I have some great discussions on business topics during Wisdoms123 Chats, on Wednesday we considered the ‘Trolley Problem’, a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology. What has that got to do with business I hear you ask (or would do if it were not for the wonders of technology that allows you to read this hundreds of miles out of earshot). It has a lot to do with business, especially small businesses.
The essence of the problem is:
There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:
- Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
- Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
The trolley problem has been the subject of many surveys in which about 90% of respondents have chosen to kill the one and save the five.
There is a variant involving a fat man:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man standing next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
Resistance to this course of action seems strong; when asked, a majority of people will approve of pulling the switch to save a net of four lives but will disapprove of pushing the fat man to save a net of four lives.
I wonder what an outside observer would think the man on the bridge should do, I imagine they will be much more for pushing the fat man off the bridge to save a net of four lives.
You can see that where you are, and what you are doing, affects the decisions you make; remote and pulling levers leads to one decision, up close and involved in the action (pushing the man off the bridge) results in a different decision and being an outsider observer with no ‘skin in the game’ provides another view.
Small business owners are so involved in the business that they often make decisions that are not optimal, working hard at stuff without producing great results. Sometimes they are so busy they do not see the problems; they do not lift their heads up and see what is coming down the track. Business is not a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology, if you want to succeed you are going to have to push the fat man off the bridge, metaphorically not literally, that is illegal. It can be useful to get the help of an outside observer who can take the emotion out of the decision making and view things differently.
“I’ve got a great product, I’m just not good at selling”
“I don’t really believe that my product is that great”
“I cannot afford to outsource time-draining admin tasks e.g., bookkeeping.”
“If I had extra time in the business I wouldn’t be able to generate much income, it would certainly be less than a bookkeeper earns” – Probably time to retrain as a bookkeeper.
Step away and be the observer watching the drama unfold on the bridge and you may be prepared to take some drastic action. Perhaps pushing the product you love off a hypothetical bridge because it doesn’t earn its keep. Or giving a few of your customers a shove because they are more trouble than they are worth; sales are vanity, it’s profit that matters. Some of your processes might need an elbow, often things are done because we like doing them or because we have always done them rather than because it’s the most efficient way.
Thought experiments can be very practical and profitable.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that “personal” dilemmas (like pushing a man off a footbridge) preferentially engage brain regions associated with emotion, whereas “impersonal” dilemmas (like diverting the trolley by flipping a switch) preferentially engaged regions associated with controlled reasoning. Now I’m not suggesting we should all be like Mr Spock from Star Trek (devoid of emotion); however, I’m sure a preponderance of controlled reasoning is best in business, although not good for the fat man.
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