Cutler on Decision Drift

TBM 17/52: Decision Making vs. Decision Understanding

I don’t get to read every John Cutler newsletter but this one was particularly good and I’m glad I took the time to read it. Too many good quotes but for the purposes of this notebook I’m going to grab a few. This one really requires all of its words, though, so I hope the original link survives.

Decision making feels painful at times. Stilted. Circular. But over time, a wonderful partnership forms (and wonderful art springs to life).


There is no magic framework…No magic metric. No template. No activity. [You] need to do the work and invest the time, curiosity, openness, dedication, and an open heart. The tough reality is that [you] also can’t force it or rush it. The tough reality is that they also can’t force it or rush it. No human has an endless supply of the kind of energy. Our bodies/brains can only take so much before needing to recharge and DO something.

Teams often talk about decision making challenges and what I call Decision Drift. Decision drift is when you decide something, but then your commitment drifts. Your team feels they are going back to the drawing board often. How are we supposed to fix decision drift? “Decide and commit!” Jeff Bezos tells us. “Identify the directly responsible individual!” says Apple. Run RACI. SMART goals. Roll out OKRs.

I’ve come to see it in another way. Teams (and framework makers) focus a lot of attention on making decisions, but not a lot of time on understanding decisions and each other. There’s a void in shared vocabulary, and a void in their shared understanding of implications and assumptions. And even when teams realize the issue, there’s only so much cognitive “capacity” available to do the hard work to close the gap.

What might lead to decision drift? Why don’t people just call it out? Let’s focus on the humans involved, and their response to the situation:

  • Some people don’t know what they don’t know. They aren’t sure about the implications of a decision. It seems fine, at least to them. My friend asks me, “do you want to go deep sea fishing?” That sounds fun! Get me on the boat. Two hours later I am seasick, chopping smelly fish guts.
  • Other people might have a sense that there are impacts that aren’t being discussed. But they can’t put it into words. It causes a slight discomfort. The discomfort is too small to motivate derailing the meeting. Example: you ask someone for directions and food advice in a foreign city. They seem knowledgeable but you have a hunch they didn’t understand you. You don’t want to waste their time, and they seem very generous, so you hear them out, thank them, and walk in the direction they suggested (but duck into an alley).
  • For some, their coherence “radar” is finely tuned. They sense the lack of coherence, and while they can’t place it exactly, they sense the general vicinity. It bothers them, and becomes a bit debilitating. “I’m getting a funny feeling here I can’t shake!” they remark. Queue up most horror movies to get a snapshot of this. No matter what they say, and no matter what they do, they can’t shake it.
  • Perhaps it does not feel safe or worth it to “raise the flag”. The issues are clear, but sorting them out will involve energy you don’t have.

There are hundreds of variations here. It is a heady mix of prior experience, assumptions, energy levels, patience levels, and practice. And changing context: a decision may be “final”, but the conditions shaping the decision are constantly changing.

I related to those particular bullet points. There’s so much more in the original post…