Sunday, February 18, 2007

Book Review: The Go Point by Michael Useem

Michael Useem, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, grabs your attention early on in The Go Point: When It's Time to Decide. He analyzes the decisions behind the deaths of some highly experienced firefighters who'd been battling a blaze on Storm King Mountain in Colorado.

Useem's technique is to go on site and trace the key points in the decision trail. At one point, a group of firefighters who are studying the decisions are timed as they run over the same ground that the doomed firefighters had to traverse in their flight from the flames. Most don't make it to the top of the ridge that would have meant the difference between life and death.

Useem notes: However you word it, the odds are good that anyone who has been through the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program will be far better prepared to deal with two of the three root causes of the suboptimal decisions that plagued leaders on Storm Mountain in July 1994: inadequate preparation for decision making and high stress. Separately, the fire service has attacked the third root cause - ambiguity of authority - by sharpening and better instilling the principles of unequivocal responsibility when on a fire line.

Useem's book contains other examples of decision making that go beyond the board room, such as Robert E. Lee's decision to order Pickett's Charge during the battle of Gettysburg and Roberto Canessa's decisions when he and other passengers struggled to survive the aftermath of a plane crash in the Andes in 1972.
One point that bothered me was Useem's willingness to embrace, in a "When All Else Fails" section, the use of nonanalytical log-jam breakers such as the use of signs. For example, Rick Pitino is trying to decide whether to leave the NBA and coach the University of Louisville Cardinals when a cardinal flies onto the porch and lands on the table in front of him. Pitino took that as a sign. Useem sees that interpretation as a recognition of what Pitino truly wanted to decide. Using signs could be a pretty sizable loophole in any decision making process if all else has not failed and yet, given Useem's condition that all other options have been exhausted, it may be a way of breaking through indecision.
Although Useem's book contains plenty of thought-provoking cases, the section that may be the most heavily used by executives and managers addresses what to do when authority is not bestowed, responsibilities are unfamiliar, analysis is bogged down, agreement is too rapid, thinking is constricted, failure is repeated, and warring factions exist. Michael Useem's templates provide real solutions.
If I were to recommend a single book on decision making, it would be The Go Point. The reasons are simple. Michael Useem has written an interesting, highly readable, non-academic, volume containing guidelines that can be applied to any workplace. His on-site case studies are memorable and, in some instances, haunting.

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