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Trusted Advisors Need Alignment with Decision Maker on Perception of Complexity, Uncertainty

Toothless tiger or Aubie the tiger.  Understand the difference to Communicate with FINESSE
If you see a tiger, RUN! Tactical decisions require less alignment, and FINESSE, than strategic decsions with complexity and uncertainty.

Keeping decision making on the appropriate level is critical to all – the decision maker, the parties impacted by the decision, and the trusted advisors to the decision maker.

Tactical "Everyday" Decisions

If I walk outside and see a tiger, my simple response is to run. It is a simple rule-of-thumb or heuristic, that ensures my survival. It may not be an accurate or appropriate response – after all, the tiger may be a tame tiger, an old toothless tiger, or even a tiger chained to a tree. Nevertheless, I engage in behavior to avoid the hazard and thereby ensure my survival.

Another type of tiger is Aubie, the mascot of Auburn University. When I see Aubie, I yell ‘War Eagle’ and give him a high five. It may not be any more accurate or logical than running from a live tiger. After all, the person in the mascot suit may be a person intending to do me harm. As a rule-of-thumb, the odds of a negative outcome are remote, so I yell 'War Eagle' and give him a high five anyway.

Behavioral psychologists call these two actions System 1. System 1 thinking is categorized as intuitive, common sense, and a priori. System 1 thinking is represented by the hundreds of decisions we make each day to live our lives safely. In the domain of System 1, planning is limited, experience and rules of thumb evaluate risk, and decision response is short and simple.

Big "Strategic" Decisions

The opposite of System 1 is System 2. System 2 thinking is categorized as analytical, statistical, and posterior. System 2 thinking is characterized as the one or two life-altering or strategic decisions that some of us make once per week but most of us make maybe once per month. In the domain of System 2, planning is performed over the long term and involves both people and numbers. Information is evaluated analytically and statistically. The decisions are thoughtful and measured.

Get on the Same Page

For technical professionals, one of the greatest dangers is mistakenly analyzing a decision in the realm of System 2 when the decision maker – our boss – considers it a System 1 decision. We spend weeks or months analyzing data and doing statistical analysis when the boss only needed a relatively short and quick answer. Nevertheless, we continue to hammer away at the details and the models while expending valuable time. We may be right about the decision being in the realm of System 1, but because we are not listening to our decision maker we are nevertheless just as apt to get 'benched' or fired.

The same is true in the reverse direction. If the boss sees the issue in the realm of System 2 and we think it is in the realm of System 1, we will come across as either arrogant or misaligned when we provide a short, quick analysis without much detail. Our credibility is now gone as a technical advisor. And the result is the same as the previous case – we are likely to be ‘benched’ or terminated.

How This Impacts You

Always understand the reference frame of the decision maker before launching into problem solving and providing technical advice for decision making. Answer the question on the level it is asked, and only then seek to change the decision maker’s reference frame if you believe it is needed.

If you see a tiger, RUN! Understanding the difference between tactical and strategic decisions is critical to effective communication - and a long and prosperous career.


The illustration “Toothless Tiger” and excerpts from this article are taken from my book, “Communicating Reliability, Risk and Resiliency to Decision Makers: How to Get Your Boss’s Boss To Understand.” The second edition of the book will be released in June 2022. Sign-up for updates at Communicating with FINESSE.


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