"Irrational" decisions

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kirk Hunsaker
  • 28th Operations Support Squadron director of operations
Have you ever thought to yourself that someone else's decision was "irrational?"
Perhaps the negative ramifications seemed greater than the potential benefit; thus (in your mind) the decision didn't add up. Many of us in western society, and particularly those of us in the United States' military, tend to evaluate decisions based on this type of cost/benefit analysis. However, viewing decisions through this singular prism limits our understanding. As Air Force leaders, we have a responsibility to look deeper. It is natural and appropriate to try to understand critical decisions, but superficial judgments lead to frustration. To avoid this pitfall, two alternative perspectives may prove useful. 

In their influential book "Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis," authors Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow analyze President Kennedy's decision-making with respect to a major international crisis. They theorize that a typical cost/benefit analysis is insufficient to fully explain complicated decisions. Although there are an infinite number of valid perspectives, two additional viewpoints may eliminate many of the gaps in our understanding. The authors assert that besides the traditional cost/benefit or "rational actor" model, it's important to reflect on organizational and political viewpoints. By consciously considering all three of these primary views, we can significantly improve the fidelity and subtlety of our understanding. 

Beyond our typical efficiency-based analysis, balancing the pain and disruption of change against resultant gains, we should consider the bureaucratic and organizational influences on the situation, and the personal and political motivations of the decision-maker. In effect, every decision is a blend of these considerations. We are all familiar with the myriad rules and regulations we operate under, and the massive institutional resistance to change within any large organization, yet we tend to undervalue those influences. Think of the lengthy time required to properly staff a proposal through a major command, or the multitude of taskings from higher headquarters. We all recognize that these organizational influences shape our decisions, but unless we factor these considerations into our overall assessment, it is inherently skewed. 

Furthermore, we learn early in our Air Force careers the tremendous influence of interpersonal relationships. The power of networking and the positive influence of mentors cannot be overstated, but competition between peers adds a level of complexity to decision analysis. Although we pride ourselves on "service before self," political motivations are undeniable. To fully appreciate why a decision turned out the way it did, we must accurately assess the level of political influence involved and place this influence in the overall context of the other two perspectives. 

Taken together, these three distinct viewpoints form the basis for a realistic understanding of important decisions. Nevertheless, you may be asking yourself if, in our hierarchical military structure, it is wise to expend effort questioning decisions that you likely cannot change. I would encourage you to look deeper and argue that decision analysis is a critical skill for all military leaders. I say this for two reasons. First, your understanding of the commander's intent is critical to mission success. Second, and even more important, insight into an enemy commander's decision process is key to winning our nation's wars. 

So, I challenge you. When a decision seems "irrational," look a little deeper. Consider the decision maker's motivations from at least three different viewpoints. I submit that once you accurately assess a decision-maker's perspective, decisions suddenly appear very rational.