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Decision making: It's all about taking off - and landing safely…

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Klaus Schwab from the World Economic Forum, opened one of the WEF's meeting last month by saying " Complexity, velocity of global issues means decision makers are always behind". From heads of state to corporate decision makers, everyone is struggling with the same challenge: too much - too fast. There is one profession however who has studied carefully decision making, and systematically trained thousands of decision makers to allow them to make decisions in minutes, often in very uncertain conditions : the airline and airplane industry. Managers and executives could learn from them.

 

What airplane pilots could teach businesses and leaders in the "art" of decision making

 

An article published in the McKinsey Quarterly triggered my thinking a couple of month ago. The author, Lowell Bryant, was highlighting the need for "just in time" decision making in companies.

"Much of the art of decision making under uncertainty is getting the timing right. If you delay too much, investment costs may escalate, and losses can accumulate. However, making critical decisions too early can lead to bad choices or excessive risks"

 

90% of pilot training include decision making. Professional pilots spend hundreds of hours in simulators and in the cockpit trying to tackle one key challenge: those 3 or 4 minutes where, one day in their career, they will have to make the one decision that will result in the life or death of hundreds of passengers.

The environment a pilot is navigating is not that dissimilar than the corporate environment and its many uncertainties and disruptions: a bird striking your engines, icing accumulating on the wings, an unexpected delay resulting on an aircraft been in your flightpath... as those happen, the hundreds of hours of training are coming into play.

This is how we train pilots to make the right decision.

 

Understand biases induced by the way our brain, and more specifically our senses are built.

As a pilot feels the skin of his/her back pressing against the back of the seat, he/she will assume the plane is accelerating. However, it can also be the results of a plane which nose has unexpectedly pointed towards the sky, and which is climbing sharply while loosing speed. Polits also are well aware of the Graveyard spiral: an observed loss of altitude during a coordinated constant-rate turn that has ceased stimulating the motion sensing system can create the illusion of being in a descent with the wings level. The disoriented pilot will pull back on the controls, tightening the spiral and increasing the loss of altitude. Mistakes like this have in the past led to terrible accidents, one of them been the decision made by the Air France pilots during that terrible Rio-Paris crash.

See here a documentary by the BBC on the Air France Rio-Paris crash, largely due to pilot error.