STRATEGIC SKILLS: decision quality, intellectual horsepower, learning on the fly, problem solving
Decision maker. We might all make thousands of decisions in a day, but we all know “decision maker” is a title reserved for high ranking people with power and authority to call the shots. The CEO, the President, your mom. Competency in solving problems, learning on the fly, and making quality decisions are what gets you there.
I’m tagging all of these articles #67 (for the 67 competencies we’ll be exploring together). You’ll find a #67 linking to the complete listing of all the articles at both the beginning and end of each installment.
Disclaimer: Remember, I don’t have the official Lominger documentation for this, nor am I a licensed consultant. These articles are merely my personal, high level exploration of the 67 Lominger competencies in name only, as listed all over the internet, and should not be construed as being the intellectual property of or otherwise endorsed by Korn/Ferry.
MAKING COMPLEX DECISIONS
We make thousands of decisions every single day. From the moment we decide to hit the snooze button (or not, you uber-productive types) to the minute we decide it’s time to rack out for the night, our days are filled with decisions. Some are almost invisible – should I grab 4th gear or go straight to 5th? Some are more frustrating than they need to be – what should we do for dinner tonight? And some are straight out of the First World Problems Daily – the internet is down, so now what do I do?
These are all fairly easy decisions to make. But how often do we make complex decisions?
- Should I quit my job?
- Should we buy this house?
- Should we make this competency stuff free or charge $1 per download?
- Should I get the $4,000 Gen 2.5 Pajero this summer, or save for the $15,000 Delica next year?
No doubt you’ve got some questions like this of your own. And let’s not forget the granddaddy of them all – what do I want to do with my life? We’ve already established our day jobs really only account for about half our experiences and we need to figure out creative ways to get our gearhead experiences on our resumes. How should I do that? This sort of stuff is what I consider complex.
I’m putting a lot of time into these competency articles because I want GBXM to help us all put more of our personal power to the ground, so to speak. We spend 5 days a week wishing the weekend would hurry up and get here. You know that’s another way of saying we’re wishing 70% of our waking lives would hurry up and pass us by? That’s what I want to change – in my own life, too.
IN A NUTSHELL
Today, we’re going to talk about making complex decisions – decision quality, intellectual horsepower, learning on the fly, and problem solving. I say “we” because I hope if this subject interested you enough to click a link, you’ll want to leave a comment or get in touch so we can discuss specific examples or something like that. This series is literally me thinking about the Lominger competencies based on my own gearhead experiences. Adding your comments only makes this more useful for all of us.
As I was drafting up the outline for this piece, I started noticing some trends.
- define the problem
- avoid biases (aka: backfire effect)
- tap others/experts for feedback (aka: you)
- don’t let emotions trip you up (aka: be logical)
- consider multiple possible solutions (divergent ideation)
- avoid “analysis paralysis” (come up with plan, stick with it)
Today we’re thinking about how we make the best possible solution given the fully defined problem and an understanding of the real, root cause and effect.
 DECISION QUALITY
How would you describe decision quality? Is it picking the right option for the here and now, or the longer term, character building experiences because you didn’t know then what you know now? Admittedly, it’s a bit challenging for me to even write about! Again, this whole series is something of a personal journey I’m trying to share with the gearheads of the world, so let’s try framing this as something we want others to see in us.
Googling around a bit (yes – I’m researching this stuff), I get the sense this competency is all about being recognized for making decisions which, more often than not, prove to be the right choice at the right time. Quality decision makers are known for quickly analyzing situations, then making calls based on experience and personal judgment. They’re also sought out by others who want their advice.
What I find interesting, here, is how long term vision and goals can ultimately determine the quality of the decision. For example, let’s say I offer you a choice between the following:
- a completely modified vehicle of your choice valued at US$20,000, built/maintained by someone else
- US$20,000 to buy/build/maintain the same vehicle yourself
Which option is the RIGHT choice? Option 1 gets you the wheels ready to roll, but you don’t get the experience of building the machine. Option 2 gets you the wheels – eventually – but you have to put in a lot of hard work to gain the experience of building and caring for the thing yourself. A simpler way to put this same example is how we can all – financial means notwithstanding – buy a car tonight that will get us to work tomorrow or spend less than half the amount and fix the one we’ve got over the next couple weeks if we’re willing to bum rides.
Sound familiar? Fast, right, cheap – pick any two. There’s no escaping compromise. Every decision we make comes with opportunity cost. Given the choice between A and B, we give up on B when when we choose A, right? Now, I’m a firm believer in always looking for ways to replace OR with AND, but it’s not always possible. In any case, it’s clear we need a detailed vision of what we’re after to drive quality decision making. If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you choose the right path to get there?
 INTELLECTUAL HORSEPOWER
This brings me to intellectual horsepower. What the hell is “intellectual horsepower,” anyway? One of the neat, and yet slightly scary things about exploring these competencies publicly is looking into some of them and realizing I’m thinking about my own weaknesses.
Intellectual horsepower, I’ll be honest, has been the butt of most of my Lominger sarcasm since I first heard of it. You know I’m big on using metaphor to help us all understand new ideas in terms we already understand, but I struggle with defining this one. GBXM is all about helping gearheads transfer more of their own horsepower to the ground – just like an actual gearbox, get it? Best I can define this one, if horsepower is the ability to do work, then intellectual horsepower must be the ability to do intellectual work.
If you’re strong in this area, people probably think you’re pretty sharp. If you’re intelligent, able to pick up new ideas and concepts fairly easily, and agile enough to pivot (change course without losing your position) in a new direction toward your goals, you’re probably doing alright.
We’re all emotional creatures, but how often do we really separate our emotions from fact when faced with challenges? Looking at the numbers, we know we’re actually better off keeping our current wheels than buying new ones, but we buy that new machines because we want it. Know what I mean?
BUSY VS. PRODUCTIVE
Anyone who’s read Stephen Covey’s business classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People will recall the 4 quadrant graph for breaking things down into important, non-important, urgent, and non-urgent. For those who aren’t, I’ve included an image.
Life comes at us fast. With so many things competing for our attention these days, we need this idea more than ever. Our first priority should be those things which are both urgent and important – the daily driver won’t start, or the daily driver is on fire. After that, it’s those things which are important, but not urgent – the daily driver will need a new battery pretty soon, and it might be a good idea to invest in one of those small fire extinguishers.
Maybe this is the crux of intellectual horsepower – knowing the difference and acting on it in the moment. “Sorry, My daily driver just caught fire. I’m not going to be able to help you pick a turbo to take advantage of that smoking 50% off deal before the deadline tonight.” (aka: urgent, but not important) Likewise the ability to tell what’s neither urgent nor important, eg; catching up on House of Cards on Netflix.
I firmly believe part of this one is expanding our horizons. Sure, we all roll our eyes and downplay the value of various other automotive cliques from time to time, but which do you think is more ignorant – slamming a car so low it has to be partially disassembled to pull in and out of parking lots, or talking shit on strangers who do that over the internet simply because you’re unwilling to talk to them and hear them talk about the automotive art form as passionately as you do quarter mile ETs and dyno slips?
My life has been forever changed because I built a couple motors and helped install a few others. I’ve no problem with driving a US$2,000 Pajero to work every day (without AC, in Phoenix, by the way), partly because I know I’ve put more than that into the head alone on previous daily drivers. Do I still have any of those hot parts I was – and remain – so proud of? Nope.
The $1700 race head is gone, along with the Crower cams, Megasquirt EMS, and all the little titanium bits. But those experiences will always be with me. They changed me. First time you fire a new engine you assembled with your own hands, you become a different person. There’s no turning back at that point. You’ve passed the big test. Everything else mechanical on the vehicle is secondary.
Just like all those thousands of dollars in mods I sold for pennies on the dollar – seriously, I spent like $5,000 building that engine, only to sell it for $800 and a running stocker – the experience of leaving your home country to hang out with other gearheads, some of which might not even speak your language, is an experience on par with building your first engine. The experience is the most valuable part of the deal. It expands your horizons.
Quality decision making requires separating opinion from fact. It requires an open mind to new ideas which can often be alien on the surface, looking for common ground. It’s about considering all the facts before rushing to a solution – or judgment. Have you ever heard of backfire effect?
I first learned about backfire effect from an article on You Are Not So Smart. Basically, we like to think we’re super rational and will change our beliefs when faced with new information, but the opposite is actually true. Faced with evidence contrary to our beliefs, our beliefs tend to get stronger. Calling all strawmen. Want to see it in action?
- A new scientific report proves, without a doubt, mankind is accelerating climate change.
- A new law is issued which states abortion is not a form of birth control.
- Electric, self-driving cars will be cheaper, safer, and better.
Chances are, regardless of your political beliefs, you disagreed with one of those. Sure, I’ve no evidence for any of them, but that feeling you just got – probably similar to the one I got thinking them up – is your signal that backfire effect is taking place.
Did you feel your “bullshit meter” start going off? Would you go (have you gone) after the source of the report, looking for loopholes or reasons to discredit the organization behind it instead of consider the evidence they present? Should abortion be 100% free and unrestricted – even to those too lazy to bother with a condom? What’s the real reason you despise self-driving EVs?
See what I mean? Separating opinion from fact. Not so much walking away from our beliefs, but how much better off are we when we can spot ourselves slipping into defensive positions? Making quality decisions requires us to be more self-aware, more mindful, more present in the moment. Considering we barely have time to make decisions these days, let alone pause to reflect on the outcomes, it’s important we come up with systems to learn on the fly.
 LEARNING ON THE FLY
Do you learn quickly from new problems? How well do you handle them? I tend to freak out a bit. Ever stick your finger in an electric outlet or touch a hot burner on the stove? We learned on the fly in those situations, didn’t we! Not every learning opportunity is so obvious – or painful – but I wonder if there isn’t always a little stress involved.
The rally car comes into the first service of the day. There’s oily residue all over the rear, passenger side wheel well. We’ve determined the remote reservoir shock is leaking at the bottom. The bolt is loose. Our service checklist doesn’t say anything specific about checking the shocks for leaks, but we’ve got 30 minutes to come up with a solution before we start incurring time penalties. What do we do?
Having been in this situation a couple years ago at the Prescott Rally, crewing for Kris and Christine Marciniak, I can tell you we quickly reallocated team resources in the moment. Dan and Kris got the wrenches and crawled under the car to try a few ideas while I continued working through the rest of the service checklist – ie; the rest of the car. We got the shock buttoned back up and the car back out on their minute. All was well.
You can imagine our collective surprise when the leak was back at the next service, some two-plus hours of Kris’ being smooth and not lifting on dozens of miles of primitive roads. I mean, the car regularly gets airborne and here we were with a brand new, expensive, remote reservoir shock pissing oil all over the place. This time, we checked the shock first, then I went right to work on the checklist while Kris and Dan resumed troubleshooting.
Long story short, we’d end up trying – in vain – to refill the shock with a modified turkey baster and plastic medicine syringe in the hotel parking lot around midnight that night. The idea being it would still beat an old, stock Dodge Neon strut, and would at least preserve some of the car’s balance. We just didn’t want to run it dry and destroy it.
We were learning on the fly. Looking back now, it was ridiculous, but in the moment, we were on a very tight timetable and had to brainstorm possible solutions, pick the most realistic one given the circumstances, and put it to the test on challenging rally stages. I’m sure you’ve run into similar challenges in your own automotive life.
FIND THE ROOT CAUSE
Sometimes, it takes a little experimentation to uncover the root cause of a problem. Do I need to rebuild my carburettor or just adjust the dashpot? I could turn the dashpot adjustment screw all the way clockwise and see what – if any – effect it has on the engine. Likewise, I could turn it all the way counter-clockwise and see what happens. If the engine runs better, I can be fairly confident the cause of my irritating, random high idle was turning the wrong screw to adjust idle speed when the throttle cable was simply too tight. If not, I’m after another cause.
When making decisions, we need to keep an eye out for those root causes, A good place to start is looking for patterns. Patterns help us narrow our focus, accelerating our problem solving efforts. Faced with a new challenge, we often reflect back on past experiences without even thinking about it. Ever spend hours – days, even – chasing an electrical gremlin? How long did it take you to rule that issue out next time something similar came up?
A lot of this is simply being mindful – awareness of the experience right here, right now. We make thousands of decisions every day, but most of them happen on auto-pilot. This means it can be all too easy to let emotions get the best of us, spending minutes with the hammer when a few seconds with a toothpick would get the job done.
PROBLEMS = CHALLENGES = OPPORTUNITIES
Looking back, we gearheads have had plenty of opportunities to learn. From installing our first mods to attending our firsts events, we can confidently say these experiences were opportunities. But they were not without their challenges, too. I had several opportunities to work on engines in my own vehicles, after all, but each time, these were also challenges.
- How am I going to get this done before I have to go back to work?
- What am I going to miss out on because of this thing this time?
- Who can I count on to help make this happen quickly?
- Where am I going to get the money for this?
Let’s be clear, these could all be considered problems, too. Sitting on the side of the road waiting for a flatbed on Friday afternoon last time I lost the engine in the Pajero, I can assure, you, I wasn’t excited about the “opportunity” to rebuild the engine over the weekend. I even spent a couple hours that night browsing dealership websites looking for a base model, econobox replacement. (Mitsubishi Mirage or iMiEV, ideally.)
The Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, said, “This too shall pass.” I’ve always found comfort in that. Doesn’t matter how much things suck right now. It’s going to pass. And if it doesn’t, as Confucius said, “It does not matter how slow you go so long as you do not stop.” One foot in front of the other, you’re going to be somewhere else. Being mindful in the moment means we take smarter steps and come out better on the other side.
When things seem too challenging, it can’t hurt to try breaking it down into smaller pieces. When your engine turns – but doesn’t start – what do you do? You break it down. I need fuel, compression, spark.
Then you start with the simplest tests of each area. Can you hear the fuel pump prime when you turn the key? Do you have fuel at the rail? If you disconnect a spark plug wire, can you jump a spark with a screwdriver? And so on and so forth. This is a perfect example of breaking a problem down into smaller pieces. And we’ve all been there.
A little trick, when I find myself struggling with a problem, I try reframing it as a challenge. We’ve already got everything inside us to achieve our dreams. It’s all a question of applying ourselves to those ends. A couple months ago, my mortgage broker was asking for some info on my 401K retirement plan and I couldn’t find it. Considering it was required to close the loan on our first house and we were trying to close before the end of the month, this was a real problem.
I reframed things in my mind, calling it a challenge. Instead of approaching it from a “I can’t do this” perspective, now I was working from a “I’ve got to slow down and figure this one out” point of view. It wasn’t easy, but I ended up finding the info required, hidden deep within several less-than-intuitive drop-down menus on the website.
Again, we’ve already got everything inside us to achieve our dreams. I know that sounds corny, but it’s at the center of what we’re exploring, here, with this series. Are there any limits to what you can google? How many communities are you involved with these days? How much can you ask them that isn’t specifically related to the main goal of the forum? What’s that off-topic section for, if not for discussing other topics? It’s for reaching out to others who might have insight into other topics.
We all start somewhere. I’m hoping this series helps us all get something special started. This might be a good time to mention the importance of balancing perfection with action. Remember, we are what we do. I’d even go so far as to point out I don’t think these long-ass articles are perfect by any means at this point, but I promised GBXM would do more to help gearheads build high performance machines and lives. I have to do this. I want to do this.
The point of this article isn’t to say we need to make sure our decisions are perfect, but that we’re after a decent ratio over time. Consider this article food for thought, maybe a few ideas to keep in mind next time you find yourself face to face with a nasty problem. (And, if any of these articles help you out, please let me know!)
Are we talking about making quality decisions or solving problems? Maybe they’re one and the same. Maybe they’re not, but go hand-in-hand. You can’t solve a problem without making a decision, after all. Becoming a “decision maker” requires a solid track record of making good decisions, decisions which, obviously, solve problems for others. Your employer wants you to solve problems for the business. Your customer wants you to solve problems for him.
One of the gearheads I respect the most, Michael Rodarte, once posed the question, “How come there’s time and money to do it over, but not to do it right the first time?” A few years ago, Michael was flying a desk for an investment firm – and hating every minute of it. Today, he’s building race cars professionally – and loving it. He, his wife, and toddler moved back into his mom’s house, paid off all their debt, and then put a sizeable down payment on their next house to reduce their monthly expenses to the point where he could afford the pay cut to change careers. This is effective problem solving. This is isolating and addressing the root cause.
You can read his whole story from 2013 in issue1.04.
It’s all about honest analysis of the situation. It’s looking beyond the obvious in pursuit of understanding WHY things are the way they are. When we accurately define the challenge, we come up with more accurate solutions. How? By leaving the Jump to Conclusions Mat in the closet.
All those decisions we make every day. Thousands of them. They’re all important in their own way, but we can’t take our ability to solve problems for granted. When problems arise, we can empower ourselves by reframing them as challenges.
Start by defining the challenge. Look for hidden problems beyond the obvious and seek to address the root cause wherever possible. Don’t just stop at the first answer or let yourself get stuck on what worked last time. Sure, consider what worked last time – patterns and all that save us time – but don’t paint yourself into a corner as a one-trick-pony!
If we can catch backfire effect in action, we can take a step back, making sure our own personal biases aren’t blinding us from alternate ideas and solutions. In the end, we want to be known for having a solid track record of mostly successes. We want to be the people others turn to for help because they know we can help them solve their problems.
Who knows. If we step up our game in these areas, maybe one of us will become CEO or president. Probably not your mom, though. That would be really weird.
What would you add to these thoughts on making quality decisions?
[ featured image: Tony Harrison, Flickr CC ]
[ QA: Ben Watts, Flickr CC ]
[ NSX: Casey Boyle, Flick CC ]
[ Breakdown: Ahmed Mahin Fayaz, Flickr CC ]
[ Opportunity: Miguelb, Flickr CC ]