Battling the Tyranny of Choice

By Marshall Goldsmith

If you did an informal survey of your friends who rely on streaming services for their home entertainment, you’ll get many responses about there’s nothing to watch or there’s too much to watch. Both answers are saying the same thing: The choice is so broad that it’s hard to narrow it down to one show or movie. An abundance of choice leaves some people feeling they can’t choose at all, and other people feeling they don’t know what to choose. 

Netflix, among other huge streaming services, recognizes this. It will suggest other shows that resemble in some form or another a show you just watched or liked. In some countries, such as France, Netflix goes even further: If you keep scrolling through without deciding on anything, it will choose for you, if you like, just as radio broadcast stations long ago would do. Sometimes people prefer not to choose. 

At my high school in the 1960s, our tenth-grade English teacher, following every major reading assignment, would have us write an essay on any topic we wanted. The essay just had to relate in some way to the book, play, or short story we’d just finished reading. Our teacher called these essays “freestyles.” In eleventh grade, our new English teacher set a similar drill, except he chose the topics. 

I asked him why he didn’t give us freestyles, as our previous teacher had. He said, “I’m doing most of your classmates a favor. Students have complained for years that they don’t have any ideas. Freedom to pick their own topic is the last thing they want.” Imagine what he would have thought about today’s surplus of entertainment choices. 

I hadn’t thought about that teacher in decades until another teacher, Alan Mulally, taught me about the Business Plan Review meetings he instituted in 2006 at the Ford Motor Company when he became CEO. 

The Business Plan Review — or BPR, as it was known — was a rigorously structured weekly meeting held at seven o’clock every Thursday morning in the Thunderbird conference room at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, for the sixteen top managers of the company. Attendance was mandatory, if not in person, then via teleconferencing. Surrogates were not allowed to attend for the executives. 

Alan would start the meeting the same way each week. “I’m Alan Mulally. I’m the CEO of Ford Motor Company. Our mission is . . . .” And then he’d go over the parent company’s five-year business plan, projections, and performance. He’d use charts that graded each data point under his control with the color green (on plan), yellow (improving but not yet on plan), and red (off plan). He’d finish within five minutes. 

Then each manager was expected to follow Alan’s format note for note: name, rank, plan, and the color-coded scores grading progress on their portfolio of projects. All in five minutes. Alan also required polite, collegial behavior in the meeting: no judgment, no criticism, no interrupting, no cynical asides. “Have fun, never at other people’s expense,” he’d say. The BPR was a psychologically safe space.

The Ford executives initially had a hard time believing that the meeting was truly a no-cynicism, no-judgment zone. This is one reason the executives balked at assigning the color red to any of their projects: They feared their colleagues’ derision.

Alan shut down the sarcasm the first week simply by calling it out on the spot. And all the executives got that message. Willingness to report red—that is, admitting a weak spot in their division—took longer. No one wanted to test Alan’s promise that people could be transparent and honest with absolutely no reprisal.  

A month into Alan’s tenure, when the head of North America reported the first red at a shutdown Canadian production line, Alan applauded him for his honesty and visibility, a response that wasn’t lost on the room. That’s the moment Alan knew he had reached his leadership team. 

But not all of them.

Keep in mind that, except for the weekly two hours of the Thursday meeting, Alan left his team alone for much of the other 166 hours. He was there to serve them and not micromanage them. Alan believed that the transparency and decency he demanded in the BPR would eventually penetrate the rest of Ford. 

This process began to reset the culture. 

Nevertheless, two of his senior executives told him they couldn’t live with his philosophy. 

This meant, in effect, that they admitted that being nice felt phony and inauthentic to them. Alan told each of them that he was sorry they felt that way, but it was their choice, not his. They knew the rules, no exceptions. He wasn’t firing them. They were firing themselves. 

Readers of my book Triggers will note that this is not the first time I’ve written about Alan Mulally’s methods. I think his BPR is a brilliant management tool, the most effective strategy I’ve encountered to create alignment between people’s stated plans and how well they execute the plan. It is a masterstroke of accountability that more managers should emulate. 

But in recent years, I’ve come to appreciate the BPR’s strictures for its psychologically incisive lessons — not so much about our choices, but rather about what follows, that is, how we take responsibility for those choices. This is particularly apt in the context of creating an earned life. 

Alan’s rules for how to behave in the BPR were a gift to the executives, not, as they initially feared, a draconian attempt to control them. Alan gifted his new team with what I call the Agency of No Choice. 

They could either behave in a positive way or find work elsewhere—which sounds like he was offering them a binary choice, except that it wasn’t because the executives could have left Ford on their own steam for other jobs before Alan ever called the first BPR. Alan wasn’t the one coercing their departure. He was giving them only one choice—behave and communicate in a positive way in the BPR—which is effectively no choice. It was a new show. They had to commit to it, or get off the stage. 

This was the “no choice” part of the Agency of No Choice. Alan fostered the “agency” part by making the BPR a weekly event.

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