When there are no “right” answers

The inexplicable is all around us. So is the incomprehensible. So is the unintelligible. Interviewing Babe Ruth in 1928, I put it to him “People come and ask what’s your system for hitting home runs—that so?” “Yes,” said the Babe, “and all I can tell ‘em is I pick a good one and sock it. I get back to the dugout and they ask me what it was I hit and I tell `em I don’t know except it looked good.” — Carl Sandburg [1]

It’s an umpire’s convention. Three umpires are standing aside, conversing. The first umpire, the most junior, says, “Baseball, nuthin’ but balls and strikes. I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” After a pause, the umpire with somewhat more experience, says, “Baseball, nuthin’ but balls and strikes. I calls ‘em as they are.” Finally, the senior umpire says, “Baseball, nuthin’ but balls and strikes. They ain’t nuthin’ till I calls ‘em. [2]

I’ve heard this old joke countless times. We may hear it again tonight during the Super Bowl Game, as pundits second-guess the referees. And it keeps coming to mind whenever I face a tough decision. The joke has so much durability because, as Michael Levin suggests, it illustrates the imponderable interactions of perception, definition, and choice. Different umpires might call a pitch in different ways. So too for general managers and leaders in all enterprises. On the most important kinds of questions, there are no answers in the back of the book that affirm what one should do.

This difficulty is one reason that I believe in teaching by the case method. Cases do a better job of building wisdom and exercising students’ ability to act in a bewildering world. The real world is messy. Information is incomplete, arrives late, or is reported with error. The motivations of counterparties are ambiguous. Resources often fall short. Concepts that B-schools teach have immense practicality for sorting out the issues facing managers, assessing alternatives, weighing ethical dilemmas, recognizing moral hazards, and illuminating the effects of any particular choice. As one of the iconic professors in operations research, Russell Ackoff, once wrote,

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes …Managers do not solve problems: they manage messes. [3]

Messes present very murky decision problems. As I have told thousands of students over the years, “there are no single ‘right’ answers in business—but there are lots and lots of wrong ones. Your job as a student is to learn to parse the two.” As my former students return to reunions at Darden or write for advice, this statement is one of the most often repeated—and they’ll tell me how they parse the right from wrong. My own experience mirrors theirs. I find that at least the following three questions get me to the root of most dilemmas and start me down a good path:

1. What’s your purpose? The old saying is, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” The absence of single ‘right’ answers does not mean that anything goes. My advice is always to begin with clarity about your mission, vision, and values. Stick to those, and you are probably halfway through the dilemma. This addresses the second umpire’s statement “I calls ‘em as they are”—this is all about definition of standards. What is important to you and your enterprise?

2. What’s your context? You might not have all the information about your situation that you’d like to have, but do you have what you need? If the decision is important enough, do not be shy about pestering people to give you more clarity about your setting. SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) is one time-worn way to flesh out what you know. This kind of work might also reveal that the dilemma as presented is incomplete: rather than two alternatives, there may be many. One source of error in judgment is to make yes/no decisions when in reality you have a host of possible either/or choices. Clarity about your context addresses the issue of perception, the first umpire’s statement—if you “calls ‘em as you sees ‘em,” you want to make sure that you’re seeing properly.

3. What do your answers to the first two questions imply for your strategy? Most managerial dilemmas are tactical in nature. As tempting as it may be, it’s always dangerous to let tactical decisions define your strategy. You must have in mind a general path forward, even at the risk of closing some doors (or opening others). To choose a strategy is to be the third umpire: “They ain’t nuthin’ till I calls ‘em.”

With the passing of years, one accumulates instincts for parsing out the wrong answers from the rest—such instincts can be costly to acquire. Walter Wriston used to say that “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.” When Carl Sandburg marveled at Babe Ruth’s inexplicable, incomprehensible, and unintelligible instincts, he skipped any mention of Ruth’s years of practice and climb to fame.

Where B-schools can make a difference in the development of leaders is by accelerating the acquisition of those instincts. Our residential MBA program provides a lot of practice: students address about 600 case studies, in which each is a rehearsal for some dilemma to come. B-schools help the future Babe Ruths of business make the incomprehensible comprehensible, and thus sharpen their wisdom for good decisions.

  1. Carl Sandburg, “Notes for Preface,” in Harvest Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), p.11. []
  2. Michael Levin, “Cultural Truth and Ethnographic Consequences,” Culture, 1991, vol 11, page 94. []
  3. Russell Ackoff, “The Future of Operational Research is Past,” Journal of Operational Research Society, 30, 1 (Pergamon Press, Ltd., 1979): 93-104. []
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