his defeat. But he had to make a decision regardless.

When facing a decision in any context, let alone a crisis, we should remember this quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."

People are piling on decision makers such as Mayor De Blasio right now, saying they overreacted to the so-called Blizzard of 2015.

We here in the New York City Metropolitan Area went to sleep last night anticipating an imminent disaster. Now, I'm personally far enough west of the City that I was told to expect 14-16 inches of snow. As of 10 PM last night, the National Weather Service was still predicting for NYC to receive 20-30 inches. On the basis of that information, States of Emergency were declared, schools closed, and travel bans imposed.

I looked out over my driveway this morning and estimated that there were maybe three inches of snow out there.

And as I sipped my coffee, the news confirmed the shift in fortunes. The storm had suddenly and unexpectedly moved eastward and spared NYC the catastrophe that had been earlier predicted.

Social media today is full of Monday Morning Quarterbacks declaring that the reaction was excessive. And they cite the mere fact that the predicted snow did not fall.

People need to remember that the National Weather Service predicted the path and severity of Super Storm Sandy to great accuracy. They, in fact, predict the weather overall with laudable precision. I have no doubt that even as of 10 PM last night, meteorologists at the NWS believed that all the available data indicated much more snow for NYC than ended up falling.

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Colin Powell has described his decision making philosophy along what he terms the "40-70" Rule. If you make a decision with less than 40% certainty of being right, you are rash. If you wait to make a decision until you have more than 70% certainty of being right, you are probably going to hesitate too much. No one ever achieved anything significant who waited for 100% certainty before acting. 

As of 6 AM this morning, the storm just didn't happen for the NYC area. But if De Blasio had waited until 6 AM this morning to react to this storm, hoping it just didn't happen, he would have been making poor leadership decisions. Even if the storm didn't happen.

Had the NWS predicted 6 inches, only to have 30 fall, people would have been demanding their heads, not just their resignations. In the reverse, we should remember that they did indeed include in their bulletins a line to the effect that "The exact path of the storm remains uncertain and could dramatically affect snow totals." We should all be breathing a sigh of relief that the storm shifted, not criticizing this agency.

Back to Caesar. That day on the Rubicon, he had scattered intelligence about his adversaries. He had maybe 40% of the information he needed to make a decision. But a decision had to be made. He threw the die. He crossed the Rubicon. Did he make the right decision, considering that just five years later he was assassinated?

Yes. He made the right decision. Because he made the decision.