“It wasn’t the best decision we could make,” said one of my old bosses, “but it was the most defensible.”
What she meant was that she wanted to choose option A but ended up choosing option B because it was the defensible default. She realized that if she chose option A and something went wrong, it would be hard to explain because it was outside of normal. On the other hand, if she chose option A and everything went right, she’d get virtually no upside. A good outcome was merely expected, but a bad outcome would have significant consequences for her. The decision she landed on wasn’t the one she would have made if she owned the entire company. Since she didn’t, she wanted to protect her downside. In asymmetrical organizations, defensive decisions like this one protect the person making the decision.
My friend and advertising legend Rory Sutherland calls defensive decisions the Heathrow Option. Americans might think of it as the IBM Option. There’s a story behind this:
A while ago, British Airways noticed a reluctance for personal assistants to book their bosses on flights from London City Airport to JFK. They almost always picked Heathrow, which was further away, and harder to get to. Rory believed this was because “flying from London City might be better on average,” but “because it was a non-standard option, if anything were to go wrong, you were much more likely to get it in the neck.”
Of course, if you book your boss to fly out of Heathrow—the default—and the flight is delayed, they’ll blame the airline and not you. But if you opted for the London City airport, they’d blame you.
At first glance, it might seem like defensive decision making is irrational. It’s actually perfectly rational when you consider the asymmetry involved. This asymmetry also offers insight into why cultures rarely change.
Some decisions place the decisionmakers in situations where outcomes offer little upside and massive downside. In these cases, it can seem like great outcomes carry a 1% upside, good outcomes are neutral, and poor outcomes carry at least 20% downside—if they don’t get you fired.
It’s easy to see why people opt for the default choice in these cases. If you do something that’s different—and thus hard to defend—and it works out, you’ve risked a lot for very little gain. If you do something that’s different and it doesn’t work out, and you might find yourself unemployed.
This asymmetry explains why your boss, who has nice rhetoric about challenging norms and thinking outside the box, is likely to continue with the status quo rather than change things. After all, why would they risk looking like a fool by doing something different? It’s much easier to protect themselves. Defaults give people a possible out, a way to avoid being held accountable for their decisions if things go wrong. You can distance yourself from your decision and perhaps be safe from the consequences of a poor outcome.
Doing the safe thing is not the same as doing the right thing. Often, the problem with the safe thing is that there is no growth, no innovation. It’s churning out more of the same. So in the short term, while you may think that the default is a better choice for your job security, in the long game there’s a negative. When you are unwilling to take risks, you stop recognizing opportunities. If you aren’t willing to put yourself out there for 1% gain, how do you grow? After all, the 1% upsides are more common than the 50% upsides. But in either case, if you become afraid of downside, then what level of risk would be acceptable? It’s not that choosing the default makes you a bad person. But a lifetime of opting for the default limits your opportunities and your potential.
And for anyone who owns a company, a staff full of default decision makers is a death knell. You get amazing results when people have the space to take risks and not be penalized for every downside.