20/20 hindsight does refer to perfect clarity and vision of the past based on knowledge of outcomes. Everything is clear in hindsight (supposedly – interpretation of facts often differ – greatly). Monday morning quarterbacks (link out for this) are always right. In research, there is a concept of HARKing, or hypothesizing after the results are known (a sign of poor research).
The start of 2020 brings a great opportunity to discuss 20/20 hindsight evaluation of decision making and behaviors. With the privilege of knowing outcomes, we (I use the collective “WE” here) tend to look back on decision making and wonder why decision makers did not incorporate these known outcomes and consequences to their decision making at that time. Even better in our politically correct (PC) times, decision makers should have considered today’s important considerations, agendas, and insights back when their decisions and actions were made.
It is rather ridiculous. Decision makers at the time of decision do not have absolute knowledge of outcomes. They are not woke to tomorrow’s activist concern. They do not know how today’s norms may be abhorrent tomorrow*. At best, they have whatever given information that is available at the time of consideration. Decision makers may also have a rudimentary assessment of risks and probabilities. And yes, at times, decisions are made from less “rational” aspects such as ideology, one’s gut, pressure from another body, and a host of other cognitive biases.
But stakeholders who look back and evaluate decision making rarely take under consideration the timeline of decision making. Further, 20/20 Monday morning quarterbacks also fail to consider (or better – just ignore) historical and cultural aspects. I have seen many scholars, activists, and politicians assessing crisis management cases who 1) were not actually there, 2) were not part of the decision making team, 3) do not fully understand the decision making criteria of the specific time, 4) include decision making criteria that is known today but not at the time of decision making, 5) attribute intentions to actors unknown to them, 6) include today’s PC and identity politics considerations for evaluation of history, 7) focus on what they wish would happen vs. what was actually happening, and 8) include their own biases as fact to counter yesterday’s assumptions.
But this does not keep them from making accusations and causal claims in traditional and social media. Seems like a Twitter account is all that is needed to hear their “truth”. Why bother with learning and growth when you have a microphone and a supportive audience (many times supported by media agendas).
Knowing outcomes makes seeing missed warning signals in a system obvious. We can see patterns once we know what the patters are. In crises, people hold companies responsible for incidents because “well, you should have known what we know now back then.” But the harsh reality is that we learn from stumbling, not from successfully walking. We look back at what trips us up, and smooth walk (picture a John Travolta Saturday Night Fever strut) with confidence when we don’t get tripped.
Holding decision makers accountable for 20/20 hindsight decision analysis serves no value to organizational learning and decision making. However, critical examination of whether or how/why important signals were not brought into decision making criteria can be useful. This is why we engage in crisis planning and discuss possible scenarios – to see if we are missing anything and to plan accordingly. Such activities should examine decision making processes rather than hindsight policy implementation. After all, we do not want to fight the last war – we want to be better prepared to eliminate or better navigate the next one.
Decision making practices and protocols should be reflected upon, both internally as well as in decision making groups. There is much that can be learned by examining the decision-making process after outcomes are known. We can learn and develop better screening mechanisms and information gathering systems. But 20/20 hindsight blame assessment helps no one but lawyers, activists and agenda drivers. Ignore the noise and continue making better processes in a controlled manner. Monday morning quarterbacks need not apply.
- This is not to dismiss that many historical behaviors were actually unacceptable.