Over days of multi-hour meetings, they were deadlocked and neither the supporters of A nor those of B would budge. Your classic hung jury, but with no judge to deliver the dynamite Allen charge.

Now, before telling you what the committee actually did, let me share with you a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Three Timeless Rules for Making Tough Decisions.” For our purposes, only the third one counts; the first two are for routine and repetitive choices.

What is that third rule and when should it be invoked?

These were decisions like how to respond to a competitive threat, which products to invest more deeply in, how to better integrate an acquisition, where to reduce a budget, how to organize reporting relationships, and so on.

These are precisely the kinds of decisions which can linger for weeks, months, or even years, stalling the progress of entire organizations. These decisions are impossible to habitualize and can’t be resolved with if/then rules. Most importantly, they are decisions for which there is no clear, right answer.

Leadership teams tend to perseverate over this sort of decision for a long time, collecting more data, excessively weighing pros and cons, soliciting additional opinions, delaying while they wait — hope — for a clear answer to emerge.

Sounds like the type of leadership—A or B—decision our committee was facing. Note that (a) there is no single right answer; (b) you can never collect enough data to make the decision for you (the concept of “data” itself is somewhat misplaced here); and (c) at some point there are no new arguments to be made or perspectives to be considered on either side. The conversation devolves into repeated, and often increasingly vehement, restatements of stances announced previously.

In this situation, what do our HBR friends recommend?

“It’s 3:15pm,” the CEO said. “We need to make a decision in the next 15 minutes.”

“Hold on,” the CFO responded, “this is a complex decision. Maybe we should continue the conversation at dinner, or at the next offsite.”

“No,” The CEO was resolute, “We will make a decision within the next 15 minutes.”

And you know what? We did.

Alas, this is not what our committee friends did.

Deadlocked over A vs. B, they chose C—who was no one’s first choice at all. If you’re wondering whether this selection didn’t discredit the entire 18-month, 50-candidate exhaustive and exhausting process, we sympathize with your view. And yet C is leading the organization today. (It’s too soon to issue a report card.)


Now, as a matter of decision theory, what should our committee have done?

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