Two recent movies based on real stories, relate the context and the course of events of a miraculous landing and an industrial catastrophe.
Here are some interesting cues we can learn from these experiences about sound decision making.
Clint Eastwood’s Sully relates the National Transportation Safety Board investigation on Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s emergency landing on the Hudson River, saving 155 lives on Jan. 15, 2009. The investigation report concluded that the captain’s decision to ditch into the Hudson River was “the most appropriate decision”.
Peter Berg’s Deepwater horizon relates the April 20th, 2010 events, when the oil rig floating above a well 5000 feet under sea-level exploded, killing 11 of the 126 people that were working on the platform that day. The blowout that lasted for 87 days, spilled an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, today one of the largest marine dead zone in the world.
In both cases, the people in charge were urged to decide under unusual and unexpected circumstances.
Take some time to assess the situation
One needs time to make a good decision, even in absolute emergency. How much time do you give yourself to decide?
It took 35 seconds for Captain Sullenberger to think about his options and their consequences. Although technically, he could have made it back to La Guardia airport, the National Transportation Safety Board report acknowledged that this option would have required him to make an instant decision with no time to assess the situation. Wisely did he take those few seconds to assess the risk and come up with a better alternative: « I knew that if I chose to turn back across this densely populated area, I had to be certain we could make it.”
Engineers on Deepwater horizon platform worked under time pressure, as the project was running late by 43 days on April 20th, 2010. Could this be a factor that affected their assessment of the situation? According to BP Deepwater Horizon Accident Investigation Report, some activities that were critical for safety would have required more scrutiny: “Improved engineering rigor, cement testing and communication of risk […] could have identified the low probability of the cement to achieve zonal isolation” and “negative-pressure test was accepted although well integrity had not been established”.
Time pressure can mislead decision makers and make them overlook important factors or neglect to further explore contradictory information.
Consider your options and their consequences
What are your options? Good decisions require having clarity on different options to choose from.
The question for Sullenberger was to land an aircraft with both engines down, while maintaining the safety of the passengers and prevent any crash in a densely populated area. None of the two options proposed by Air Traffic Control – flying back to La Guardia, or turning to Teterboro Airport – could guarantee people safety with certainty. The captain came up with a third option that proved to be more effective to meet this goal.
When under pressure to achieve an objective, our capacity to analyse the context and its evolution and to revise our options accordingly can be altered. In the Deepwater horizon accident investigation report, BP acknowledged that “improved technical assurance [and] risk management […] by the BP Macondo well team could have […] led to additional mitigation steps”.
If you can think of one option only in your decision making process, it is wise to reconsider the situation and seek alternatives to be on the safe side with risk and uncertainty.
Stand clear of biases
Emotional and cognitive biases affect one’s judgment and decision process.
When facing uncertainty, managers may be tempted to fall back on rules or to shirk uncomfortable reflection and rally to the choice of an authority figure (e.g. client, boss), rather than exercise and rely on their own independent judgment. Being aware of one’s biases is a starting point to make informed decision.
Decide with integrity
Deciding in a complex and uncertain situation takes courage.
Knowing in the depth of your mind and guts that you did the best you could brings serenity.