How to Rescue Excellence

“Jane, what can you give me in the next 10 minutes?” asked Josh. His voice was tense and demanding. Jane panicked. This was a new and important issue that the president wanted to talk about with Josh. Something that her CEO Josh had never discussed in any detail with her before.

“Josh, you know we never talked about this. I could put together a document for you but I need to ask staff for some intel on this. The fastest we can have it for you is later this afternoon.”

“Too bad,” Josh snapped, and Jane was surprised by the frustration she noticed in his voice. “He really wants to talk about this now,” pressed Josh.

“Josh, we have something on it,” Tessa’s confident voice broke the silence. “I will send it to you right away.”

Jane was shocked. How could Tessa have anything on it? She was not on this file and never participated in any discussions on this project. Surprised, Jane checked her email to see that Tessa just shared a half-a-page chaotic document with everybody. It was poorly written and missed some critical insights on the topic. “This rubbish is not going to be helpful”. Jane thought when she was closing her laptop.

The next morning Josh sounded joyful and relaxed “I just wanted to thank everybody, and especially Tessa, for the great help yesterday. The document Tessa prepared was excellent, and our president made some decisions based on it. Good job everyone!” Josh was visibly excited.

Jane was devastated. She was just starting to work on this file and new that this would be a priority for the company in the future. She and Josh realized the complexity and gravity of the issue, and knew that time was needed to design a solution that would work for their shareholders. The document that Tessa provided did not reflect the key concerns the shareholders had. “How could they make these critical decisions based on crappy evidence? This is not going to end well.” Jane contemplated on this while driving home.

She was right. Several month later, the decision made based on the half-pager turned out to be disastrous for the executives in her company.

Why did Jane’s executives use poor and misguided advice to make an important decision?

The simple answer is, because they were stressed. When people are stressed, their actions are guided by their “reptilian” brain – the brainstem, instead of our cerebral cortex responsible for our intelligence. From the biological and evolutionary perspective, the brainstem is its oldest part of this important organ. It has been successfully contributing to our survival as a species since our reptilian predecessors roamed the Earth. The brainstem has been helping us and our ancestors for millions of years by eliciting two types of responses: fight or flight.

This is a very basic response that does not allow for any emotional or intellectual analysis. Our brain uses this mechanism under intense stress with a goal to survive. As such, a person in a high level of stress either runs away from the issue or fights it.

Jane’s executives were not prepared to run. They decided to fight. They felt as if they were being attacked by a ferocious grizzly and they needed any weapon they could hold in their hands that they could use in battle.
If a grizzly is attacking you, are you going to take a useless stick that is being given to you at the moment when you fight for your life, or are you prepared to wait 30 minutes because someone promised to bring you a machine gun in half an hour?

The choice is obvious.

Even though the stick is useless, it is at least something you can grab and slap the beast with. Although not really helpful, if the grizzly just started breaking your bones, this is more concrete than a promise of a machine gun coming in 30 minutes.

This is how rubbish defeats quality.

Therefore, if you want to make sure that your CEO can use a machine gun instead of a stick, the trick is to be prepared and have the machine gun at the ready so you do not have to give them something useless, like a stick.

If you do not have the machine gun in hand when needed, you can either give them a hopeless stick or promise help later. Neither will safe them, but at a moment of stress they will take a useless stick in hope of survival.

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