In 1966, Alfred E. Kahn wrote an essay entitled “The Tyranny of Small Decisions.” Khan was an economist and his essay was predominately focused on economics. However, the concept defined in the essay applies to each of us and can profoundly impact business and business leaders.
So what is the tyranny of small decisions? In a nutshell, it is what results when a person, group of people, business or organization make a number of small decisions over a period of time. These decisions are not bad decisions on their own but, taken together over a period of time, the result of the decisions are diametrically opposite from the outcome desired.
For instance, take the super busy executive running his business day to day without a clear set of values or a defined vision, mission and goals. This person is going to make decisions each day that seem correct and make sense at that moment but the sum of these decisions could add up to a disaster over the long term. Without the long term view of the business and a proper focus on what is to be achieved, the executive will make “firefighting” decisions that may take care of the issues at hand but destroy the business overall.
The example often cited to explain this concept is the “Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin in 1968. Hardin described a situation where a village maintained a “common” field where locals could graze their cattle. The use of the field was not coordinated in any way and each member of the community could graze as many cattle for as long as they wanted. This led to each owner grazing all of their cattle in the common field which led to the destruction of the field itself. The individual cattle owners made decisions that seemed like astute decisions for them at the time but it caused the destruction of a valuable asset in the long term. Hence, the tyranny of small decisions.
I think we have probably all fallen victim to this at some point in our personal life, careers or business.
The antidote to this is to have a clearly defined long term vision for your life, career and business. This long term vision should be used to guide every decision you are making. Ask yourself questions like;
- How does the outcome of this situation line up with my long term vision and focus?
- What could I do to address the situation optimally in the short term while still staying aligned with the long term vision of the organization?
- Will my decision today result in a negative consequence at some point in the future?
- What decisions have I made that may be impacted negatively by this current decision?
- What other decisions have I made that may impact the desired outcome of the current issue?
- What decisions have others made that may impact the desired outcome of my current decision?
The next time you are making a small decision, ask yourself some of these questions to make sure that you avoid the tyranny of small decisions.
“For years I have been accused of making snap judgments. Honestly, this is not the case because I am a profound military student and the thoughts I express, perhaps too flippantly, are the result of years of thought and study.” George S. Patton