I logged about 12 years as a newspaper editor of one sort or another, with roughly seven of those years spent as a city editor.

City editors typically supervise the largest staff of reporters and editors in the newsroom, which means you have to develop functional expertise on every hard-news topic your newspaper covers. Yes, city editors edit stories. So do other editors. What city editors really do — the thing that makes the job distinct — is they make decisions. Lots and lots of decisions.  A make-or-break career decision at 1:53 p.m., a sketchy expense account to approve or reject at 1:55 p.m.

Decision after decision. All. Day. Long.

I met my wife in the newsroom. She’d usually show up for work about an hour before me, and she likes to tell this story about how a line would form at my desk the minute I arrived. If she needed to talk to me, she’d stand in the line like everybody else. Most conversations on the city desk end with some sort of decision: Cover this, ignore that, call him, go there. Most supervisors just deliver information to employees. City editors are the intersection between reporters and upper management. Just picking what you talk up or pass down requires a hefty amount of decision-making.

So I acquired my 10,000 hours of rapid-fire decision-making pretty early in life. And somewhere along the way, I came up with a three-step approach. I didn’t set out to create one. It just emerged from the work. Here goes:

  1. What is the actual problem?
  2. What can still be done?
  3. What are the limits?

I’m putting this in writing because — as my wife keeps telling me — that’s not the way most managers think. I’m convinced anyone can use this system to get better at whatever they do, or at least save themselves a few headaches.


What is the actual problem?

First, a bit of semantics: For the purposes of this essay, a decision is a response demanded by some sort of difficulty or consequence. A choice, on the other hand, is just something you get to pick. Chocolate or vanilla is a choice. “Do we print the name of this man the police just arrested in this child rape case?” is a decision. Got it? Alright. Moving on.

The truly operative word in the question “What is the actual problem?” is, of course, “actual.” Let’s say your kid keeps forgetting his middle-school homework. That’s the problem you have to solve as the parent. But what’s the actual problem?  It could be anything from simple immaturity to basic disorganization to a symptom of something more serious.

If you stop at the obvious problem — your kid is getting crappy grades because he forgets his homework — then you wind up making a decision like this: “Every time you forget your homework, you’re grounded.” Being curious about problems typically leads to more effective solutions. If the actual problem is that your kid is being bullied so badly that he can’t think straight, grounding him every weekend might not be the most effective solution.

Be curious. Ask smart questions. Check to see if the obvious problem is just a proxy for something else. If you don’t feel confident that you understand the actual problem, trust that feeling. You’re probably missing something. If you’re supervising someone who brings you a problem, send them back to get answers until you feel like you’ve got a sufficient understanding of what’s really going on.

Most bad decisions are the result of trying to solve the wrong problem.


What can still be done?

Dreamers love asking “What’s the actual problem?” and then finding the answer. But the solutions they come up with are often absurd. Sure, with hypothetical resources, any problem can be solved in spectacular fashion. Spend more money, bring in more experts, do more research. Maybe you come up with something brilliant. Maybe your problem becomes an opportunity.

But as some smart person once said, “True creativity begins with the first restriction.” Most problems are laced with restrictions. But the ultimate is time.

Think your restriction is financial? Well, how much time do you have to come up with the money you need? If your timeline is indefinite, then stop whatever else you’re doing and get out there and raise that money!  Asking “What can we afford?” or “What has worked in the past?” are all sensible questions, but they’re both included in the question “What can still be done?”

Most problems come with some sort of deadline. If I want to plant a fall cover crop to improve the soil in a plot I plan to cultivate in the spring, I generally need to have the seed in the ground at least four weeks before the average first-frost date. There are plenty of decisions that go into planting cover crops — what kind of seeds should I buy, how much seed do I need, how deep should I till, and so on. But if I’m still making those decisions just a week before the average frost rate, it’s all pointless anyway. Sometimes the answer to “What can still be done?” is “Nothing.”

Asking “What could we do?” produces brainstorming sessions, and there’s a time and place for that. Asking “What can still be done?” produces realistic answers. A reporter might propose an eight-week investigative project with a Sunday front news-feature package under a splashy infographic, and yes, that might be an award-winning idea. But if some TV reporter already broke the story on the 11 p.m. newscast, then the answer to “What can still be done?” is “That’s all well and good, but we’ve got 20 minutes, so call the governor’s spokesman and get me six inches of copy for the off-lede on 1B RIGHT FUCKING NOW!

The decision-making process is about winnowing multiple possible responses down to the best one. The more time you have, the better the options you get to consider. But when you’re under the gun, the last thing you need to do is waste what little time you have on pie-in-the-sky bullshit. If you’re leading a group through this process, framing the question this way allows you to interrupt the would-be philosopher king who wants to re-litigate previous decisions, or silence the creative genius who says “Wouldn’t it be GREAT if we could build an APP that would let users share and rate other people’s storm photos?” A Category Four hurricane is projected to make landfall in 36 hours, people. What do we do before it gets here?


What are the limits?

This is the most important question, and also the one almost no one asks. I’ll explain.

No matter how great your decision, no matter how brilliant your solution, your best ideas still contain the seeds of their own absurdity.

Say your local soccer club has hired you to help the team sell more tickets, and you decide to cooperate with some independent fan groups to increase participation in the Supporters Section. You give the groups more freedom. You agree to policies allowing musical instruments in the stadium, smoke bombs after goals and victories. You even change your game-day procedures to accommodate a fan march from the parking lot to the designated Supporters Section. The games become more entertaining, you sell more tickets, more people join the supporters groups, you make more money.

Congratulations. Without spending any money, you’ve created a virtuous cycle. Everyone’s happy.

But if you don’t ask: “What are the limits?” pretty soon that fun, family-friendly energy in your Supporters Section can turn into a nightmare.

Orlando City Soccer Club found that out the hard way before they even made the jump to Major League Soccer. The city’s fans were the most passionate in the lower-tier USL, and club officials showcased that passion as the city leapfrogged other contenders to win a coveted MLS expansion slot. But fan behavior quickly got violently out of hand. In the club’s final minor-league season, the front office was forced to crack down on things that had once seemed just innocent fun. The club had to hire a full-time fan liaison, and whether he was banning people from the stadium, chasing thugs around the stands or writing checks to repair damage caused by obnoxious Orlando fans following their team on the road, he was one miserable dude.

Rather than discover those limits the hard way, try thinking about them at the beginning. Whenever we make decisions, we create new possibilities, good and bad.

You know that saying, “You become what you hate?” The mechanism for that transition is often whatever we do most successfully. The Republican Party got so good at keeping its base in a perpetual state of anger and resentment that today’s GOP’s politicians can’t even speak candidly in public about established facts  The Democratic Party, once the party of blue-collar workers, now embraces abstract social-justice orthodoxies that working-class people instinctively mistrust. Both failures could have been avoided — or at least mitigated — if party leaders had asked “What are the limits?” at decisive moments along the way.

When you make a habit of imagining the ways that your good decision could be turned into bad precedents, you can communicate those limits to your partners from the beginning. Like a troop commander laying out zones of advance for a planned attack, you actually improve your decision by limiting it. Tell your followers what they’re free to improvise when they encounter surprises. Warn them what lines they may not cross. They’ll reward you with confident, informed initiative.

Is there more to decision-making? Of course. I don’t offer these ideas to be reductive.

But if you’re trying to master this art, these three questions are a good way to start.

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