Having just written about decisions, and having just watched a documentary on Robert McNamara, I wanted to write a follow-up. Towards the end of the documentary the interviewer asks Bob there if he had any regrets about the war. I decided a while ago that when it came to regret in decision-making, that would have a very specific meaning for me.
If you make enough decisions clearly some of them will go poorly. But as I wrote in the last blog post, you can never know the counter-factual about your decisions. If decisions go poorly, you should look back and analyze what went wrong and how it could have gone better, in order to extract lessons learned from the event. If there was a bad outcome, you should look back and be sad about the negative consequences of the decision. But that’s not the same as regret. A lot of things become more clear in hindsight, and forces and factors will play out how they play out after your decision is made. Instead, I would reserve regret for decisions you knew you had made wrongly or poorly at the time you made them. Regret is reserved not for decisions that necessarily went poorly, but for decisions where you did not do your best in making them.
Back on the submarine, we would have critiques and a common “root cause” people tried to cite for when things went wrong is that they felt rushed, or had an “undue sense of urgency.” This usually actually translated into “it was near the end of the work day and I wanted to go home, so I rushed the work.” So our XO called us into the wardroom one day and clarified that “an undue sense of urgency” would be reserved for situations where someone was holding a gun to your head and telling you to get it done.
Flash forward a bit and we’re in the shipyard in shift work. The days in shift work are endless and we were coming up on a deadline to get out of there. I was the Reactor Control Assistant at the time, and the division was supposed to get a piece of testing done. If we didn’t get the testing done, we couldn’t leave the shipyard when we wanted, and this would have made people upset. I got relieved from my shift as Engineering Duty Officer, and was trying to help get the maintenance started per the schedule. The on-watch EDO didn’t want to do the maintenance. I pushed where I thought appropriate, but it was getting late and the the guys that were supposed to do the maintenance were coming up on 20 hours without sleep, and the maintenance was supposed to take several hours. So I gave up and went to the wardroom to work on my own qualifications.
There I found the XO. I sat down and he asked me about the maintenance my division was supposed to get started. I explained that I Just Couldn’t Get It Done. Then this man, that had explained that an “undue sense of urgency” was “someone holding a gun to your head,” he looked me straight in the eye and said to me “you know, sometimes you wish you could just take people out back and shoot them.”
The XO and I did not have the greatest relationship. This was not friendly banter. I understood that he was talking directly to me and about me. And reflecting on the gun comment, I thought I had top-cover. This was exactly the undue sense of urgency he talked about, and if things went poorly I would walk into the critique and say proudly exactly why I thought that sense of urgency was undue. So I got up, left the wardroom, and went back to the engineroom to Just Make It Happen. I cajoled the EDO, and told him the Division Chief and I would personally supervise the thing. So he relented and let us do it.
The guys were pissed. They were not happy about this. They needed sleep. They too were going to just be coming back up on watch soon. They were exhausted. But we felt like we needed to make this happen, and I felt like I had been threatened. So I “supervised” the maintenance but mostly I was standing guard to wake guys up in case the XO or the Naval Reactors rep came around the corner. My guys were falling asleep in the midst of this maintenance. This was Reactor Controls Division maintenance too, on the systems that monitor the nuclear reactor. I was myself falling asleep standing up but since I was standing I was slightly more awake than the guys.
And the whole thing went fine. We completed the maintenance. No mistakes. We reviewed and submitted the paperwork. We did our bit and after a lot of other stuff the ship left the shipyard on time (well, way delayed, but “on time” on the delayed timeline).
The decision to go ahead and push that maintenance is one of my bigger regrets.
That maintenance did not need to get done. It was going to prevent the ship from getting underway if it wasn’t completed, and a delay would have delayed other things, but no lives were in the balance here. It would have been annoying and caused a lot of headaches to get delayed, but no one would have been unsafe. But because I felt some pressure from my chain of command, I went ahead and made it happen. I set a bad precedent for my guys, and overturned every discussion we had ever had about fatigue and safety and the importance of doing reactor controls division maintenance right.
And most importantly, the whole time I knew the right answer. The right answer would have been to push back, to say, look, it’s impossible to get this done right now, my guys are too fatigued, and here’s the schedule for getting it done. It doesn’t matter what the XO said or a theoretical threat to get taken out back, I was there as an officer in the US Navy to make the right decision even when there is pressure to do the wrong thing. And I failed that test. I reflected and learned and grew from that experience, and I was young and inexperienced as a leader and decision-maker, but I don’t get that decision back. If I had just been stupid and made the wrong decision out of stupidity, I could forgive myself for that. But because I didn’t do my best in making the decision that day, I regret it. It wouldn’t be the last or the worst decision I came to regret, but it was an early one and indicative of the framework I would eventually develop.