We’re Asking James Comey the Wrong Question

The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of rain showers. A woman named Tracy decided to take her umbrella with her on her commute to the office. The rain never came. After work Tracy met friends at a bar for happy hour. When she left the bar to walk home, she forgot to take her umbrella with her. The next time she needed her umbrella, she couldn’t find it.

Was Tracy’s choice to bring her umbrella to work on the day the weather service predicted a 50% chance of showers a good decision or a bad decision?

Here’s an easier one. Late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 49, Pete Carroll the coach of the Seattle Seahawks called for a pass on 2nd and goal. The pass was intercepted and the Seahawks lost the championship.

Was the choice to throw a pass a good decision or a bad decision?

Asking whether a decision was “good” or “bad” (right or wrong, ethical or unethical) by working backwards in time from judgments about the outcomes to judgments about the decision represents a thinking trap. Those who research decision quality recognize that the decision maker has no control over the external consequences resulting from the decision. It may be fun to consider “what if” scenarios, but focusing on outcomes doesn’t help us learn to become better decision makers. What if the railroad industry had reacted differently to the advent of the automobile? Would we be driving around in a Union Pacific sedan or a Reading Lines SUV? If you only consider outcomes when asking about Steve Jobs’s decision to make John Sculley the CEO of Apple in 1983 you might reach different conclusions depending on whether you asked the question when Sculley fired Jobs in 1985 or when Jobs returned to Apple with fresh insights about product design in 1997.

We can’t ‘unknow ‘ the outcomes of a decision when reevaluating the decision maker’s alternatives after the decision has been acted on.

Sometimes the relationship between the decision and an outcome is direct and obvious, in which case it’s more tempting to judge the decision by the outcome. The TV show America’s Funniest Home Videos is a treasure trove of questionable decisions followed immediately by unfortunate and weirdly entertaining outcomes. We have learned from the TV show not to stand next to the blindfolded kid desperately swinging a stick at a piñata, especially if the kid’s shoulders are roughly the same height as your crotch. Still, judging the decision exclusively on outcomes changes if a video of the incident earned you the $25,000 prize.

I’m guessing that evaluating the “umbrella” decision felt differently to you than evaluating the Super Bowl decision, especially if you’re a Seahawks fan. The difference you experience when passing judgment (no pun intended) on Pete Carroll versus passing judgment on Tracy has to do with the fundamental nature of the two activities. Calling football plays is an activity in a finite game. Getting ready to leave the house for work is an activity in an infinite game.

James Carse coined the terms “finite games” and “infinite games” in 1986. Lately, Carse’s distinction between finite and infinite has been gaining popularity thanks to the irrepressible Simon Sinek. Carse succinctly defines his terms in the opening paragraph of his book, Finite and Infinite Games: A vision of life as play and possibility, Carse wrote:

There are at least two types of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The distinction is a helpful way to differentiate attitudes regarding much of human activity. As an example, if you play “school” as a finite game, you focus on getting the best test score or the highest class ranking at the end of well-defined periods on an academic calendar. If you play “school” as an infinite game, you focus on learning and discovery; for every subject, there will always be more to learn.

When engaged in a finite game like football, it’s easier to connect a decision to an outcome. Most people consider Pete Carroll’s decision among the worst coaching choices in the history of the sport. However, without the rules and finality of a finite game wherein a winner is unambiguously determined, outcomes don’t help us judge decision quality. If you’re counting on the umbrella and discover that it’s missing, you may feel as though taking it with you on a day when it never rained was a bad choice. If the missing umbrella sets a series of events in motion that result in meeting the love of your life (who remembers Tracy McConnell’s yellow umbrella in the TV series How I Met Your Mother?), the decision to carry the umbrella feels like an act of genius.

To promote the publication of his new book, former FBI director James Comey has been making the rounds of talk shows and has been interviewed by many of today’s best know journalists. At some point in all the interviews I have seen, Comey is asked about a decision he made in the fourth quarter of a different kind of Super Bowl, the Super Bowl of American politics known as the presidential election.

In July of 2016 Comey announced that the FBI would not be prosecuting Hillary Clinton in connection with the use of her personal email server. Three months later, and one month before the election, Comey informed Congress that the FBI had obtained supplemental evidence in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Various media outlets reported on the letter to Congress by characterizing the news as a “reopening” of the Clinton email investigation. In November of 2016 Donald Trump was elected President. Hillary Clinton and her supporters blame Comey’s decision for her defeat.

If you view Comey’s decision in the context of the finite game of a presidential election, you might feel like it’s easy to judge his choice. If as Comey would prefer, you judge his decision in the context of the infinite game of ethical leadership, we will need to understand more about the process Comey employed to reach his decision.

As for me, I would prefer interviewers stop asking Comey whether or not he made the right decision. We don’t need to reinforce our thinking traps by appealing to an inclination to turn infinite games into finite games. I want to hear his answer to a different question: What, Director Comey have you learned about making high stakes decisions?

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating and thorough evaluation of the old saying “hindsight is 20/20”. It pervades thinking in a business environment. I would take it a step further. Often when we evaluate our future decision-making on the outcomes of the last decision. This results in either poor future outcomes or a false sense of security.

    Interesting….

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.