James Stein, Ph.D.

James Stein Ph.D.

You Are What You Decide

Keep Your Eye on the Ball!!!

Could you have made one of history's key decisions?

Posted Dec 27, 2009

    Learning how to make successful decisions is like learning how to ride a bike – you’ve got to actually do it rather than just read about it.  Every so often I’ll write a post which gives you the opportunity to learn something about making decisions by actually making a decision.  Here’s one of the most important decisions of the last hundred years.


    The U.S. government has just handed you, General Leslie Groves, the biggest blank check in history and with it a mission: to build the first atomic bomb. You're going to have to find a physicist to be your second-in-command, because only physicists can build an atomic bomb (if it can be built at all), and a general is about as popular with physicists as a fox at a chicken convention. However, you've finally narrowed your choice to three possibilities, and you've even pinned nicknames on them:

A.        Slim: a chain smoker who could charm the birds out of the trees. Everybody in the physics community loves him, but can you trust him? The FBI thinks he might have Communist affiliations.

B.        Sarge: a monomaniacal anti-Nazi who could probably lead a platoon of raw recruits to take an enemy machine-gun nest. An émigré from Hungary, even those who dislike him admire him.

C.        Doc: winner of a Nobel Prize, he may be the brightest of the lot. A brilliant theorist and technician, he has only recently arrived from Italy, and he's something of an unknown.

            Nobody wants to think about the horrifying possibility that the Germans will get there first, so it is quite possible that Western civilization could be riding on your decision. Should you choose

A.        Slim?

B.        Sarge?

C.        Doc?

Make your choice before reading further.

A.        You choose Slim. 5 points. Every decision has a goal, and often this goal can be quantified, that is, expressed in terms of numbers.  For such decisions, the key idea is to keep your eye on the ball.  Your payoffs for this decision are measured in the number of top physicists you can motivate to work on the project, and Slim is your best bet to attract them.  Your money should be riding on Slim -- J. Robert Oppenheimer.

B.        You choose Sarge. 3 points. A close runner-up. This guy obviously has both leadership potential and respect.   You wouldn’t go too far wrong with Sarge -- Edward Teller -- later to be known as the father of the hydrogen bomb.

C.        You choose Doc. 0 points.  Sometimes  making the most talented individual the administrative head is counterproductive, as you are taking him away from doing what he does best.  Doc -- Enrico Fermi -- was actually placed in charge of developing a sustainable chain reaction, the technical key that unlocked the atomic bomb.

What Actually Happened

    Groves kept his eye on the ball by choosing Oppenheimer – and the rest is history.  Before you make a decision, ask yourself what your payoffs are.

About the Author

James Stein, Ph.D.

James Stein, Ph.D. is an author, but hanging on to the day job (math professor) in a trying economy.

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