In philosophy, there is a famous thought experiment in ethics called the Trolley Problem.  Philippa Foot first introduced the problem in 1967, and it has since developed a myriad of variations.  The general version is as follows:

There is an out of control trolley with five people on board barreling down the track towards a bridge that is out.  If the trolley doesn’t stop or doesn’t switch tracks the trolley will plunge off a cliff killing all five.  There is a switch near you that will switch the track away from the bridge and switching it would save the five people.  Do you switch the track?

Most people would switch the track in the above case.  It seems like the morally right thing to do.  But, consider the following case with one addition:

There is an out of control trolley with five people on board barreling down the track towards a bridge that is out.  If the trolley doesn’t stop or doesn’t switch tracks the trolley will plunge off a cliff killing all five.  There is a switch near you that will switch the track away from the bridge and switching it would save the five people.  However, there is a person trapped on the track you would switch to, killing that person.  Do you switch the track?

Some people have an issue with switching the track, but most wouldn’t blame someone for switching the track or letting the trolley run its course.  It is a bit of a moral dilemma, to save five or kill one, but how does this apply to business decisions?

When hiring and firing, selling and buying, laying off or expanding; there is always analysis either tacitly or implicitly made. Each decision either big or small have consequences only the magnitude and gravity of those decisions vary.  Are you making decisions to maximize outcomes or mitigate outcomes or are you simply willing to let things play out?

Sometimes, businesses are left with impossible decisions where they must make a decision that isn’t ideal. When stuck with such decisions how are you viewing the decision or problem?  Are you making an emotional based decision or an analytic one or a fusion between the two?  What values are you attributing to the perceived outcomes based of the decision?  Are you considering the human factor or is it simply monetary? Are you protecting long-term visions or are you mitigating short-term loses?

Consider the following business version of the Trolley problem:

You have a team of six going into the third quarter that has been under preforming, if left alone at the end of the year the team will lose money unless something changes. One person in particular is causing the team to under-perform and if let go, the company wouldn’t lose money.  Do you let the person go?

It seems simple to attribute mere money to the problem, cut one to save loses.  However, what are the consequences of letting one go?  Is money the only assigned value? Consider the following change to the problem:

You have a team of six going into the third quarter that has been under preforming, if left alone at the end of the year the team will lose money unless something changes. One person in particular is causing the team to under-perform and if let go, the company wouldn’t lose money.  However, letting the person go will cause the overall morale of the team and the company to tank.  Do you let the person go?

The example is a bit simplistic, but for each decision there are consequences either known or unknown. You must ask; what are the important factors?

The underlining purpose of the trolley problem is to tease out what one values and how people make moral judgments.  Corporations and businesses also must tease out collectively what they value.  What are the core values you want to instill and are those values in line with how you make decisions or judgments?

So basically, the challenge for corporations is to understand their core values.  And, analyze their judgments and decisions against those core values.  If they do not line up there will be a disconnect that could cause a company to plunge of the cliff.

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