The Convenient Death

by Krishna on July 3, 2007

One of the favorite tactics that story writers use to resolve a dilemma is to kill off someone. I can’t begin to count how many love triangle movies I have seen where the 3rd person is thrown under the bus so that the other two can go live happily ever after. In comparison, real life rarely works out that way. Problems don’t resolve themselves automatically and you are never left with a simple, neat choice. Instead, you are faced with a dilemma — sometimes having to choose between two really good options and occasionally between two distasteful choices.

Here are some examples:

  1. You want to hire someone for an important project and you have to choose between two people. One is a hard-working programming genius who has no experience in the chosen technologies. The other is a competent, but average person with a proven record and years of experience in the relevant technologies. Who would you choose? Think again.
  2. A developer under you is incredibly hard-working and very sincere and co-operative. However, his work leaves much to be desired. He tries to improve, but it is not enough. It is affecting your budget and deadlines. Furthermore, other team members have to help him out, affecting and delaying their work. What do you do?
  3. Consider the opposite case. There is a prima donna in your team who produces excellent work. Without her contribution, you would be hard pressed to meet any demands on your team. But she is terribly difficult to manage. She behaves badly towards other members of the team. Overall, the team would be very happy to see her go, but everyone knows that she would be very hard to replace. Without her, you would have to re-negotiate all of your promised delivery dates with very unhappy stakeholders. What do you do?
  4. A production application built several years ago is in maintenance. You know that you must re-engineer the application in newer technologies; otherwise it would be impossible to support the application in a few months’ time. At the same time, you have to make changes in the application to cater to business needs; otherwise the company would lose money and opportunities. You have a limited budget. How do you balance the different demands?

Most business management and software development situations are filled with choices like these, where you don’t have a straightforward solution. As I mentioned, sometimes you have two or more attractive choices and you are not sure which to choose. Each choice has great advantages and perhaps a few minor weaknesses. Usually, whatever choice you make doesn’t harm you, but you still have the feeling that you are leaving something on the table.

The other dilemma is worse. You have two situations, both of which are unpleasant. Either way, you are going to suffer in some form and usually it is peace of mind. While dealing with dilemmas surrounding resource and budget allocation are tough enough, it becomes even more difficult when you have to deal with personnel problems, because human beings can react to what you do.

What do you do? I think the best way to handle such situations is to look internally and try to act in the most ethical manner possible. What is good for all people concerned? What is the truth? What situation is sustainable in the long run? Recognize other factors like fear, pride and ego that may conflict with making a right decision.

You can gain a better understanding of how to handle such decision by learning the guidelines of business ethics. Although most of us have a good moral framework for making decisions, learning about ethical dilemmas other people have faced can help us understand the real choices that we can make. It can also help us gain closure when and if we have to make tough decisions.

Postscript: The really great movies (like “Casablanca”) handle dilemmas the right way by forcing the characters, instead of the plot, to make the choice.

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