Would you make a popular decision over a right decision ?

This is another one of those doing rounds on the net. Source unknown, but good learning value.

A group of children were playing near two railway tracks, one still in use while the other disused. Only one child played on the disused track, the rest on the operational track.

The train is coming, and you are just beside the track interchange. You can make the train change its course to the disused track and save most of the kids. However, that would also mean the lone child playing by the disused track would be sacrificed. Or would you rather let the train go its way?    

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Let’s take a pause to think what kind of decision we could make……………. 
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Most people might choose to divert the course of the train, and sacrifice only one child. You might think the same way, I guess. Exactly, I thought the same way initially because to save most of the children at the expense of only one child was rational decision most people would make, morally and emotionally. But, have you ever thought that the child choosing to play on the disused track had in fact made the right decision to play at a safe place?

Nevertheless, he had to be sacrificed because of his ignorant friends who chose to play where the danger was. This kind of dilemma happens around us everyday. In the office, community, in politics and especially in a democratic society, the minority is often sacrificed for the interest of the majority, no matter how foolish or ignorant the majority are, and how farsighted and knowledgeable the minority are. The child who chose not to play with the rest on the operational track was sidelined. And in the case he was sacrificed, no one would shed a tear for him.

The great critic Leo Velski Julian who told the story said he would not try to change the course of the train because he believed that the kids playing on the operational track should have known very well that track was still in use, and that they should have run away if they heard the train’s sirens. If the train was diverted, that lone child would definitely die because he never thought the train could come over to that track! Moreover, that track was not in use probably because it was not safe. If the train was diverted to the track, we could put the lives of all passengers on board at stake! And in your attempt to save a few kids by sacrificing one child, you might end up sacrificing hundreds of people to save these few kids.

While we are all aware that life is full of tough decisions that need to be made, we may not realize that hasty decisions may not always be the right one.

“Remember that what’s right isn’t always popular… and what’s popular isn’t always right.”  

Everybody makes mistakes; that’s why they put erasers on pencils.

I don’t know enough to comment if Leo Velski Julian’s approach is right or wrong, but it surely resembles the reality: we often disregard the ‘right’ and protect the ‘wrong’ because of relative costs of choosing between the two of them. I guess ‘popularity’ is more important than being ‘right’ for most of us in most of the situations.

Decision-making is not as straight forward as choosing between right and wrong anymore, if it ever was! Most often, there are two or more choices, none absolutely right or absolutely wrong, and the right choice being made depending on the relative cost/benefit of one over other, with not all factors known upfront with enough clarity or certainty! While sometimes flipping the coin might be the best way to make decisions when both options look equally good (or equally bad, depending on how you look at life) and you want that extra bit from the heavens to help you make the right choice, we might not always have the luxury to flip a coin to take the decision and being able to justify, especially when things go wrong, as they eventually will. The system expects us to use an explainable rational thought process to arrive at a decision even if that goes wrong as opposed to a plain intuition-backed decision that might go right.

I believe the single-most important function of a manager is the decision-making ability. When things are clear and certain, it is often a no-brainer – and it might not be an exaggeration that the manager is not even required! What is interesting is how a manager, or just about anyone will digest raw, incomplete, uncertain and highly dynamic information and produce a decision that will stand the test of time. As someone said, hindsight is always 20/20, and so, it is always extremely easy to trash a decision after the event has happened and all details are available. The thing is, do you have what is takes to make a decision knowing very well that future possibly won’t be kind to it?

In software development and most other knowledge-based disciplines, we are increasingly seeing a firm, irreversible and healthy trend towards teams taking and owning decisions that impact them. This surely eliminates, or at least mitigates, the risk associated with a sole decision-maker, and allows decisions to be made with two distinct advantaes: everyone’s involvement is akin to ‘wisdom of crowds’ and hopefully will bring team to a better decision, and there are higher chances of a team buying-in the decisions made.

How do you take decisions? Do you take decisions for your team, or does your team take decisions for themselves, with your participation, as required? How does your team deal with the issue of a majority taking a popular opinion that might be like diverting the train to the unused track to protect people even if they are clearly wrong? Would you or your team make a popular decision over a right one?

8 thoughts on “Would you make a popular decision over a right decision ?

  1. Pingback: Centre Right India » Political Choice and Economic Consequences!

  2. Netty E Komattu

    While it may be a tough decision to make when we are at the helm of decision making, it is wise not to make a hasty decision. We got to think out of the box for a moment and when that decision is made, there is no turning back.
    As the saying goes, “One man’s taste is another man’s poison”.
    No matter what decision is made, it leaves an impression on the next person not to make a mistake.

  3. Shake

    this type of questions don’t have definite answers, all depends on how you express it and prove your point to the public and you make the cut..

  4. Dr Sangita Gupta

    In this case risk is involved in both cases. We have to define a parameter for measuring the risks in both paths. After analysis we can choose the path with minimum risk though sacrificing other aspects like time etc. It is better to avoid a crash and disaster at a later stage.However in this case the children playing on operational track seems to be unaware of risk involved. Rather than moving on some other unknown track someone has to lead them towards safety.

  5. Naresh Jain

    Great blog.

    >> what’s right isn’t always popular… and what’s popular isn’t always right.

    I’m not sure if I agree with this. What is right and wrong is very subjective and varies from people to people. It is also very context dependent. I would say, what is popular is certainly not the best choice for everyone. The whole herd-mentality thing.

    In the scenario you’ve explained, the question to ask would be “what could be the reason behind the kids choosing to play on the operational track if they knew it was operation?” In some cases this might help you understand if the kids were ignorant or there was viscosity in the environment that let them choose something undesirable.

    Another related example in this context would be, if you look at organizations, most organizations make policies for the minority (people who want to misuse the system). Making life hell for the majority. Why is this?

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