the ceo magazine, business management

Baloney and blarney share more than similar letter configuration. Each denotes a kind of communication that serves the speaker but not the listener. More sweetened and humorous, blarney uses flattery to deceive and beguile, while baloney does both without the witty flavor. But the outcome remains the same. The listener has not been well served by the exchange.

Astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, often called the patron saint of reason and common sense, fell for neither. A role model for balancing skepticism and openness, Sagan contributed significantly to the scientific research of extraterrestrial life while steadfastly holding to a strict protocol of “scientific skeptical inquiry,” the practice of questioning whether claims can be reproduced by other researchers and supported by empirical data.

Business leaders who face far less daunting tasks than proving or disproving the existence of extraterrestrials would do well to take some lessons from Sagan. Drawing from his advice, I offer these five steps to better decision making: 

  1. Verify “the facts.”  Too often leaders hear opinions, inferences, and judgments—with facts keeping a low profile. Ask, “Who else agrees with you?” to uncover hidden agendas and misrepresentations of the truth.
  2. Encourage debate among knowledgeable proponents of all points of view. Separate who’s right from what’s right, and try not to get overly attached to an idea just because it’s yours.
  3. Entertain more than one hypothesis, and systematically test each.  The hypothesis that withstands scrutiny has a much better chance of being the right answer than the first idea that caught your fancy.
  4. Quantify and measure. The abstract and qualitative offer too many explanations and interpretations.
  5. Apply Occam’s Razor.  Solutions should be as simple as they can be but no simpler.

Recently a CEO client faced a seemingly insoluble decision related to financial reporting, which he assigned to Mike, one of the senior people on his team. Nothing happened. Months passed and Mike offered only excuses, no solutions. Then the CEO started encouraging debate among the other members of the senior team, separating facts from inference, and entertaining ideas other than Mike’s. As we soon discovered, the best solution had been evident all along, but Mike didn’t like it because it didn’t represent his opinion.  The simplest solution was the best, just not the one Mike liked.

Mike’s indecisions, or more accurately, his decision to make a decision not to decide, cost the company inordinately in lost opportunity, peer relationships, and client rapport.  Had the CEO pushed for a more scientific approach sooner, they could have avoided these consequences.

Sagan set his sights high. He aspired to understand planets and galaxies beyond our own and developed the approaches that would enhance his efforts. Most of us can realize huge successes with small adjustments to our decision-making, starting with separating the facts from the baloney.




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