What Were They Thinking?

William D. O’Neil

We all make bad choices from time to time, whether out of neglect, ignorance, lapse of judgment, or excess of passion. Choices that get us what we don’t want, choices that do damage we don’t intend.

Most of our individual bad choices don’t do great harm, and what harm they do is usually restricted to the one who did the choosing, or at worst a small circle of people. Occasionally they do have tragic consequences, but not tragedy on a grand scale.

By the same token, individual decisions rarely have grand scale benefits. There are many things we want or need that can only be done big. Large-scale production, building major infrastructure, defending our country—these and other vital projects require the coordinated efforts of many people working together in an organized fashion, with close coordination.

Big decisions—big problems

We expect these organizations to make their decisions in a very careful, thorough, well-calculated way, to achieve success with minimum risk. Yet we’re often disappointed. In democracies, where the news media are free to report about government problems but have less access into the affairs of private companies, it often seems as if government organizations are especially likely to stumble. But where it’s possible to make more or less direct comparisons it becomes apparent that this is an illusion—private companies do no better and no worse than government organizations. Even organizations, both business and governmental, that have built towering reputations have fallen victim to terrible decisions. No one has the secret to reliably making high-quality decisions.

I’ve had the unique experience, working in private industry as well as military and civilian government, of intimate involvement in the making a wide variety of big-project decisions. Decisions directly affecting billions of dollars, the fates of great companies, or the fundamental security of the nation. I’ve been close to or have closely studied literally hundreds of them, including scores that failed to some significant degree. In some cases I personally had something to do with the failure.

In the course of this I’ve seen very clearly that there are patterns in how good and bad decisions are made, in how projects meet or fail to meet their objectives, or even fall apart completely. As a consultant I’ve studied many projects, including substantial number I had direct experience with, and written in-depth case studies analyzing the factors that determined success and failure. This has further clarified the strength and persistence of these patterns.

Most of the case studies I’ve done for clients are confidential; often I haven’t even been able to keep copies. When I decided to write about making big decisions I set out first to do a series of fresh case studies. I deliberately wanted studies that spanned a wide variety of different decisions, although always in areas I knew well through experience and education.

Each case study has been presented in the form of a brief book that’s very clearly focused on a particular set of decisions, the problem it was meant to solve, and the situation it was made in.

Case studies

The case studies are in the process of being published, one at a time. Here’s the list:

The Plan That Broke the World
The “Schlieffen Plan” and World War I

Titanic Error

How Titanic Sank Under the Weight of Bad Decisions


Undefending Pearl Harbor

Why the World’s Strongest Fortress Was Left Open to Attack


AIG and Enron

Dysregulation, Dysfunction, and Destruction


Building Black Holes

The Channel Tunnel and the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)


Why big decisions so often go bad—and how to do better

Each one of these studies is a complete and self-contained lesson in decision-making by itself. But the patterns that run through them are much greater than the sum of the parts. They’re developed and explored in another brief book, What Were They Thinking?

The brevity of the studies is not by accident: I’ve refined them to clarify as much as possible the factors that truly determined success and failure. Each asks whether good opportunities were passed up—opportunities that were real and relevant but were left unexamined or deliberately rejected. The answer in every case is yes, and the question then becomes why. To that, the answer rarely turns out to have anything significant to do with malice or incompetence in any normal sense.

Each study also asks whether the failures that occurred could reasonably have been foreseen—foreseen at least well enough to have guided "rational" decision-makers to a different course, based only on knowledge that was available at the time the decision was made. Here too the answer always is yes. The critical knowledge was not always at the fingertips of those making the decision, but could be obtained by consulting experts who were readily available. In some of the cases, the decision-makers actually ignored experts who pointed out dangers.

The fundamental thing that all these cases have in mind is that they involve decisions made by humans. They were very capable and well-qualified humans, in every case, but nevertheless they made them in the same ways that humans have made decisions time out of mind, since long before human decisions involved projects on huge scales. The ways of thinking and deciding that served our ancestors very well do not always work in today’s very different world, in projects thousands or millions of times as large as any our ancestors ever undertook.

The nature of humans isn’t going to change, at least not fast enough to do us much good. And telling ourselves to do better—and punishing those who fall short—doesn’t get us very far. Some people are inherently better decision-makers, but ironically choosing them also doesn’t get us too far; big decisions are made by groups and the deeply-ingrained habits of group decision-making largely override individual capabilities.

To make better large-scale decisions we must look clearly and objectively at how and under what circumstances our patterns betray us, and construct mechanisms counterbalance and correct them. What Were They Thinking? does this, showing how well-tried and established mechanisms can be adapted to fill the need.


Contact me at williamdoneil@whatweretheythinking.williamdoneil.com.

Link to my author biography.