When the Answer Isn’t Always Clear

For one reason or another, I’ve had a few conversations with people over the last few weeks about issues that are wide-ranging but all have a common denominator: no clear, right answer.

One of those conversations was with a former classmate from business school and as he put it, business school taught us just about everything except that there isn’t always an easy, clear answer.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the issues where different individuals could have different assumptions that change decisions. I’m talking about the issues where individual principles or one’s own humanity may make it hard to reconcile with the right decision for a business.

This topic is particularly interesting given the point of time we are in.   The same tools that brought us closer together or connected us to the people we always wanted to meet have been used to exploit us for political reasons.

Previously, the worst thing Facebook could do was sell our data to marketers looking to influence our purchasing decisions (I’d argue this is convenient and valuable), but now they are in the unfortunate position of deciding which businesses or campaigns should be allowed to advertise on their platform.  Essentially, these platforms have become the de facto deciders of the appropriate levels of free speech and the outcomes of those decisions could have far-reaching geopolitical effects.

While this example is undoubtedly the most troubling, Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only companies that are facing these types of problems.  ML and AI will likely change the world in the next decade, the algorithms that power these technologies are written by human beings with real biases that even when slight, could be taken to the extreme by a flywheel accelerated by self-learning algorithms.

Even without technology, business leaders face these decisions daily, but the power of technology is that allows these types of decisions to be made faster and with more far-reaching effects.  Just like our purchasing patterns, our performance at work will continue to be quantified which leads to analytics which leads to decisions made at scale through pattern recognition.

These decisions may be things like firing people who have real families and/or personal issues that analytics could not uncover.  On the other side of this coin, the company becomes more profitable and shareholders, which include pension and retirement funds of teachers (who are grossly underpaid for all of their careers), gain more value.  Again, no clear answer and no clear winners, but these are the types of issues we should be engaging with deeply so that individuals can make their own decisions on where they feel most comfortable.

On one hand, I can see where the argument could be made that school isn’t the place where people go to learn value-centric frameworks – that those principles are taught outside of school through social norms, faith (or lack thereof), and parenting.  However, we currently have a structure, specifically in the business world, where most of those in leadership positions come from universities that are largely not tackling these issues head-on because of their divisive nature.

I don’t know if there is a correct answer to these problems, in fact, I highly doubt it.  But, I would like to see more coursework devoted to thinking through the decision-making process when the answers are multi-faceted and opaque.

Kevin Stevens

Partner @ Intelis Capital investing in the digitization of traditional industries. Previously product lead at KPCB-backed Choose Energy.
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