No, I’m not talking about that kind of bottom, so don’t worry, this hasn’t turned into yet another diet and exercise blog; besides, I’m not sure I’d have the energy.
What I’m calling ‘bottom’ is the rigour, intellectual weight and sense of social responsibility we put into our decisions and actions.
In our fast-moving, agile, ‘okay to fail’ world, too much bottom can easily get a bad name.
Getting lots of stuff done can become more valued than considering the consequences, and we can easily slip into a world of fuzzy accountability and sloping shoulders.
It’s a topic which has floated to the top of my mind again in light of a couple of recent snippets from the news.
First, we have Chris Grayling, the UK Transport Secretary, coming under increasing pressure from some apparently dubious and costly decisions coming from his ministry.
I heard a radio interview with a senior government representative who was asked why Mr Grayling had not been sacked.
They replied that it was because government would get nothing done if its ministers felt they could be sacked for a wrong decision, and that accountability in politics is different from accountability in business.
Like passing wind in a lift, I believe this statement is wrong on several levels.
At a basic level, if you are paid a lot of money to do a job, unless you’re Kim Kardashian, it’s because it comes with a lot of responsibility, and that applies whether you’re in government, business or brain surgery. If there’s a bad and costly decision on your watch, you’re accountable, no argument.
What made me think about bottom in connection with this statement is that it misses an important difference between a wrong decision and a stupid one, and that’s where bottom comes in.
A wrong decision is one where you weigh up all the information available, get advice, assess risk, consider past experience, act based on all this, and still get the wrong result.
A stupid decision is one where you bypass all the boring assessment stuff and go with what your gut tells you, what’s politically expedient, or possibly with what the magic 8-ball says.
A stupid decision may not be a wrong decision, it’s not even necessarily stupid in a derogatory sense, it’s just a decision where you don’t engage your brain much. .
We often need stupid decisions; apart from anything else, no successful entrepreneur ever got anywhere without them. It was a stupid decision to launching a website for people to share what they had for lunch and post cat videos, not because it was wrong but because there was no solid precedent or information around to make it a rigorous one.
In an entrepreneurial age, stupid can become the de facto basis for all decision making. Rigour, consideration and due process become passé in the rush to get things done, and we start to lose sight of our bottom.
The trouble is, the higher the stakes, the more dangerous stupid decisions become.
In Grayling’s case, from what I’ve seen, there were stupid, wrong and damaging decisions. For example, when a large tender process ends with a credible bidder winning a multi-million pound out of court settlement because they weren’t considered, it strikes me that someone either hasn’t read Procurement for Dummies or has chosen to ignore it, and that’s stupid.
I believe that makes Grayling’s position untenable, no matter how much government spokespeople put up a smokescreen of complexity of decisions and shared accountability.
This is just one narrow example of how our bottom is disappearing, and I think that should worry us a lot.
The whole political and business environment seems to be lurching dangerously towards wholesale replacement of bottom with stupid.
President Trump’s very public argument with one of his trade advisors on the meaning and value of a Memorandum of Understanding is a stark example of what happens when you lose your bottom then have a sudden, panicked realisation that you might actually need it.
The other media snippet I’ve picked up made me think more about the people impact of losing our bottom. I apologise that it takes it into the fraught world of the UK’s exit from the European Union.
It was an interview with a hard-line Brexiteer on the Irish border question. After saying he would be very happy for the UK to leave without a deal, he added, with what sounded to me like barely suppressed glee, that this would cause much more damage to the Irish economy than to that of the UK.
Here we have a serious politician apparently saying not only that he puts narrow national self-interest first, but that he would be very happy to see damage done to a neighbour country’s economy and its people’s livelihoods.
This shows another aspect of our fashionable stupid decision making; it tends to create casual collateral damage.
This may be acceptable in a web start-up where maybe the worst you’re going to do is offend a few snowflakes, but when you’re talking significant geopolitical fallout it gets a bit terrifying.
If you’ve lost your bottom and spend your time making stupid decisions, there are two traditional ways to deal with the collateral damage; Brass Neck or Bullsh*t. Brazen it out and hope to be carried through by the unquestioning support of your tribe (Brass Neck), or simply look people in the eye and confidently lie (Bullsh*t).
Call me paranoid, but I fear we’re seeing these behaviours on the increase everywhere from press conferences to business meetings.
So, yes, I believe we are losing our bottom, and that we should care a great deal about it.
If you accept this, the next question is what we should to about it.
It’s definitely not about constraining our capabilities to move quickly by putting back a load of process and bureaucracy, or by becoming stiflingly risk-averse. We must still be able to make stupid decisions because we will stagnate without them.
But let’s at least recognise where a stupid decision is called for and where it’s not, and be prepared to apply some bottom where it’s needed, even if that means slowing things down and making us unpopular.
If you’re agonising over whether you can make a stupid decision, I find that releasing your ‘inner barrister’ can help.
Imagine for a moment that your brilliant brainwave has gone horribly wrong and you’re up in court charged with Deciding Without Due Care and Attention. Have your ‘inner barrister’ minutely and honestly cross examine you on your decision making process, then consider whether a jury would convict you of culpably stupid decision making. If they would, the chances are your boss would too.
I’m convinced our bottom is under threat, and situations like the one in Chris Grayling’s department show that we are already feeling the pain from it.
I’m also confident we can keep our bottom and make the right intelligent decisions as well as the right stupid ones.
We just need to remember our bottom is there and use it when we need to. If you need a bit of fridge magnet philosophy to support this, try
‘Bottomless – great for brunch, lousy for big decisions.’