Decision Making and Expectations

The baby cries and calls mom from a bed

For years, I’ve asked those in my audiences if they tell stories. Predictably most hands go up. Then I ask, “How many of you tell stories that get better every time you tell them?” That gets a sure-fire laugh.

Sadly however, I would argue that many, if not most, of those stories are about a bad experience. Have you ever heard someone tell an airline story where the plane was on time, the service superb and the fare reasonable? How about one where the insurance claim was paid with a smile? Those tales are few and far between.

So what does this do to our daily decision making? Well, you get what you expect, at least to some degree. Some might accuse me of going “woo-woo” by saying that. But many times, the real reason is that we don’t take time to clarify what outcome we are seeking in the first place. Then we‘re at mercy of whatever happens when we act.

Let’s take the two examples above. First, air travel stories. Since I fly quite often, I have learned to prepare for the unexpected. Delays, cancellations, lost luggage, forgotten passports – you know the drill. Do I still have some unpleasant experiences in spite of preparation? Sure. But I rarely tell those stories since I don’t consider them significant. I keep my focus on the outcome, which is to get to the speaking engagement on time, even if I have to charter a private jet. (Been there. Done that.) When I keep my eye on the contingencies, I’m more likely to get the outcome I desire.

Then there’s insurance claims. Have I had to fight the bureaucracy? Of course. But it sure helps to prepare in advance for the potential obstacles. Do I write down my questions ahead of time? Yes. Do I consider how the person I will be speaking with might respond? Absolutely. Do I brace myself for the frustration I might feel? Always. I work to maintain the level-headed persistence required to navigate a system that is understaffed, overburdened and adversarial. Do I achieve my desired outcome each time? No, but I do see results, even if it is simply clarification I can leverage in the next step.

Developing the habits of mind to define your desired outcome before acting saves time, treasure and heartburn. No, it won’t leave you with stories to tell. But which would you rather have? Peace of mind or one more sad tale to share over cocktails?

Use These 3 Strategies to Manage the Digitally Dependent

Man and woman sitting in front of screens in a dark office room. Eps8 CMYK Organized by layers. Global colors. Gradients used.

Marty, recruits restaurant managers. Last January, he interviewed a candidate for possible positions. This past week, he wanted to connect with this individual about a particular opportunity. He sent the following message:

“We talked back in January. I need to connect with you about a new job in Allentown. When would be a good time to call today?”

The candidate’s reply? “My phone currently has issues on calls. It’s very difficult to speak over the phone. I am available via e-mail though.”

In his exasperation, Marty sent me an e-mail explaining what happened and adding, “In your words, FIGURE IT OUT!!!!! His phone has issues??? Can he borrow someone else’s phone? Maybe go to his mom’s house and use her rotary-dial phone? How about Morse code??”

One of the big deceptions of the past twenty years has been that digital technology would make our lives easier. Perhaps, but only in ways manipulated by those producing the software. As we have grown more dependent on choose endless options, we’ve also become more shallow thinkers. The result? Limited thinking that can stump many of us even with everyday challenges.

So how do you supervise those who limit their problem solving to the options on a smart phone? Try these three strategies:

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Ask “what else?” – When someone says, “I don’t know what else to do,” ask “What else might work?” and then get quiet and wait. We all need a little push sometimes to think more innovatively. When the person in charge places that responsibility on us, we will try harder. If the person suggests a solution that might work but could be better, ask “And what else?” Do this several times and they’ll get the message that there is a better solution out there and it’s their job to find it. When they do, a complimentary word will encourage them to try harder next time without your assistance.

Work the problem with them, but make sure they do the thinking – Say, “Let’s work on this together. Where should we begin?” Then wait and watch. Be patient, it might a few seconds for their creativity to ignite. As they work the problem, act as a facilitator. Resist the temptation to make suggestions. If you do, they will be tempted to adopt your solution and stop there. Silence is your ally here. It will compel them to think harder and that’s the unspoken point.

When those around you conclude that they need to think for themselves, they will discover that most of life’s solutions lie in their critical thinking, not on-line. Digital dependency can be cured. It just takes a bit of persistence.

Can’t Keep Up? 7 Quick Ways to Simplify Your Decisions

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How do the best decision makers make the best decisions? Here’s what I’ve learned through hundreds of interviews over the past 25 years. The big secret? It’s not about the strategy. It’s about execution. How do you measure up? No excuses.

Don’t decide – Extinguish your inner control freak. Stop making decisions you don’t need to. Pretzels or chips at the division lunch? Who cares? Order of the agenda? What difference does it make? Each of these little imperatives takes energy, energy that you should be expending on more critical issues. If someone has to decide, let those who are most invested do so.

Prioritize – Every Monday morning, make a list of the problems and decisions that will require your attention and energy. Assign each a level of important from 1 to 5. Ditch the 1’s. You shouldn’t be making them. If you can, delegate the 2’s and 3’s. Concentrate on the 4’s and 5’s. Easier said than done? Of course! But those making the best decisions have made this, or something like it, a practice that defines how they approach each week. Not only does it help them improve personal productivity, it inspires those around them to do the same. After all, if you want the boss’ attention, you should emulate their habits.

Delegate – If someone else can make the decision, why should you? Not only is delegation a good way to remove tasks from your plate, it’s a great to observe others in action. How well they handle what you assign is a window into their capabilities and investment in the job. Don’t just dump, however. Explain the meaning and value of what you’re assigning. If you can’t do that, maybe the task doesn’t need to be completed or the decision made.

Get clear – For each decision, ask “What will success look like? Then benchmark against this desired outcome, until the decision is made. Others’ input? Is it relevant to a success outcome? Information gleaned from research? Should it influence the decision? A compelling argument from colleague? Should it impact how you act? More data is not necessarily better, many times it’s just more data.

Spend your energy on the decisions that count – Economist Herbert defined “satisficing” as not making the best decision but the one that’s good enough. Ninety-five percent of daily decisions are “satisficable.” But it’s those five percent that impact your productivity and effectiveness. While the best decision makers certainly deal with their fair share of the urgent, they are careful to guard their energy. Fifty little decisions can drain time, focus and leave little energy for concentration.

Set aside time – Got a big decision to make? Get away and think. The people I’ve interviewed disappear to a location where they can concentrate without distractions. Those with whom they work learn that these times are sacred and disrupting them will get you on the wrong side of the boss. Some take time when necessary. Others set aside the same time every week. Significant decisions are then funneled into these periods for real concentration.

Decide! – If you’ve gathered the best information and are as close to peace as you can get, act. No matter what you decide the outcome will be different that you expect. Why? Because people are unpredictable and life happens. The best decision makers accept this and prepare for what could happen and how to respond. They also learn from these outcomes and use them to inform other decisions going forward.

Vanquish Multitasking with These Seven Steps

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Jackie can answer customer calls, complete reports, text her kids and keep her eye on Facebook all at once. She may seem a bit scattered at times, but prides herself on efficiency. She also thinks people who can only focus on one task are squandering time.

Elaine is one of those people. Rather balancing five activities at the same time, Elaine is known for closing her door and disappearing into one project for two hours. Admittedly, she’s not up to date with the latest office conversations and hasn’t checked Facebook in a couple of weeks. But here’s the thing . . . Jackie works for Elaine. In fact, Elaine runs the division. Jackie’s on the front line. They’re about the same age with the similar formal educations.

So what’s the difference? The way they work and their choice of priorities. Jackie believes she can attend to several tasks at the same time. All it takes is flexibility. She’s read all the articles and posts on multitasking and thinks she has it down to a science. Elaine on the other hand, has discovered that her habit of allotting time for focus affords her the opportunity to understand the broader context of a decision or project. In the process, she produces more thoughtful outcomes.

Why the difference between Jackie and Elaine? Simply put, Elaine discovered long ago that the people in the positions she aspired to prioritize the tasks and projects before them. Then they stick with each one until it is finished. In the process, they don’t feel as scattered. They are also better able to plumb the depths of their knowledge and experience, coming up with the best solution rather than the one that’s just good enough. In return, they are perceived as wise and insightful. This, of course, has propelled them into positions of greater influence.

Multi-tasking has become a symbol of productivity in today’s workplace. If you can juggle five tasks while eating lunch and walking the dog, people are supposed to admire you. The problem is you can’t . . . and most of them don’t. As I continue the interviews for Common Sense by Friday, my forthcoming book, a consistent theme has been compartmentalization. That is the habit of setting aside defined blocks of time for completing significant projects and considering important decisions. “I’ve learned over time,” senior manager told me, that if I don’t take the time, no one will give it to me.”

So, how do you make the shift from multi-tasking to the focus and compartmentalization critical to moving up within the organization? After all, you’ll feel like you’re swimming against the tide, at least at first.

Start small – Habits are hard to break, especially when you’re proud of them. If you’re going to make better decisions and move up within the organization, the scattered thinking that results from multitasking has to go. That doesn’t mean you can extinguish this practice overnight. Incremental change will be your friend here. How about that project due at the end of the week? Rather than chunking it in with all the stuff on your plate, set aside a block of time when you can concentrate and complete it. This may feel uncomfortable at first. Your reward, however, will be better insights into the approach and solutions you need produce a more thoughtful outcome.

Set benchmarks – What’s reasonable? Try setting aside one task the first week, two tasks the second, and so on. Obviously, some ongoing tasks will still require immediate and perhaps ongoing attention. Make a list of what you do each week. Identify the projects and decisions that are good candidates for your more productive way of getting things done.

Explain yourself – Co-workers will ask, “What’s happening to you? You don’t seem to be as efficient as you used to be.” But efficiency is not the goal. It’s effectiveness that counts. Be careful about sharing too much. The other multitaskers will want to suck you back into their ranks. Say something like, “I’m just trying something a little different.” That should satisfy their curiosity. If they press, repeat the same basic response and excuse yourself to go back to work.

What about your boss? He may be used to dumping the details on you because “the multitaskers always get the stuff done.” Take him to coffee and say, “I’ve discovered that when I concentrate on one project at a time, I actually make better decisions and do more thoughtful work. So I’m getting away from trying to juggle a bunch of stuff at the same time. It’s just not as effective.” Hopefully, he will embrace this. If not, you have another decision to make.

Compartmentalize distractions – Let’s face it, much of society has become centered around FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. This includes social media, CNN updates, and the latest video downloads. You can’t just turn all this off. Besides, going “cold turkey” will make you nuts. Rather than all or nothing, set aside increasing amounts of time when you train your focus on the task or decision at hand. Then reward yourself by checking Facebook, searching Pinterest for recipes or watching cute kitty videos on YouTube. Will this transition take time? You bet. But anything worth having requires self-discipline and perseverance.

Seek insights from those who do it well – Look around, you know who those people are. They are the people you admire, the people in charge, the people to whom others turn for counsel. Outside of your workplace, you might find them in your other activities such as a place of worship, a school activity or a hobby you pursue. Make a list of them. When the opportunity presents itself, ask each one, “I admire how you’re able to make the best decisions by really focusing on the task at hand. What are your secrets for doing so?” Then get quiet, listen and learn.

Build your stamina – Changing habits is hard. But no one said the path to on-going success was easy. We are all surrounded by endless distractions and temptations. Incremental change is the key to ridding yourself of the multitasking monster. Those who do, however, are rewarded with a sense of momentum in their outcomes. They discover the value of concentration, reflection and grit. After all, it not how fast you make a decision, but the quality of the outcome. That’s what gets people promoted.

Relish the rewards – Talk to those who have vanquished multitasking and developed good habits of concentration and compartmentalization. They’ll tell you they also take time to enjoy the rewards. Ironically, they sometimes get their best insights when relaxing and reflecting. For them, taking time to focus is critical. But taking time to relax as well forms a great balance for success.

Make Curiosity a Part of Your Decision Making

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I am inherently curious. Offer me a factory tour and I’m there. Give me a chance to visit a new city and I’m all over it. I like nothing better than the “ah-has” that come with learning something new. Over the years, this curiosity has served me well as I’ve interacted with a spectrum of clients in a wide variety of industries. While my focus is workforce transition issues, it helps that I can talk retail with retailers and distribution with distributors.

I mentioned this in a presentation last month and an electrical contractor sitting in the front row raised his hand. “I’m always looking up,” he said, trying to figure out how the place was wired. I can be in a restaurant, shopping mall, or bus station, I’m always analyzing the other guy’s work.” I asked how many other people in the audience did something similar and a good portion raised their hands.

This sense of wonder will serve you well regardless of your occupation and environment. I am continually surprised how little most people know about the organization for which they work. As I write this for instance, a driver for a linen and uniforms service is walking past me. I have an urge to ask him, “So how does your company make money? Can you explain the business model to me?” If he didn’t assume I was nuts, chances are he might say something like, “It’s not my job to know stuff like that.” How sad, for both him and the firm he works for. Knowledge, regardless of your role in the organization is the key to better decision making and success on several levels.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not one of these tunnel-visioned people who’s only invested in the next paycheck. But what about the people around you? Better profits come from better productivity. Better productivity comes from better decision making. Better decision making comes from better knowledge. Better knowledge comes from a continual sense of wonder and curiosity. So what to do? Here are three easy-to-implement suggestions:

Make curiosity a part of your ethos. Take a tour. Connect with a colleague in another part of the business with whom you might benefit from a mutual relationship. Ask those questions about the firm and industry that will open doors to new opportunities. Step out of your comfort zone and enjoy the rewards.

Set aside time to discuss the details. Dedicate the first or last five minutes of every meeting to sharing something interesting about the firm. Explain why it’s essential and how it impacts everyone. If your people are remote, send them a video or an interesting set of factoids. You might even assign this task to others to encourage their curiosity. Chance are, you’ll be surprised by what they find fascinating.

Demonstrate how curiosity turns into success. Tell your story. Ask your boss to tell his story. Ask a top manager to her story. Do this enough and your people will conclude that asking more questions and developing a sense of wonder is essential to better opportunities not just with your firm, but elsewhere long-term.

An enquiring mind is essential for short-term and long-term success. Put it to work today and get those around you to do the same.

If You’re Not Prepared to Wrong . . .

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Ten years ago, British educator Sir Ken Robinson presented his widely hailed TED talk entitled Do Schools Kill Creativity? The recording has now been viewed close to 40,000,000 times. Buried inside his many points is a simple statement – “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” To me, this encapsulates much of why some people make better decisions than others.

The willingness to be wrong is, in many ways, a key to success. Andy Griffith joked that he tried to make twice as many mistakes each year as the year before. To him, this was a measure of creativity and the willingness to take risks. In spite of claims to the contrary, trial and error is still the best strategy for mastering problem solving. But beyond the primal fear of risking and failing, we are now confronted by other insidious factors.

One of these factors is information overload. This ranges from the three gazillion links we have to navigate through with every online search to the underlying manipulation we face in trying to do something as simple as purchasing tires. Is it any wonder that 97% of people never look past the first page of a search engine result?

A second factor is our present climate of polarization. When was the last time you hesitated to express an opinion for fear of being demonized for your beliefs? We’re kidding ourselves if we believe that these practices don’t infect our thinking and actions in the workplace. A business colleague for whom I’ve had a lot of respect looked at me with shock and distain recently when I expressed a different opinion from hers about a particular social policy. “Oh Bob!” she said. “How could you possibly believe that?” as if I were some sort of Neanderthal. It was enough to make even thick-skinned me hesitant to express my opinion going forward. Sadly, it’s also compelled me to re-think my relationship with this highly-talented woman.

A final factor is the unreasonable expectations we place on our youth to behave perfectly all the time. There is abundant research demonstrating that adolescents and young adults sometimes make poor choices simply because their brains are evolving at twice the pace of an infant’s. Along with trying to process this intellectual and emotional roller coaster, they have to navigate hormonal imbalances and the transition to adulthood. When kids did stupid stuff in the past, parents, teachers and authorities may have yelled, but they also reasoned. They taught them lessons, but they didn’t expel them, charge them with felonies and accuse them of being deviants. How do these practices contribute to a young person’s maturity and the strengthening of society? This, by the way, is not to excuse the behavior patterns of the relatively few who act in a manner that reasonable people find inappropriate.

Policymakers and institutional leaders have invented safe spaces, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and other euphemisms in a futile attempt to protect everyone from anything that might cause discomfort. Faculty members and students, for instance, are forbidden from saying or doing anything that anyone on campus might find offensive at any time for any reason. Organizations failing to publicly endorse the current flavors of political correctness receive veiled threats from government officials and media scrutiny that paints them as out of touch with society or worse. Attempting to enforce most of these well-meaning but unenforceable rules and regulations is a fool’s errand, of course. Activists shout down those with opposing views without tolerating what this nation used to consider healthy debate. My favorites are the so-called straw man arguments because “everyone knows that your belief is abhorrent and my belief is common sense.”

But . . . we have to speak our minds. We have to express our opinions. We have to suggest out-of-the-box solutions. We have to argue our beliefs. We have to debate the controversies. This is hard to do when you have an underlying fear of being vilified for simply stating an opinion. We will be wrong sometimes. We will unknowingly offend sometimes. We will apologize sometimes. And we should also expect civility and respect from those with whom we disagree.

This is the only way a society remains healthy. We have to be creative. We have to create original ideas. We have to embrace visions that others might initially find uncomfortable. We also have to accept that we might fail. We have to express our beliefs with the understanding that others might disagree. We have to take risks in order to become better thinkers and decision makers. These are the only ways to contribute to the greater good.

In the face of the present civil chaos, we still need to think, to make decisions, to solve problems and overcome the resistance or even bullying of others. We need to do it at home, with friends, in the workplace and in the public square. And what to you get out of all this? Peace of mind, knowing that you tried to solve the problem, make the best decision, and contribute to the common good. In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt said it well, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Answer These Five Questions to Make the Best Decisions

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In the 1970’s, economist Herbert Stein coined the term satisficing. He defined it as not making the best decision but the one that’s good enough. In the big picture, we satisfice lots of times every day. In some situations, our choices come down to, “Life’s too short.” In others, we decide not to “rock the boat.” In still others, “there’s only so much time in the day.” In most cases, this behavior is acceptable. But then there are those times when you know more is at stake. How should you approach decisions requiring your best effort? Before beginning, answer these five questions:

  1. What does success look like? The clearer your definition of the outcome, the easier it becomes to identify the risks, obstacles and steps for moving forward. Resist the temptation to act just because of outside pressure, pushy influencers, or impatience. Succumbing to these always costs you down the road.
  1. Who are the true stakeholders? Is it your boss or your boss’s boss? Is it the customer or the committee she reports to? Is it your child’s teacher or the assistant principal? Is it the salesperson or the sales manager? You get the idea. If the decision’s stakeholders are not readily apparent, probe a bit to be sure.
  1. What is the timing? Today’s world seems to demand immediate decisions for everything. The best decision makers set parameters to make sure they make the best choices. They push back on unrealistic deadlines. They prioritize and focus on the important rather than the urgent. They discipline themselves to think through timing when making decisions of significance.
  1. Should I be making this decision? Sure, it’s easier to just act. But what message does that send to those you supervise? How will they grow if you make all the decisions? On the other hand, maybe the problem has been turfed to you. Are you the best person to be making it? If not, what do you say? Whom should you refer? Effective decision makers aren’t afraid to assert themselves to ensure the best overall outcome.
  1. How important is this decision to me? The best decision makers are also good prioritizers. They don’t spend time choosing tee-shirt designs for the corporate event. They graciously refuse tasks they shouldn’t be doing. Sure, sometimes they end up doing didily for the boss. But even that gets finessed to the bottom of the list if possible. Their focus remains on the decisions of consequence.

So . . . how many of these habits do you practice already? What can you do to adopt the rest?

Don’t Let the Abilene Paradox Derail Your Decision Making

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A few years ago, I served on the board of a trade association. At one meeting, a proposal was made that the group print a directory of its members to be distributed to potential customers. I, along with a number of others, was ambivalent. After all, why publish a paper directory in a digital world?

Initial discussion centered on this issue. But the person proposing the idea persisted. He forcefully rebutted every concern expressed. He spoke eloquently and passionately and refused to yield a single point. After 30 minutes, we relented partially, I suspect, out of not wanting to foster hard feelings. The funds were approved. The directories were printed and half the 4000 copies were distributed to prospective customers. The response? “Why don’t you put all this on-line?” they asked. “That’s where we search for vendors.” The remaining 2000 directories? They currently sit in a member’s garage.

This is an example of the Abilene Paradox where a group of people decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many in that group. We’ve all done this, probably multiple times. But what impact does this practice have on everyday decision making? In our conflict-avoidant society, it is costing us time, money, effort and, I would argue, personal success. After all, if you relent and just go along with the gang, what are you sacrificing?

The antidote? Speak your mind. Challenge the veracity of those arguing for the proposal. Compel them to provide rational arguments. Will this, at times, cause discomfort? Sure, but so does giving in. Holding your position when you’re not convinced accomplishes more than fostering healthy discussion. It may very well discourage the group from acting on a costly or destructive proposal. Going along when you’re not convinced harms others and damages your integrity.

Are You Too Smart for Your Own Good?

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There is a tale floating around the internet that NASA spent $12 billion developing pens that would work in space, while the Russians relied on pencils. This story has been debunked by Snopes.com and others. But the point made is valid. How often do we all over- think projects and solutions to the problems we face?

Sometimes the cause of this is human creativity. Other times, it is insecurity. Still other times, it’s just plain curiosity. Regardless of origin, these endeavors can be expensive in both time and treasure. When I wrote Figure It Out! I suggested that the first question to ask when solving any program is “What does success look like?” This exercise doesn’t take long, but it compels one to stop and consider what the real outcome needs to be.

Even in writing this post, I might be tempted to turn this simple point into a 1000 word philosophical essay. Instead, I’ll just stop. You get the point.

Is Anyone Helping Cam Newton with Decision Making?

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Well, the Super Bowl is over and we all know who won. (Full disclosure: I live in Denver.) But aside from the game, there has been controversy over Cam Newton’s performance during the post-game Q & A. He showed up late with a hoodie pulled down on his face and refused to answer the many questions with anything more than one-word answers. Then he got up abruptly and walked out.

Many have attributed this petulant performance to a lack of maturity. To me, however, this is also about decision making. The post-game Q & A is a mighty big stage upon which to pout. Most of us won’t have that kind opportunity. But we all face similar dilemmas and decisions regardless of our daily roles. The meeting goes poorly. We lose the big sale to a competitor. We are publicly embarrassed by someone’s comments. The list goes on. So where do you look for reconciliation, resources and resolve in disappointment? More importantly, what do you do to maintain perspective prior to the decision just in case? I am by no means a defeatist. But as they say, stuff happens.

Cam Newton is a gifted and ebullient athlete whose on-field antics have contributed to game’s excitement. But did anyone counsel him on the facts of Super Bowl life? Things may not go the way you planned. The opposing team may surprise you with unexpected looks. Their intensity may overwhelm yours. The favored team has lost more than once. Then what do you do?

I am fond of reminding people that decisions don’t have answers. They have results. When those results are not what you desired or expected, how will you navigate the fall-out? How will you make the best of a bad situation? How will you press-on and display grace under fire?

Effective decision making is about anticipation. It’s gathering resources, preparing to act and knowing what to do when things go wrong. It doesn’t take long to figure out these contingencies. But doing so beforehand is an essential element in learning to grow into any role.