What shades of gray, gun control, and Kurt Vonnegut can teach you about decisions.

Iraq Shooting Range (US Army)

Home on the range

A story oft repeated at the Naval Academy was that a single SEAL Team shoots more small-arms ammunition in a single year than the entire U.S. Marine Corps. Whether that technically holds up, the staggering implication is indeed true: The only thing stopping us from shooting more was sheer hours in the day — and the fact that no one ever found a faster way to clean up all the brass casings constantly spewing underfoot from an assortment of handguns, rifles, automatic weapons (“machine guns”), and grenade launchers. Let’s say those days gave me plenty of comfort with firearms.

But I was never actually absolutist on gun rights, as much as old Sri might have relished such purity. Reductio ad absurdum, one’s neighbor should not possess a nuclear weapon. Napalm, missiles, and grenades sound like a bad idea to most people, too. So while most doctrinaires on either side believe they have the high ground of principle, most sane people are arguing about shades of gray. No matter how logical or anointed we view our particular stance, we’re usually the butt of the old joke: “Madam, now we’re just haggling over the price.” [1]

Seeds of our construction

We all want to believe that our own beliefs are original and objective. Few of them are. More than the military, growing up in a conservative family in a conservative region planted predictable seeds in the pasture of my mind. [2]

Our views are frequently not our own. Often they have been planted there by external forces, whether directly (e.g. parents, school, companies), by circumstance (e.g. reaction to a trauma), or by our own critical thinking reinforcing itself automatically through confirmation bias.

Our beliefs are often not even subjective. Many questions are debatable, and individuality of perspective is warranted. But some issues have correct answers that are hidden or, worse, that evolve over time. In this case, are our collective individual opinions just really, really wrong? [3]

An example of a hidden answer is the truth behind dark matter, which scientists have yet to conclusively pin down. On the other hand, the qualities that make a good CEO change as a company grows — and arguably as the world’s workforce and technology evolve, too.

Moreover, divergent opinions often seem much more different than they really are. This is due to a bias toward that which is known (risk aversion) and recent (narrow focus). [4]

It has become a truism that the world is not black and white. [5] When a business grapples with a problem where the right answer is hidden, dynamic, or null, a decision-making process begins. Whatever that looks like in your organization, the most important part (usually at the end) is where each participant weighs in with her views. [6] Let’s look at an example.

Fifty Shades of Flowery Gray (Noirathsi’s Eye (lic.))

Brady Bunches of Oats, Inc. is mulling over a new strategy. Marcia proposes selling premium cereals with high-end ingredients for a premium price. Jan favors innovative flavors but at a low cost.

Underlying each of these views is a complex set of data, emotions, and logic, with varying degrees of probability that they are valid. Jan and Marcia have both been at Brady, Inc. since the merger of the Brady and Martin corporations several years earlier. The company has a way of doing things, a cash-cow business they want to protect, and a vocal group of customers and shareholders advising on the company’s future.

by Michael B. (lic.)

Envision the engineer’s sound board at Electric Ladyland. Picture the rows and rows of dials, switches, and knobs that combine rhythms and pitches coming from every voice and instrument picked up by the mics. The views of Jan and Marcia — as well as Peter, Greg, and the rest of the team — are like channels tweaked and tuned and then mixed together on a sound board. The result may be harmonious or ugly. Importantly, there are numerous possible beautiful versions (and even more ugly ones), which may be difficult to see without significant experimentation. The engineer (business leader) and structure of the mixing board (business process) will impact the result in serious but sometimes opaque ways.

That is one set of problems. What should be more worrisome is that the inputs that govern the destiny of the decision have been seeded long before the question at hand. In the case of Brady, Inc., let’s say the ‘right’ answer is that they should produce vegan and ketogenic versions of Brady’s existing flavors. Perhaps the Innovator’s Dilemma is not so much about risk aversion as it is about simple inertia that is created by years of focus and attracting the talent required only for that focus. Mixing Jan and Marcia into a song never could’ve produced the right strategy, and Brady Bunches of Oats may be doomed as a result.

In an era where technological change accelerates, consumer tastes evolve so fast (and proliferate), and talented people move around so much, organizations would be wise to focus on hiring people who are open-minded and have a wide range of experience. Next, they should vary their decision-making process to see whether one way produces more Radiohead than, god forbid, Dexys Midnight Runners.

Societal change resembles that of small organizations. But I’d argue that while societal questions are more important, the mixing board is broken and the seeds underlying our views more potent..

When a so-called seed crystal is put into a liquid solution of the a same chemical composition, the fluid rapidly assumes the exact solid structure of the seed. In Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle, the “ice-nine” seed crystal threatens to turn all the water in the world to ice, destroying humanity.

We may regard ourselves as open-minded, and most older adults will admit their views evolved over time. [7] But our individual views — and those of society at large — do not have as wide a range or degree of dynamism as they appear. Like molecules in a wall of quartz, we might not be doing much more than vibrating in place. And the seeds that got us there remain a mystery.


[1] The joke, often attributed to Winston Churchill, goes as follows:

Churchill: “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?”

Socialite: “My goodness, Mr. Churchill… Well, I suppose… we would have to discuss terms, of course.”

Churchill: “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”

Socialite: “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!” Churchill: “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price”

However, it seems the original version was almost certainly from Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook, according to this.

[2] You could say that we can’t objectively determine our own objectivity. The same foundations that got us to a particular conclusion are the same ones that we would use to determine if we are objective.

[3] I’m arguing that you can’t have a subjective view of an objective question. No one would say you’re being subjective if you say the sun didn’t come up today. Of course, we might not know whether the question has a right answer or not.

[4] If you want to really insult someone in tech, tell them that they’re “randomizing” other teams. Of course, there is some truth in the intent of such a statement, as the best leaders are decisive and consistent. However, this random factor is likely the spark companies need to escape decline.

It is a pity that often only the ‘man in charge’ (or woman!) usually feels comfortable sharing “crazy ideas.” I suggest that this is for two reasons: (a) employees don’t want to risk sounding crazy or mercurial and (b) employees don’t want to waste time on an idea that is likely to be met with daunting organizational roadblocks that they don’t control.

Separately, credit goes to Daniel Kahnemann’s work on recency bias.

[5] Part of growing up and being a better listener is embracing this. But some people annoyingly embrace this truism as a religion because they are either extremely cynical or like to sound really wise. There are, in fact, many applications of black-and-white, especially when applied in a practical sense.

[6] These views impact the process in all of its phases. For instance, a data analysis will be conducted according to the biases of the analyst.

[7] I wager that most people consider themselves BOTH consistent and flexible depending on how the question is worded, as both traits are considered desirable in isolation despite being contradictory.