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How To Make Good Decisions When The Stakes Are High

I made hundreds of decisions during Flight QF32. 

01/11/2016 10:01 AM AEDT | Updated 01/11/2016 10:05 AM AEDT
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Vivek Prakash / Reuters
Qantas flight QF32 after landing.

Captain Richard Champion de Crespigny AM was a Qantas pilot in charge of a routine flight from Singapore to Sydney on 4 November, 2010. Four minutes after take-off, one of the engines of QF32 suddenly exploded, causing multiple systems to fail. Richard was forced to make quick decisions to save the lives of 469 people on board.

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I made hundreds of decisions during Flight QF32. Some decisions were fast, trivial and instinctive, others were slow, serious and challenging. The decisions made that day enabled 469 passengers and crew to return home to their loved ones.

Most decisions were team decisions. These addressed; staying airborne versus landing as soon as possible, ignoring many computerised checklists, and whether to evacuate passengers down the emergency slides into the toxic environment outside.

I've often been asked if I would change any decisions in hindsight. I reply: "I'm open to all feedback and suggestions, however I would not change any decision." This is a credit to the teams that supported me that day.

Conscious versus Unconscious Decisions

About 95 percent of the millions of decisions we make every day are subconscious. The mind makes subconscious decisions automatically for thoughts and actions that we have repeated until they become biases, habits and intuition.

Driving to work is a task that becomes a complex and subconscious habit when practiced sufficiently. The brain triggers this habit whenever presented with similar senses from a similar perspective. This is why on holidays we sometimes find ourselves driving in the wrong direction -- to work.

Our mind alerts us of novel situations. For these events, we employ our slow and conscious mind.

Making Decisions

Leaders must be capable of making the best decisions in the appropriate time. Most people have trouble making decisions, because they have never been taught these skills.

The decision process involves; detect the problem, understand its implications, prioritise the problem, select then execute the appropriate action.

Feedback is a vital accessory in the decision process. Debriefs, audits and investigations help us learn from our successes, failures and other people's experiences.

Optimise your decisions by involving all age groups when making decisions. Young minds (under 35 years of age) bring emotion, creativity, impetuousness and recklessness to the decision process. Older minds bring the wisdom of experience and experimentation. The best decisions combine contributions from both groups.

Automatic and Manual Decisions

Decisions can be categorised into two types, automatic and manual.

Automatic decisions have no controls. They operate at high speed below our conscious understanding when there is insufficient time to use robust cognitive processes. Automatic decisions are habits, intuitions and instinctive responses to changing scenarios. The mind can make instinctive decisions in one 10th of a second. Intuitive decisions can be made in about one to two seconds.

Manual decision making is a slow and conscious procedure stepping through a decision process. High Reliability Organisations use structured processes such as DECIDE, GRADE, OODA and SADIE when making manual decisions.

Dr John Taske knows about keeping to a plan in stressful situations. The doctor and former Australian Army officer kept to his plan and aborted climbing Everest in 1996 when just 300 meters shy of its summit. This mindful decision was made days earlier as part of the plan to preserve oxygen and daylight if the climb became delayed. John survived. Tragically, all nine climbers that ignored their plan perished.

Pilots have a chronic unease for the status quo. We expect and prepare for the unexpected. We practice maintaining situation awareness and making decisions in high-stress situations. We plan and brief the what-ifs for engine failures, emergencies and diversions, hours in advance of these decision points.

Pilots, military, firemen, sports people and even bidders at auctions create plans in advance of stressful situations. These people obey a simple rule -- never change a technical plan for emotional reasons.

Degrading Decisions

Ego, bias and stress degrade the quality of our decisions. A strong ego limits our ability to be vulnerable and involve others in decision-making processes. Biases alter our perceptions and influence how we work with superiors, crowds and beliefs. Habits and intuition influence the outcomes.

Stress and emotion degrades the quality of our decisions. Our decisions become simple when our emotional circuits take control. We become distracted, indecisive and make poor decisions when we become mindless and lose situation awareness.

The fear circuit activates the startle reflex when it perceives a threat. Our emotional mind takes over from our rational mind for high-stress (startle effect) and high-reward (addiction) situations.

Simple Decision Making Rules

  • Know your WHYs -- what values dictate how you do things? (why do you get up in the morning, why you love your work, why you care for your people, why you do the things you do)
  • Rest and exercise before making mindful decisions
  • Know your responsibilities and authority
  • Decisions should be ethical, legal and safe. (Be ethical. If you can't be ethical then be legal. If you can't be legal then be safe.)
  • Do not presume or assume
  • Do not simplify
  • What are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts! (Robert Heinlein, 1978)
  • Resist perfection -- you will never achieve it
  • Any decision is better than no decision
  • Plan and brief complex decisions before the event
  • Debrief decisions. Review, adjust and learn from successes and mistakes

When stress increases:

  • Create time to reduce stress and create options
  • Chunk the overwhelming into smaller and simpler
  • Reduce distractions
  • Preserve free mental space
  • Keep situation awareness

When Overloaded

  • Stay alive
  • Stop! Breathe
  • If you don't know what to do, then do nothing
  • Create spare time
  • Defer to expertise
  • Trust your team
  • Simplify. Perhaps invert the logic
  • Don't change a technical plan for emotional reasons

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Richard is a guest on tonight's episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which hears stories of people who had to make hard choices when the stakes were high. This is an extract from his upcoming book about resilience, due out in 2017 with Penguin Random House.

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