Left Brain, Right Stuff: A book review by Bob Morris

Left BrainLeft Brain, Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions
Phil Rosenzweig
PublicAffairs (2014)

Why understanding the decision making process as well as the roles of action and analysis “can improve the odds of success”

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of passages in two others in which their authors address the same question that Phil Rosenzweig does: How to make better decisions? In Judgment (2009), Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis assert that what really matters “is not how many calls a leader gets right, or even what percentage of calls a leader gets right. Rather it is important how many of the important ones he or she gets right.” They go on to suggest that effective leaders “not only make better calls, but they are able to discern the really important ones and get a higher percentage of them right. They are better at a whole process that runs from seeing the need for a call, to framing issues, to figuring out what is critical, to mobilizing and energizing the troops.”

More recently, in Judgment Calls (2012), Tom Davenport and Brooke Manville explain how and why decisions made by a Great Organization tend to be much better than those made by a Great Leader. Why? While conducting rigorous and extensive research over a period of many years, they discovered — as Laurence Prusak notes in the Foreword — “that no one was looking into the workings of what we term organizational judgment — the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

My own opinion is that this process resembles a crucible of intensive scrutiny by several well-qualified persons. Moreover, the eventual decision is the result of what Roger Martin characterizes, in The Opposable Mind (2009), as “integrative thinking.” That is, each of those involved has “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in mind and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” helps to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”

Rosenzweig asserts — and I agree — that what he calls “winning decisions” combine two very different skills. He calls them left brain and right stuff. “Left brain is shorthand for a deliberate and analytical approach to problems solving,” a process that inevitably involves asking the right questions and then answering them correctly. Otherwise, there is the very serious danger to which Peter Drucker referred decades ago: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

“Great decisions also demand a willingness to take risks, to push boundaries and to go beyond what has been done before. They call for something we call the right stuff.” That means “summoning high levels of confidence, even levels that might seem excessive, but that are useful to achieve high performance.” Left brain and right stuff may seem like opposites “but they’re complementary. For many decisions they’re both essential…Great decisions call for a capacity for considered and careful reasoning, and also a willingness to take outsize risks.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Rosenzweig’s coverage.

o The key to great decisions: Left Brain, Right Stuff (Pages 15-22)
o Control issues (23-44)
o Performance: Absolute and Relative (45-62)
o Overconfidence in the here and now: Not one thing but three (88-93)
o Barriers of nature or barriers of engineering? (118-121)
o Apollo missions (149-154)
o Authenticity, reconsidered (154-158)
o Decision models (165-190)
o  The Texas size shoot-out for AT&T Wireless (206-213)
o Cloud computing/VMware (224-229)
o Managing risks, seeking rewards (229-233)
o Another look at laboratory evidence (234-237)
o Beyond rational and irrational (244-247)

With regard to “Better questions for winning decisions” (247-252), Rosenzweig asserts, “To make great decisions, we need above all to develop the capacity to question, to go beyond the first-order observations and pose incisive second-order questions. An awareness of common errors and cognitive biases is only a start.” He poses seven lead questions that have been previously stated or at least implied throughout his lively and eloquent narrative, accompanied by a few others that will also help us to drill down past symptoms, assumptions, biases, etc. so that we can identify root causes. This is a process of both elimination and simplification, one that is much easier to describe than it is to conduct just as questions such as “Are we making a decision about something we cannot control, or are we able to influence outcomes?” are much easier to ask than to answer.

Long ago, Voltaire suggested that we cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it. Phil Rosenzweig is among those who tenaciously seek the truth but seldom (if ever) claim to have found it. With all due respect to recent research in neuroscience, there is still much to be learned about how to make better decisions. In this book, however, the information, insights, and counsel provided increase our understanding of how not to.

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1 Comment

  1. […] Phil Rosenzweig is a professor of strategy and international business at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), in Lausanne, Switzerland. This article is adapted from his new book, Left Brain, Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions (PublicAffairs, January 2014). To read my review of that book, please click here. […]

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