Dr Gary Klein is a cognitive psychologist and one of the world’s foremost experts in human decision making. I had the opportunity to speak with him recently about the current pandemic, and asked him how leaders can successfully navigate this difficult operating environment.
The first thing leaders need to do, he told me, is familiarize themselves with ambiguity.
âWith a crisis like the one we are currently experiencing with COVID-19, there is so much complexity and there is so much uncertainty to try to make sure that you can analytically identify the best option and do nothing. until you “I have identified the one option that is demonstrably better than the rest is a recipe for paralysis,” Klein said. âPeople like to identify a course of action and commit to it firmly. This makes them immune to anomalies and subtle clues which are the first indicators that they are going in an unproductive direction. “
Instead, he said leaders should not go along with their original plan and accept that they will have to correct their course as they move forward and conditions change.
âRather than seeing people lock themselves in and engage so they can reduce any anxiety they feel about making the decision. They should say, Chances are I’m going to have to adapt, I’m going to have to change my plan and maybe even my goals.Klein said, adding that leaders should also listen to their team’s warnings. “I want to be on the lookout for contraindicators. If people have different ideas than I have, I don’t want to they spoil my momentum, but I don’t want to silence them either. I want to make sure that they always gather evidence of their point of view. Then they can bring me that evidence as they go. let them present themselves, so that I am not blind, that I do not pursue blindly.
Hedge trimming vs tree felling
In decision science, researchers like to use the analogy between pruning hedges and cutting down trees. When you decide to fell a tree, you can’t stop halfway and change your mind. But when you trim a hedge, you can start with an idea of ââwhat you want it to look like, but you can change your mind and tweak that plan as you go.
âI think what I would be looking for today is more of a hedge trimming strategy – so that people generate action plans, but realize that they can learn things that challenge some of their assumptions. . They should expect to revisit their plans, âKlein said. âIn fact, not only may they have to revise their plans, but they may revise their goals, because we are dealing with nasty problems. Instead of saying, II have to set the goal before I start, they should just expect that as they go along they will find out what might be plausible goals. They can’t trust the role models to say, Well here’s what has worked in the past and it tells me what a plausible goal isbecause we are in a situation where this level of expertise does not exist.
Klein said the most successful leaders will be those who are not crippled by this uncertainty.
âIt’s about keeping an open mind and recognizing that you never cracked the code, that you never fully fixed the problem,â he said. âPeople will say, Here’s an approach that has worked in the past, and it makes sense here.. But there will always be a difference between where it worked in the past and what you are facing right now. You want to be sensitive to the differences and possible implications, because something that worked in the past may simply depend on resources that you don’t have today, or connections that have been broken, or other types of disruption. “
Klein said a powerful example of how to navigate this type of complexity under extreme pressure is the “Miracle on the Hudson” in 2009, when Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger successfully abandoned his Airbus A320. without loss of life after suffering a catastrophic engine failure due to a bird strike shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia.
Klein’s model? Miracle on the Hudson
Klein had the opportunity to sit down with Sullenberger and go through his decision making process every moment while listening to the cockpit voice recorder.
âHis immediate reaction is, Alright, I have to go back to LaGuardia and put this on the ground. This is what they are taught: if you have a problem taking off, just go back to the airport. He contacts air traffic control: “We have an emergency, take us back to LaGuardia.” Air traffic control was working like a demon trying to get him back to LaGuardia. Sullenberger is just thinkingWhat will happen is I turn left and take a turn and lose altitude. Now there’s a good chance I’m crashing in the middle of downtown Manhattan. This is not an ideal circumstance, and the risk seems too frightening – so unacceptable that he rejects the option. He’s doing the mental simulation, and it doesn’t work. He calls the air traffic controllerâ¦ and he says, âYeah, we can’t come. We are heading west. What’s in New Jersey? Teterboro? Can you direct us to Teterboro? “
But Sullenberger quickly realizes that that won’t work either.
âSullenberger does the mental simulation and realizes it’s 11 or 12 miles away. They won’t make it, so he’s rejecting that option, âKlein continued. “Now, as he heads west, out of the corner of his eye he’s looking at the Hudson River and he’s thinking, You really don’t want to land a plane in the middle of the Hudson River in January when it’s so cold. But he was looking for the first option that had a chance to succeed, and it was the one he chose – and because he was such a wonderful pilot and stayed so cool under all that pressure, he managed to land the plane, and the tugs went out and no passengers were killed. It was a huge achievement, but what didn’t Sullenberger do? Sullenberger didn’t set up a matrix and said, Ok, here are my options: back to LaGuardia, to Teterboro, Hudson River. He was going through the options one by one until he found one that would work, and it was the one he chose.
Klein said leaders must also cultivate a “culture of franchise” in their organizations. More on that next week.