Rational vs. Irrational Decisions (MCAD Modeling Column)31 May, 2008 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
Use rational thinking in your job; the rewards are much greater.
Let me lay out a very common but always-dreaded scenario: You have a problem. You know you need some direction, but the only place you can go is to your pointy-haired boss. You know he's going to say or do something you're not going to like.
You knock on the door and enter his lair. After you've obtained the dubious honor of his attention, you explain your problem in as few words as possible so as not to confuse him. You finish. He opens his mouth to speak. You cringe. You try to give him the benefit of the doubt, but you just know you're not going to like what comes out of his mouth. He speaks. You can tell from the combination of buzzwords and trite phrases that he has no clue about what you just said. Did he even listen?
He makes a decision. You were right all along. It has no basis in actual fact. It's based on something he read once on the Internet or heard from some other executive. You are tempted to argue, but experience has taught you the futility of that. You leave his office worse off than when you entered.
That scenario might be somewhat pessimistic, but everyone has felt that way at one point or another. So how do you make rational decisions? Where do they come from?
Let's do a little defining, shall we? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines rational as having reason or understanding; relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason — reasonable. It goes on to define irrational as not rational; not endowed with reason or understanding; lacking usual or normal mental clarity or coherence; not governed by or according to reason (for example, irrational fears). Psychology teaches us that rational thinking — thinking that is consistent with known facts — is helpful to us over the long haul. Irrational thinking ultimately hinders us and has nothing to do with (or is unsupported by) known facts.
What Does This Have to Do with Me?
You may be wondering where I am going with this rant. I see and hear a lot in my job that makes me wonder whether people are the intelligent and rational creatures we give them credit for being. For example, I noticed a strange phenomenon at one company. Every 18 months or so, new executives would take over and they always asked the same questions. Why were we using a high-end 3D solid modeling program that cost tens of thousands of dollars per seat when a low-cost program might suffice? The question was never meant to harm anyone. It was most often just an attempt at furthering their career or agenda by eliminating — very publicly — a major expense that their predecessor had not. As a result, we who were much farther down the totem pole had to justify our decision to stay with the more expensive software.
This justification was not always easy. What was once a mid-range program soon had what only the high-end programs boasted. (Note that high-end programs are struggling to keep ahead of the pack, but they're getting their toes nipped. And in some cases, they are losing business.) We would have to stop our productive work and spend the next few days creating PowerPoint presentations and cost analyses.
Why do these new executives ask these expensive-to-answer questions? Interestingly enough, the whole exercise isn't really about the best way to work.
Soapbox alert! People are motivated by their own concerns and desires. Everyone has his or her own point of view. What's good for the company has a lot more to do with how things are done than just reducing cost at every turn (after all, the best way to reduce cost is to close the company down). But many people haven't learned that. They think that it's all about dollars and cents. I have seen many companies that spout on about their employees being their most valuable asset then turn around and lay them off to make their financials look better for the upcoming quarter. Sure, you have to make money to stay in business, but at what cost? When you eliminate the highly paid, seasoned employee in favor of a lower-paid and most often inexperienced one, you always have to invest in training the new employee.
It's even worse when a company outsources its work. There's always a learning curve. Is it rational to spend all the time and money necessary for training and then eliminate that investment in favor of doing it all over again? And whatever happened to long-term planning — you know, infrastructure growth? When we eliminate those who do the important things for the company, we face two dilemmas. First, our proprietary knowledge walks out the door. Second, we reduce our experience base and ultimately our capabilities. Okay, I'm coming down off my soapbox now.
Fear — of anything new or different — can be a major stumbling block in decision-making. I was watching Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and I was reminded of an interesting story. Striking workers in the eighteenth century, fearful that mechanization was replacing them, threw their old shoes (or sabots — pronounced sa-bo) into the machines' moving parts. Hence the word "sabotage." The truth of the story is irrelevant. What is important is that we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to decision-making.
Keeping Emotions out of Decision-Making
The process of rational thinking is more work than its irrational opposite, but the rewards are much higher (figure 1). When faced with a decision, we need to do three things: keep a cool head (see sidebar titled "Keeping Emotions out of Decision-Making"), research our options, and be very wary of what can't be verified.
Figure 1. As this chart shows, rational decision-making generally has good results, but irrational decisions can be dangerous.
If we have been working in the 3D modeling field a while, we have experience with what's out there. That experience can be a major plus. But it also can hurt us. With experience comes preference. We get into habits as we do something on a daily basis. Just because "that's the way we've always done it" doesn't mean it's the way we should. We need to be aware that 3D modeling capability keeps growing and changing. We need to stay on top of what is possible. That's why I got into writing in the first place — so I could learn about what's available and pass on that knowledge to others to help them make informed decisions. We can't rely on rumors for our decisions. We need to figure it out for ourselves. Just because a friend of ours heard something about a certain software package doesn't mean it's an accurate depiction of that program.
Figure 2. The fight rages over whether history- or nonhistory-based modeling is superior. I like a hybrid approach that can accommodate both — that way my bases are covered and I have more options.
Just the Facts, Ma'am
Why do people prefer one 3D modeling program over another? I am frequently asked, "If all 3D modeling programs do essentially the same thing, then how do you pick one to use?" I invariably answer that it has to do with just three things: capability, preference, and price. You pick a 3D modeling package to do your job. Naturally, then, that means you want something that will do what you need. If you need a solid modeler, get one. If you prefer history-based modeling (where one feature builds upon and is dependent on another [figure 2]), look into one of the many fine examples of this program type. If history isn't important to you, go to a program that doesn't use it. If you like a program's interface (figure 3), go with that. If software is out of your price range, be very careful about your purchase.
Figure 3. Looking at a new or unfamiliar interface, such as that of Maxon s CINEMA 4D, can be most intimidating. Rational thinking would say, "We just need to learn it." Irrational thinking would say, "Stay away! It s bad!"
Turn off the Autopilot
A lot of this month's column may seem like a diatribe or merely stating the obvious. The reason why I wrote it is that sometimes people aren't aware of what they are doing. They get so busy doing their jobs that decisions come more or less from their autopilot. They rely on gut feelings, which most often are commanded by emotions. It may sound obvious to say this is bad, but in actual practice it's not always easy to tell where the decision came from. That's why we need to think clearly and logically about what we decide. We can make good, rational decisions. We just need to work at it.