Reputation and crisis specialist Michael Toebe discusses the “stink test,” a practical technique for analyzing and making decisions in the corporate world.
Well-formed decision analysis is not only a necessary, critical process; it is, if done expertly, far smarter, improved risk management. It works cohesively with and allows for strength of decision-making, increasing the odds of higher-quality outcomes in leadership, ethics, fraud prevention, compliance and crisis.
To that end, consider the “stink test,” which comes recommended by Ken Downer, a 26-year veteran of the United States Army and founder of RapidStart Leadership.
“It’s a simple concept,” Downer said. “It’s that moment before taking action where we pause for a second to think about what we are about to do and run a quick check to make sure it makes sense. We give things a ‘sniff’ before deciding whether or not to proceed,” he said.
Downer tells a story from his time in the military when he was serving in Panama and one of his commanders, in problem-solving what he was being told, stated, “that just doesn’t pass the stink test to me.”
“That’s one way of applying it – to square what we are hearing and seeing with a little logic. Does what we are hearing make sense?” Downer said.
While urgency is the go-to mantra and wisdom of problem-solving, Downer doesn’t believe that is always the best course of action. “So often when an issue crops up, we can be quick to react to fix the problem, but sometimes we actually make the problem worse because we’re reacting to a symptom instead of the root cause,” he said.
How often do organizations do just that – address the symptoms, feel relieved they’ve responded as needed and that the problems are now behind them, only to later experience the same problem or a mutated, stronger and more widespread version?
“With the stink test, we pause to ask if what we are about to do actually solves the problem or really just deals with a symptom. As leaders, we should apply this test every time we are about to take action on something. This simple pause and question can save us from a lot of wasted effort and resources,” Downer said.
While some organizations are negligent in sensing the scope of problems and the ethics and urgency needed, there is a balance that proves helpful before leaping recklessly, even if well-intentioned, through decision analysis and applying what seems like it would be a responsible and effective plan.
This practice, of course, is not as common as it could or should be, and that escalates risk, leading to more frequent operating without a net, so to speak, in our decision-making. Downer says there is a way to greatly increase the power of the question: “I think an even more powerful way we can use this is to ask the question of our team: ‘Does this pass the stink test?’ In using it this way, it’s not just up to us to figure out if it does, we’re engaging all the other brains in the room to pause and think with us,” Downer said.
“We may not catch every problem ourselves, but one of the smart people on our team may, if we ask them the question.”
Decision-making can be stressful when we are making decisions that affect only ourselves, yet making them as a leader often brings significantly more pressure. This, of course, requires more developed stress management, wider and deeper scope of vision and being secure enough emotionally to suppress our own egos so we can be wise enough to create psychological safety for others to provide feedback.
“Something may seem fine to us,” he said. “But does it pass the stink test from someone else’s perspective? What will the customer, the press or our employees think when this gets out?” Downer asked.
Other people’s viewpoints and expertise is important because they can provide more developed thinking and new insights and protect from ignorance or a blind spot. “Even if something may be technically correct or legally authorized (or at least not prohibited), it’s a good idea to pause and think about how others may perceive our actions,” Downer said.
“It’s another way of saying, ‘don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.’ If that carton of milk smells funny, we probably shouldn’t be drinking from it,” Downer said.