Why leaders make poor decisions

Imagine you’re the captain of a submarine you have your map and are looking through the periscope. You give you a crow motivational speech and call for full speed ahead.

The crew can’t believe it.

Doesn’t the Captain know we’re heading to into extreme danger? The soldier on sonar can see enemy ships closing in. Your engineer is fixing a leak that’s in your fuel supplies. Meanwhile the cook just discovered an infestation of rats.

We’ve all been in a situation where a leader makes a decision while the rest of the crew sits around and discusses how out of touch with reality they are now.

What went wrong here?

Your vision in your plan rely on your understanding of the world around you being accurate. This is the managers challenge. Your job then is to create a culture and process where your mental model of the world is accurate. Informed and improved with the information from your crew.

This is critical for Product Managers, who are often tasked with setting the vision and roadmap for their product. If you present a plan that is based on inaccurate assumptions and data from the field, it will either be (a) shot down very quickly, or worse (b) the company will be heading towards their doom, like our submarine captain.

How then can product managers make better decisions?

Senior MIT Lecturer Peter Senge says leaders need to learn three core capabilities: fostering aspiration, developing reflective conversation, and understanding complexity. You can start to develop these by following 4 steps:


Explicitly state all your assumptions, particularly those that are required to be true for the plan to work.

2. Reflect

What data did you base these assumptions on? Was it simply a gut feel? Is it based on anecdotal evidence? If empirical data was used, is it statistically significant? Is the data current? Could the data that you’re basing it on be biased?

3. Expose

Make the data, your assumptions and your reasoning to others. Say “Here’s my view and how I arrived at it. Can you spot any gaps?” It’s not about who has the idea, but creating the best idea a safe collaborative environment. One where everyone can share their thinking. Data can flow, and help find any flaws in the current plan, and create a stronger idea together.

4. Inquire

If someone disagrees with you, learn how to inquire into their views. Ask why they have that position. Maybe they know something that you don’t. Like a captain with a periscope, you will have a longer reaching vision, but your ground crew will know more about how to make it work.


Senge, P. and Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline (The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization).

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