Matters Column

Making ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ decisions

October 9, 2015
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The movie “The Imitation Game” illustrates several small business issues that are daunting challenges.

The movie portrays the struggle by M6, the British spy network, to crack the Nazi “Enigma code” during WW2. Alan Turing, a mathematics genius, is given the task by Winston Churchill of heading up the team to crack the code. Dr. Turing, with his team of gifted scientists, creates an early version of a computer that is able to break the Nazi code, possibly shortening the war and saving millions of lives.

If you haven’t seen the movie, Alan Turing is the real-life version of Sheldon Cooper in the sitcom series “The Big Bang Theory.” What's funny in a sitcom is not so entertaining if you are working on a critical war effort under the directions of a loon.

The movie is a study of conflicting repercussions of actions taken — “damned if you do and damned if you don't.” I believe it was Dr. Wayne Dyer who said the answer to that conflict is to refuse to be damned at all.

I saw two such situations in the movie that you will deal with in your business.

First is the personnel issue. What do you do when the top performer in your organization acts like a world-class jerk? That person could be in marketing, production, finance or management. That person may even be you.

Self-awareness is critical to being a good business owner. I have seen what could have been great businesses destroyed by owners who refused to act as mature adults in managing their business. Much has been made of Apple’s Steve Jobs and his difficult personality. Don't hang your hat on that because, chances are, you ain't no Steve Jobs. In his case, genius seems to have trumped an unsavory personality. Even if you are a bit smarter than average, make sure you are not the one gumming up the works.

When you have a difficult but critical employee, you have to weigh the benefits and the burdens of employing that individual. Be careful your personal prejudices about people do not affect your judgment.

An extrovert may annoy the managing partner in a CPA firm but be more than acceptable to the CEO of an advertising agency. Conversely, an introvert may be needed for certain functions in a sales organization while an extrovert may be successful in an actuary’s office in sales.

You don't have to like someone to employ them. Indeed, the person you like may be the worst choice for the job. Do you want the job done, or do you want to be surrounded by potential buddies? It’s your call.

In “The Imitation Game,” the people who made up Dr. Turing's team supported him when an upper-level military officer was attempting to shut down the program. They supported him because they believed he would be successful in cracking the Nazi code, and getting a critical job done in a war threatening the survival of England was more important than the obnoxious and demeaning personality of the boss.

That is a super motivation for tolerating such a person, and overlooking this kind of unpleasantness for the success of the business may not be as dramatic, but the dynamics are the same.

Another situation in the movie I found fascinating was the “Catch 22” dilemma at the end. The team cracks the Enigma code, revealing a submarine ambush of an allied supply convoy headed toward England from America. In the middle of the wild celebration, Dr. Turing interrupts to inform the celebrants that the code breaking could not to be used to save the convoy: They had to be very selective in how they used the information so the Nazis would not figure out the English had broken the code. If Germany figured out that the code was broken, they would stop using it and create a new one.

That is an extreme example of the conflict between immediate situations and long-term results.

Carly Fiorina has been severely criticized for her layoffs at HP. I am sure she was aware of what the loss of those jobs meant to the pink-slipped employees. So do you go bankrupt and cost everybody their jobs, or release the excess employees and preserve the jobs of the remaining employees?

Those types of difficult decisions are what make owning a business so stressful. Firing a family member or a friend who is not performing is especially stressful.

There have been situations where companies have learned they are causing environmental damage or damage to people’s health. When it became evident cigarette smoking caused lung cancer, the tobacco industry did not cease operations. They could not make the decision to destroy a harmful industry in order to save millions of lives.  

I was in favor of a simplified tax system in my CPA practice, but there was a part of me that appreciated how, every time Congress made taxes more complicated, I made more money.

Now the extreme. If you ever felt sorry for yourself for the hard decisions you have had to make consider this: In the book “Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History” by Karl Jacoby, there is a situation that caused me a lot of thought.

A group of Apaches was caught between a Mexican army to the south and an American army to the north. The Apaches were considered vermin, and the armies pursuing them wanted to eradicate the people, so surrender was not an option. The Apaches’ only hope was to sneak past their pursuers at night. They could not make a sound. There were infants among them and infants cry, so they were smothered. The Apaches loved their children as much as we do. Savages? No. Realists? Yes. If a few died, there was a chance the band might survive.

I assume you will never face such a dramatic dilemma. Hopefully, realizing that business decisions are not usually life threatening will put things in perspective. The family friend or relative you have to fire will find another job. The activity you have to stop to protect the environment or the public will be replaced by a new product or service.

The people who make the hard decision when analysis proves that decision is critical will live to prosper another day. Those who don't, won't. 

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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