One of the major elements in the decision process is setting clear specifications as to what the decision has to accomplish. What are the objectives the decision has to reach? What are the minimum goals it has to attain? What are the conditions it has to satisfy? In science these are known as “boundary conditions.” A decision, to be effective, needs to satisfy the boundary conditions. It needs to be adequate to its purpose.
The more concisely and clearly boundary conditions are stated, the greater the likelihood that the decision will indeed be an effective one and will accomplish what it set out to do. Conversely, any serious shortfall in defining these boundary conditions is almost certain to make a decision ineffectual, no matter how brilliant it may seem.
“What is the minimum needed to resolve this problem?” is the form in which the boundary conditions are usually probed. “Can our needs be satisfied,” Alfred P. Sloan, one of the greatest managers of the 20th century, presumably asked himself when he took command of General Motors in 1922, “by removing the autonomy of the division heads?” His answer was clearly in the negative. The boundary conditions of his problem demanded strength and responsibility in the chief operating positions. This was needed as much as unity and control at the center. The boundary conditions demanded a solution to a problem of structure, rather than an accommodation among personalities. And this in turn made his solution last. It is not always easy to find the appropriate boundary conditions. And intelligent people do not necessarily agree on them.
The effective executive knows that a decision that does not satisfy the boundary conditions is ineffectual and inappropriate. It may be worse indeed than a decision that satisfies the wrong boundary conditions. Both will be wrong, of course. But one can salvage the appropriate decision for the incorrect boundary conditions. It is still an effective decision. One cannot get anything but trouble from the decision that is inadequate to its specifications.
In fact, clear thinking about the boundary conditions is needed so that one knows when a decision has to be abandoned. There are two famous illustrations for this—one of a decision where the boundary conditions had become confused and one of a decision where they were kept so clear as to make possible immediate replacement of the outflanked decision by a new and appropriate policy.
The best example is the famous Schlieffen Plan of the German General Staff at the outbreak of World War I. This plan was meant to enable Germany to fight a war on both the eastern and the western fronts simultaneously without having to splinter her forces between East and West. To accomplish this, the Schlieffen Plan proposed to offer only token opposition to the weaker enemy, that is, to Russia, and to concentrate all forces first on a quick knockout blow against France, after which Russia would be dealt with. This, of course, implied willingness to let the Russian armies move fairly deeply into German territory at the outbreak of the war and until the decisive victory over France. But in August 1914, it became clear that the speed of the Russian armies had been underrated. The Junkers in East Prussia whose estates were overrun by the Russians set up a howl for protection.
Schlieffen himself had kept the boundary conditions clearly in his mind. But his successors were technicians rather than decision-makers and strategists. They jettisoned the basic commitment underlying the Schlieffen Plan, the commitment not to splinter the German forces. They should have dropped the plan. Instead they kept it but made its attainment impossible. They weakened the armies in the West sufficiently to deprive their initial victories of full impact, yet did not strengthen the armies in the East sufficiently to knock out the Russians. They thereby brought about the one thing the Schlieffen Plan had been designed to prevent: a stalemate with its ensuing war of attrition in which superiority of manpower, rather than superiority of strategy, eventually had to win. Instead of a strategy, all they had from there on was confused improvisation, impassioned rhetoric, and hopes for miracles.