Bad decisions vs wrong decisions: lessons from Lilliput
I read a column last year by an organizational consultant that dealt with the difference between bad decisions and wrong decisions. I can’t find the link at the moment, so let me summarize the point, as best I can remember it. (I’ll apologize in advance if this take is more about my interpretation than the author’s original point – memory is a funny thing that way.)
We think of bad decisions and wrong decisions as the same thing, but they aren’t. A wrong decision isn’t necessarily a bad one. It has to do with making the best decision possible given the data at hand. If you don’t have access to the information you need to make a good decision, you might well get it wrong – and we all have to make calls on incomplete or bad info all the time. However, when you have the resources needed to get it right and you fail, that’s a bad decision.
There are all kinds of lessons in this distinction, not the least of which is “get as much credible evidence as possible before making a decision.” Recent weeks and months have, I think, taught me another important lesson relating to wrong and bad decision-making.
Theory: it is often easier to see how a person, place or thing has changed than it is to see how that person, place or thing has stayed the same.
Corollary: the hidden qualities that haven’t changed are often the ones that pose the greatest risk to the decision-maker.
What Thomas Wolfe Said
Last year my wife and I made a decision to move to my hometown, Winston-Salem, NC. I left WSNC for the first time in 1987 to get my MA at Iowa State. When I graduated I moved back. While the main reason for doing so was a complete lack of anything else to do career-wise, there’s a good argument to be made that this was a wrong decision. Maybe even a bad one. Probably a bad one.
I left again in 1993, and didn’t think I’d ever be back. I left for a lot of very good reasons. Dying manufacturing economy, no access to the incredibly tight old-boy network you had to be part of to get a shot, and a broader, more generalized relationship with the city that made it too easy to take whatever was dished out, too easy to be lazy, too easy to accept defeat.
So I went into exile. Learned a lot. Got a PhD. Earned some extremely valuable professional experience working with big companies in important situations. Had a lot of success. Grew tremendously. Went from being a guy who couldn’t get ahead in a Small Pond to being a guy who could swim pretty well in a Big Pond. That had implications for me personally as well as professionally.
Then, last year, I started to get word that home had changed. City leaders had done a magnificent job leveraging Wake Forest (especially its med school) into a growing high-tech economy that rendered the old manufacturing companies irrelevant. All of a sudden, I came to believe, there was opportunity. Opportunity for a hometown kid who left not because he wanted to, but because he didn’t have much choice, to return, make a life for himself and put all those lessons learned in the Big Pond to work making his hometown a better place. (Whether you like it or not, you learn things in the Big Pond that you simply never get a chance to learn any other way.)
As I said repeatedly, I hoped that no bright, working class 20-something would ever have to leave Winston-Salem again to find opportunity. Instead, I wanted it to become the kind of place young people went looking for opportunity.
Half-Right is All Wrong
I was half right. The city has changed in some dramatic ways. Reynolds and Sara Lee aren’t the only game in town anymore. And while the area remains one with important class and networking dynamics, you don’t have to be so tightly connected to the right families to get a break. The tech sector here is, in fact, rocking.
These things I saw. As noted in my theory above, they were easy to see. My mistake was in accepting the things that were easy to see as representing the whole picture. In the past nine months, I have come to understand that many things remain very much the same. Not that this should be a huge surprise – a city of 200K doesn’t completely turn over in 12 years. But more to the point, some very important things haven’t changed, things I guess I expected would have improved automatically in light of the other developments in town.
Now I’m reflecting on whether the decision to move back to Winston was a bad decision, or merely the wrong decision.
When you grow up in the Small Pond, you know you don’t live anywhere special. Nothing big happens in your town, and the national news always reports on things that happen in other places. Celebrities don’t come to your town unless maybe a band hits the local arena on tour. And even then it’s a Tuesday night show and they’re gone by daybreak. They don’t hang in your town.
So you unavoidably grow up with a Small Pond mindset. Not inherently a bad thing – there is much to admire about America’s small and mid-sized places, and I appreciate those things about my city even as I grow more cynical about it.
The problem is the dark side of the Small Pond mindset. Sadly, there are those whose modus operandi involves dragging others down. They don’t see expertise from outside their experience as something to learn from, even if those with the expertise want to share it and use it to improve things for everybody. Instead, they see threat. Their insecurities take the lead and what started as an opportunity for success winds up poisoned for everybody.
The Dark Side
By now you’ve guessed that I have run afoul of the dark side (or at least what I see as the dark side – I’m sure other players would offer different interpretations). I landed in a place dominated by small-time mindset of the most frustrating sort and very quickly found myself in a situation where there was no hope of excelling according to the criteria I had learned to work to during my exile. Never mind excelling – the attitudes were such that I routinely wondered how much longer I could last, even as I tried my hardest to provide value for my clients. I left the most advanced 25% of my professional mind at home most days because it wasn’t going to be needed. More likely than not, it was going to cause trouble. Eyes were going to be rolled and I was going to be told that I just didn’t get it.
I lasted until about 2:00 pm today. Whatever else may be said of my former employer, he is technically correct in understanding that we’re not a good fit. His grasp of why this is true, well…I suspect he’d find a great many things about my interpretation that he disagreed with.
Bad decision or wrong decision? It’s certainly one or the other. And it was compounded by a second wrong decision in taking the job with my now-former employer. I have learned that another opportunity I was pursuing at the time was about to turn into a job offer (at the time it was looking only like a project offer). I took the bird in the hand. Of course, for all I know that one might have gone badly, too. Snakes on a plane.
At a logistical level it doesn’t much matter. This is a philosophy discussion and not much more. But no matter what transpires from this point forward, the Small Pond is poisoned irrevocably for me. I had some legitimate ambitions about wanting to be a community leader, about wanting to help kids who grew up like I did find their way up the ladder into better opportunities, about wanting to serve the city’s impressive arts community. About being one of the first people that the community thought of when something needed doing.
Now, all I want is to get out. Out for third time. Out for the last time. And to never, ever look back.
I suppose it’s easy enough to read this as sour grapes, if you’re so inclined. Self-indulgence. You can probably paint me easily enough as somebody who’s too full of himself, and if you don’t know me and this experience, feel free to convince yourself that I hit town with an “I’m better than you and you should bow down before me” attitude. Whatever. I know my intent, I know what my goals were, and I know how I went about them. I’m sure I made mistakes, but they were not mistakes of intent or bad faith.
I’m not going to be leaving tomorrow, of course. With luck, I can enjoy some success and accomplish some of my goals before I put Winston-Salem in the rearview mirror for good. I guess it’s even possible that there’s something here that I haven’t found yet, and that I’ll trip across it tomorrow and change my mind forever. I live with as open a mind as possible.
But at this stage, the forces of Small are winning big. I have neither the patience nor the desire to fight those battles. The stakes are just too insignificant – the neurotic egos of insecure little men aren’t worth the investment. At the end of the day, there has to be something more to take home than insane levels of stress and the knowledge that all I did was earn the right to take another soul-numbing beating tomorrow.
So, bad or just wrong? Maybe one of each. Coming back to Winston – probably bad. I got too invested in the rhetoric of change and gave my critical faculties the day off. Bad on me. Taking the job instead of the project? Call that one a simple wrong.
And now, on to the next chapter, which I expect to be exciting and rewarding. To my friends in the Big Pond: leave a light on for me. I’m coming home.