Feb 18, 2009


I just finished watching an interesting TED 2009 talk by Dr. Barry Schwarz:

Barry Schwartz on our loss of wisdom

He makes an interesting point that the more regulations and incentives are put in place, the less wise we become. Why? Because these rules encourage us to act without thinking, and to put the onus on the aforementioned rules.

I have seen this often in companies:
  • An IT project that should take about one month, can take two or three because there are so many procedures to follow before doing the actual implementation. The procedures take precedence over the results.
  • Because of rigid communication protocols, employees have no access to their boss's superior unless the boss "introduces them".
  • Customer service is anything but, because management will not let their staff make decisions on their own. Should the client require anything special, employees must refuse ("It's our policy") or have to wait until their supervisor is available so he/she can make any decision.
Alan Weiss says that an effective consultant focuses on outputs rather than inputs. In other words, you must focus on the expected results rather than methodology. If your methodolody or procedures don't help get to the result faster, then you should replace it by something else. That's the right thing to do.

However, too often there may be an excessive amount of time, effort, and resources invested in the wrong things. Cutting funding, changing focus, or eliminating cherished procedures is tantamount to admitting that it was a mistake; this is not something that is palatable, for many reasons.

Wisdom is the ability to make these choices and decisions, not because they are easy or scripted, but rather because they are the right thing to do, at this time. Sometimes, one decision can be wise in one situation and foolish in the next.
  • A sports team fires a coach because the team is not producing results as expected. It's a wise decision if the departure of the coach boosts morale and productivity. It is a foolish decision if the decision was made because "that's what we do when the team isn't working out" or if no noticeable changes occur after the firing.
  • A company lays off employees to save money. It's a wise decision if indeed, it is the best option to assure long-term survival instead of short term profit. It is an unwise decision if it only helps the bottom line for one or two quarters, but doesn't help the company thrive or survive the tough times.
  • Airlines typically will not reimburse or change ticket reservations once they have been made, unless clients pay a premium or a service charge. This can be seen as a wise decision since it helps manage cashflow and helps with staff planning. In an unusual move, JetBlue Airways has decided to reimburse passengers who bought tickets early but have lost their jobs in the interim.
As Dr. Schwarz explains, you aren't born wise, you become wise. And you can only become wise by making decisions that are not taken from a cookie-cutter approach.

I come from an IT background, and I remember the problems I had in certain small firms when we were bidding against larger firms. We often lost the bids, simply because we were the "little guy" and our approach was different. As they said, "You can't be fired for picking IBM or Microsoft."

Sure you can't be fired. But is it the wise thing to do?

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