Professor Rolland Munro discusses the difference between decision making, and doing deals. Can a entrepreneurial business leader run an economy in the way that they run their business?
Much attention is focused on the “decisions” being made by Donald Trump in these first weeks of his Presidency. Decisions once upon a time relied on getting good information and correctly analysing it. But far from hoping Trump might make even sub-optimal decisions, the optimistic expectation is rather of his “muddling through” – although without Charles Lindblom’s thoughtful science to help him.
What the media has its eye on is Trump’s inexperience in government. Since the art of government is partly about understanding how institutions sediment into other institutions – bringing into play Weber’s law of unintended consequences – one could hope a new President might adopt a policy of incrementalism. To the contrary to such caution, Trump appears to epitomise Amitai Etzioni’s figure of the reckless, someone who can’t or won’t cope with information: “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”
Yet despite pundits circulating his vocabulary, what seems to be overlooked is how Trump’s own language reflects himself and his moneymaking background. As with some other entrepreneurial billionaires, Trump’s focus is solely on making a “deal”.
Famously, for example, Bernie Ecclestone, the former boss of Formula One, never made notes in meetings and wouldn’t sign a contract. As he put it, whereas there wasn’t a contract in which he wouldn’t find a loophole, a handshake from him was forever.
In contrast to the arts of decision-making honed in institutions like the CIA and Department of Justice, deals are often done blind, on trust, or just on what seems right at the time. With deals you win some and lose some, but decisions tend to be judged good or bad.
This difference matters to someone like Trump, particularly since decisions have a habit of getting examined retrospectively, with the added disadvantage of the decision- maker being held to account. For example, his decision to run a bogus university (to teach people how to make money) keeps coming back on him. Whereas the practice of “cutting a deal” – as in a card game like poker – speaks of the luck of the draw. If you get dealt a bad hand, you just move on. To the next deal.
Recalling Henry Mintzberg’s proposal that action is a better unit of analysis for management than decision, Trump’s “strokes of the pen” are better seen as actions taken by him to reflect the “deal” he did with the American people. Vide: make me President and I’ll give you back your jobs, banish Muslims and build a wall. In his own mind, Trump is doubtless going full steam ahead to keep his word. That’s what those who “do deals” do to keep their reputation. Better to go bankrupt, than welch on a deal!
From the televised debates, we learnt Trump’s “smart” move is tax avoidance: to let the taxpayer bail him out via the Inland Revenue Service. This time though the fact is that, as President, it is now the nation that could go bankrupt. The prospect of dividing the US from global trade stems from his apparent aversion to multi-lateral deals.
More problematically, Trumps inability to undertake genuine decision-making, means much more than bankruptcy is at stake. Sticking to his comfort zone of holding out prospects of bi-lateral deals to other leaders, like Mr Putin and Mrs May, may lead on to the kind of isolationism that makes any nation vulnerable to war. So it is not Trump who will be the target in a “High Noon” shootout, doubtless one of the many heroic films he lives in. The torpedoes of today are nuclear and may all too easily mean Armageddon.