If you’ve got about 20 minutes to spare, I’d invite you to listen to the following performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 (Op. 101) by the great Igor Levit:
What caught my attention about this piece—apart form the beauty of the music itself—are the peculiar titles Beethoven chose for each of the four movements. Normally, these are intended to clarify the composer’s intentions for the benefit of the performer. In this case though, they’re surprisingly detailed, albeit vague and slightly contradictory, all at the same time. Furthermore, they read almost like inspirational quotes plucked from Instagram:
- Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung (Somewhat lively, and with innermost sensibility)
- Lebhaft, marschmäßig (Lively, march-like)
- Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (Slow and longingly)
- Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr, und mit Entschlossenheit (Swiftly, but not overly, and with determination)
Particularly the last one—swiftly, but not overly, and with determination—struck me as a paradigm that has its merits way beyond the realm of classical music.
We’re faced with countless decisions, small or large, every day. Just like Beethoven’s pianists, our aim should be to make them swiftly. But not overly. Because the performer, as well as the leader, who is all too careless will inevitably stumble over their own feet. We mustn’t take the challenges ahead lightly. Don’t make decisions under pressure or in a hurry. Think things through. High stakes necessitate caution, humility, and respect. But once you’re set on a course of action, Beethoven says, follow through with determination. Don’t waver. Don’t hesitate. Don’t let every minor nuisance pull you off course.
Unfortunately, both the business world and contemporary politics abound with blunders on either side of this dichotomy. Think for example of Austria’s wavering stance on the question of whether or not to mandate Covid-19 vaccines for all its citizens. This was neither done swiftly, nor with determination. Quite the contrary, we’ve been deliberating much too long, then half-heatedly opted for a hodgepodge blend of policies which ultimately pleased no one, only to abandon the whole endeavour soon after.
On the other hand, consider the decision to pour an additional ten billion Euro into the Austrian defence budget (and to double our annual military expenditures). Swiftly, for sure, and not lacking enthusiasm on the defense minster’s part. But whether the right amount of thoughtfulness regarding the desired outcomes or the utmost respect for the tax payers’ money was at employed in this case can, at best, be doubted. As can be the question whether she will manage to pull this through with determination.
The problem in both these cases, as in many that I’ve seen in the professional world, is that neither the vaccine question nor the budget issue were framed as proper decisions in the first place. They may be discussions, ideas, or proposals, at best. But deciding (swiftly, but not overly), and then acting on them (with determination), is virtually impossible.
What makes a decision decidable in the first place is the fact that it has a finite number of distinct options to chose from. We can either do A, B or C, but not all of them. Increasing the military budget, for example, may sound like reasonable suggestion in a neutral country with a widely acknowledged backlog of lacking defense investments. However, what’s the alternative? If we don’t spend that money on guns and tanks, would it go to fund schools and hospitals instead? Or universities, old-age homes, or renewable energy? Would we raise the national debt for this purpose, and if so, by how much? Of course, this is a vastly simplified example, but opportunity cost is a reality for everything we do. You can either spend your weekend in the mountains or at the beach. You can go to the zoo this afternoon or to the cinema. In business, your teams can work on this project or on that one, but hardly on both at the same time1. Without making it clear what the alternatives and their respective implications and tradeoffs are however, how is anyone to make an informed choice?
Let’s assume that we somehow managed to agree on a broad course of action, say spending a particular sum of money on additional military expenditures. What exactly should be done with this extra budget so that it’ll have the desired effect? For example, how much of a deterrent is a hugely expensive air-to-air defense system which is limited to daytime operations for lack of night-vision gear? Decisions, especially ones of such magnitude, have to be embedded in a strategic context. Option A might give us a lot of bang for the buck right now, but it may also be at odds with our long-term goals—even more so if these goals are not clearly defined or understood. If the vision is for a more unified defense policy of the European Union, for instance, then a discussion would be in order about how each country can contribute best to an overarching defense strategy. In this case, Austria might not even need the means to defend its own airspace five or then years from now. It might need cyber security specialists, an ability to counteract biological or chemical threats, transport helicopters, or some other unique capabilities with which it can support the rest of the EU member states. Without a coherent vision and a realistic strategy however, it’s also not surprising that many decision are inconsistent at best and contradictory at worst.
Finally, and arguably most importantly, we have to agree on the premises that our decisions are based upon. If I assume that the Austrian federal budget is 20 billion Euro per year and you think it’s 200, then of course we’ll have a vastly different opinion on whether or not spending an additional 10 billion on anything is a good idea.2 That might sound ridiculous, but unexpressed misunderstandings of this kind sabotage more decisions that we think. For instance, countless arguments about priorities are presented without having one of the most crucial underlying facts straight: How much effort is this going to be? One day of work, one week, or six months? How much is it going to cost? Are we talking hundreds, thousands, or millions? If we don’t consider, or can’t agree, on the underlying facts, chances again are that we’re not going to make the best decisions.
Opportunity cost, strategic fit, and clarity of the underlying facts are unlikely to have occupied Beethoven’s mind when he wrote his Op. 101 in 1816. His advice to act swiftly, but not overly as well as with determination is timeless however. Transferred into the modern-day context within which leaders have to make critical decisions, it challenges us to think deeply before committing to a path forward, but then to follow through with it thoroughly.