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It's Not the Tool. It's the Craftsman (Part 2)

Flawed Tools for Rapid Decision Making

· general aviation,flying safety,aviation safety,decision making

This is the second of a three-part series on decision making. Part 3 will be published in the next blog. Part 1 is available in the previous blog post.


As we extend flaps for landing, they get stuck at the 20-degree point. What should we do? During climb, our oil temperature pegs at the high end of the range. What should we do? These are situations that are critical, but that allow at least a minute or so for us to consider our options and decide on a course of action. This comes under what I call Rapid Decision Making. Two considerations that I use when categorizing an inflight problem as falling into Rapid Decision Making are first, the likelihood that it will escalate into an emergency in the next few minutes, and second, the potential for a nasty outcome if a bad decision is made. This categorization, unfortunately, requires at least a small amount of experience background and that is something that we will discuss in Part 3 of this series. For now, let’s just use the example of the flaps stuck at the 20-degree point while on the approach to land. The wrong action is to immediately try to reposition the flaps. If something breaks and one flap is freed to fully retract, we have a critical roll problem. A minute or so to evaluate whether we can still land on our intended runway given our landing weight, runway length, wind, and other factors is time well spent. We have limited time to make a decision, but we do not act immediately. This is a situation that requires Rapid Decision Making.

For our rapid decision making, we have the “3Ps Method” of Perceive, Process, Perform” and the “OODA Loop” of Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

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Flaws identical to those described in Part 1 in our discussion of the Risk Assessment Matrix also exist in the “3Ps Method.” That method begins by telling us to “perceive” a situation. Our perception of anything is strongly influenced by our unconscious mind. Then we are told to “process.” That is where cognitive biases do their work. Illusory superiority tells us that bad things happen to other people and optimism bias assures us that everything will work our fine. Similarly, the “OODA Loop” directs us to “observe” and then to “orient.” Our unconscious minds and differing experience backgrounds can have a field day with both of those processes.

I am not saying that the Risk Assessment Matrix, 3Ps Method, and the OODA Loop have no value. They do and they can be helpful in directing our thoughts and actions toward solving a problem. But they all require subjective rather than objective decisions which provide plenty of wiggle room for our unconscious minds to steer us wrong. In Part 3, we will see some ways that we can effectively improve our decision making even if our tools are sometimes flawed.

But I also want to discuss reflexive decision making in this part of our series. We might hear or see the alternate name for this kind of decision making, “naturalistic decision making.” The two terms are simply different names for the same process and can be used interchangeably. A classic example of this would be the single engine airplane that has a complete and sudden loss of engine power at 100 feet of altitude right after takeoff. Much of our knowledge about this this kind of decision making comes from the work of Dr. Gary Klein studied firefighters who had to make very rapid, life and death decisions, with limited knowledge of the exact situation. Dr. Klein used the term “optimized decision making” which can be added to our list of synonyms for reflexive decision making. He stresses that this method only works when the decision-maker has the necessary background and experience. He says, “Those people can be accurately described as having an intuition: They recognize things without knowing how they do the recognizing.” The first thing that comes to mind is usually a very workable approach to the problem. The only criterium for success is whether it will work. It is not always a perfect solution, but it often does not need to be. Once the immediate, problem is mitigated, there is likely more time available for rapid or even analytical decision making.

In Part 3 we will look at some “accelerated methods” to achieve a higher level of background and experience. We will also see some ways that we can effectively improve our decision making even if our tools are sometimes flawed.