Decisions vs Problems
In which we lay some groundwork to understand how decisions help us solve problems. And a clever little story about a banana company in 1915.
Topics, links and context for the audio.
Welcome to CuriousFM. You’ve just made a decision, and I think it was a good one, to listen to this podcast. You could have been off doing something else, something maybe more interesting, but I think not. You’re here for a reason. You’re probably here because you want to get better at decision making - or at least take a little flashlight and shine it around inside your mind to gain a little information on the way things are wired up. So let’s do that. Before we get started I think it’s wise to lay some groundwork.
So today we’re going to do the first of many in-between episodes. There’s no interview. It’s just me, Terry, your faithful host. I’m going to take you on a little journey through the world of decision making and problem solving to help us understand the differences between them. They’re used so interchangeably in modern language that I don’t blame you for not knowing the difference.
Don’t believe me? Go ahead, pause the show and pick up a pen and a piece of paper and try to write a clear definition of each. On your paper there, draw a line across the page somewhere around the middle and write Decision Making at the top of the top half and Problem Solving at the top of the bottom half. Write out your definitions in the corresponding boxes.
It’s harder than you think.
Our good friend Wikipedia defines a decision as: ‘a conclusion or resolution reached after consideration.’ Maybe that last part is key. Consideration. I might actually extend that to ‘careful consideration’. After all, decisions made in haste tend to have bad, or less than optimal outcomes.
See, a decision is a choice. A decision is a situation where we probably don’t know the outcome, or the effects. Or maybe we don’t know all of the information. If we did, we’d probably call it a choice, or not say much about it at all. Telling a friend you’re weighing options on a decision implies a certain weighty-ness to it. It implies a process of careful consideration and high stakes. A choice? Well, you make those at the ice cream stand all of the time. Shout out to all of the twist cone lovers out there.
A problem, on the other hand, is a situation where we know the outcome we want or need to happen but we do not know what decisions we need to make to get there.
Said another way, problem solving is the process of making a series of decisions. If you’ve ever been to Vegas you know that the Venetian hotel hosts gondola rides. It’s really quite a sight. You have this great big, ornate hotel and shopping center, full of hustle and bustle and smack dab in the middle you have a little idyllic waterway with nice men who will take you around on a little boat and sing to you while thousands of strangers shop all around. If you take that little waterway and use a little imagination you can picture yourself floating down the river of a problem. The start, where you and your lover climb into the boat is the point where you say, ok, I’ve got a problem. And the end, where you climb out is where the problem is solved. Every paddle of the oar by the gondolier, that’s what the driver of the gondola is called, is a decision that pushes you further down the river toward your solution.
Let’s take a trip down the river of time back about a hundred years. It’s now 1915 and we’re firmly planted in the damp jungles of South America. At this time, jungle fruit was kind of a big deal. In particular, a long, yellow or green berry called a banana. You’ve probably had one.
The fruit business in 1915 was an interesting one. If you were a fruit business and you wanted to offer bananas, amongst other things, you mostly relied on purchasing land in South America, harvesting bananas and importing them into the United States. That was the only way you could make sure that you had a repeatable and reliable access to the bananas that your customers wanted.
In the no mans land between Honduras and Guatemala there was a stretch of land, around 5,000 acres I think, that two companies were locked in a nasty battle to acquire. It was the classic David vs Goliath story… a small, scrappy little upstart run by a man named Samuel Zemurray was at one end of the table and the larger, corporate Goliath called United Fruit was at the other. At the time, United Fruit was one of the most powerful corporations in the United States. Zemurray didn’t seem to care much. As we will see, he was brazen and audacious and cunning, all of the things he needed to be. He was the right man for the job.
The problem wasn’t that both companies wanted the plot of land. The problem was that two different locals claimed to own the parcel.
Now let’s take a look at how each company tried to solve this problem.
United Fruit did what big corporations do - they sent a team of attorneys down and spent months going over every file and scrap of paper in the country to determine the actual owner. They were prepared to spend any amount of money or time and viewed this as their advantage. They had pockets deep enough to be able to put the law on their side and the legal resources to ensure a proper transaction would take place.
Zemurray was clearly outmatched. He didn’t have a team of lawyers, or the time required to archive and investigate all of the terribly kept records of land ownership.
This is where his decision making brilliance comes into play. Zemurray set up meetings with both of the supposed owners and bought the land from each of them. In the process, he probably paid way too much but it was over and he was the sole owner of the parcel and it’s bananas.
Kevin Levine, the video game icon behind the popular Bioshock series says “We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us.” For Zemurray that was the case. It wasn’t the problem that made his career, it was the decision. That decision (and many like it) built a business so great that it was later acquired by United Fruit, the competitor he had outwitted in the jungle years before.
Your decision to listen to the CuriousFM podcast could be seen similarly. Most of us walk around and rely on the instincts we were born with, or hard earned experiences that impact how we make decisions with very little afterthought about the processes that drive them. We all have a problem - that is, we all agonize over decisions without ever lifting a finger or an eyebrow about the way we make decisions in the first place. Whats that old saying? If I had 3 hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two sharpening the axe? Welcome to the decision sharpening stone.
As always, I want to thank you for listening to this podcast. I’d love to hear from you! You can send any questions, future topics of conversation, or passionate hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org - oh, and I went ahead and signed up for twitter, but I still don’t really know what to do with it. You can tweet at me @cfmpod. Show notes and other fun things are available over at curious.fm
See ya next time.