As we sauntered through the bucolic hills and valleys of Western Pennsylvania, my friend and colleague looked at me and said, “What were they thinking?” It was a rhetorical question.

The subject was judgment, and how sometimes it is not used by operating executives. Smart, successful, well-educated, well-intentioned and well-compensated executives.

Merriam Webster defines Judgment as follows:

a: a formal utterance of an authoritative opinion
b: an opinion so pronounced

a: a formal decision given by a court
b (1): an obligation (as a debt) created by the decree of a court (2): a certificate evidencing such a decree

a: capitalized: the final judging of humankind by God
b: a divine sentence or decision; specifically : a calamity held to be sent by God

a: the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparingb: an opinion or estimate so formed

a: the capacity for judging: Discernment
b: the exercise of this capacity

a: a proposition stating something believed or asserted

Examples of Judgment

  1. We have to make a judgment about the value of their services.
  2. The judgment of the editors is final.
  3. Don’t rush to judgment without examining the evidence.
  4. “Were his policies good or bad?” “I’ll have to reserve judgment on that. It’s too soon to know.”
  5. Use your own best judgment.
  6. The court granted a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.
  7. The judgment of the court.
  8. I won a judgment against the bank.

Clearly the judgment we seek (in this blog at least) is not divine. But decisions borne of poor judgment can have cosmic consequences.

  • In the early 80’s, ITT-Rayonier built a $750MM pulp plant in Eastern Canada, only to shutter it before start-up. Why? They concluded there was no market for the pulp.
  • In 1999, NASA lost a $125MM Mars Orbiter because one engineering team used metric units while another used English units. The result:  Mars was not exactly where it was supposed to be upon entry.
  • A Senior Executive I knew entered into multiple long term contracts without reviewing them with a lawyer or his boss. The contracts were deeply flawed; it took years to unravel. He was eventually terminated.
  • We are human, we make mistakes. But some mistakes could be avoided if the Executive in Charge possessed judgment. And used it. Unsparingly.

A method I use to ascertain an executive’s level of judgment is to ask them to describe a complex, high-value problem they faced, and dissect it. Do an autopsy.

  • How was the problem defined?
  • What steps were taken to understand it?
  • Did they think it through strategically, tactically, operationally?
  • What steps were taken to solve it?
  • What was the thought process during each step?
  • How did they respond when a wrong step was taken in the problem solving process?
  • What resources did they employ or ignore?
  • What were the outcomes and why?
  • How deeply did they examine their own process?
  • How intellectually honest with themselves, and their team, were they about the problem, solution, process, etc.

These are some questions that reveal what a person knows, what they don’t know, and how they exercise judgment.

Can judgment be taught, or is it the summation of who we are and our life time of experience? Is that another rhetorical question? I’m not sure, you be the judge.