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Top Decision-Making Expert Says Leaders Need To Get Comfortable With Uncertainty

Jul 20, 2021

Dr. Gary Klein is a cognitive psychologist and one of the world’s foremost experts on human decision making. I had the opportunity to talk with him recently about the present pandemic, and I asked him how leaders can successfully navigate this challenging operating environment.

The first thing leaders need to do, he told me, is get comfortable with ambiguity.

“With a crisis like the one we’re experiencing now with COVID-19, there is so much complexity and there is so much uncertainty that to try to make sure that you can analytically identify the one best option and not to do anything until you've identified the one option that’s demonstrably better than the others is a recipe for paralysis,” Klein said. “People like to identify a course of action and then firmly commit to it. That makes them insensitive to anomalies and subtle cues that are early indicators that they’re going in a non-productive direction.”

Instead, he said leaders should not become wedded to their initial plan and accept the fact that they’re going to have to correct their course as they move forward and conditions change.

“Rather than seeing people lock in and commit so that they can reduce all the anxiety they feel about making the decision. They should say, There’s a good chance I’m going to have to adapt, I’m going to have to modify my plan and maybe even my goals,” Klein said, adding that leaders also need to listen to warnings from their team. “I want to be on the lookout for counter-indicators. If people have some different ideas than the ones that I’m holding, I don’t want them to mess up my momentum, but I don’t want to silence them either. I want to make sure that they're still gathering evidence for their point-of-view. Then they can bring me that evidence as it arises, so that I’m not blinkered, I’m not just proceeding on blindly.”


Hedge Trimming vs. Tree Felling

In decision-making science, researchers like to use the analogy of hedge trimming versus tree felling. When you decide to cut down a tree, you can’t stop halfway through and change your mind. But when you are trimming a hedge, you may start with an idea of how you want it to look, but you can change your mind and modify that plan as you go along.

“I think what I would be looking for today is more of a hedge-trimming strategy – for people to generate courses of action, but to realize that they may learn things that challenge some of their assumptions. They have to expect to revise their plans,” Klein said. “In fact, not only may they have to revise their plans, they may be revising their goals, because we’re dealing with wicked problems. Instead of saying, I’ve got to nail down the goal before I start, they just should be expecting that, as they go along, they're going to discover what plausible goals might be. They can’t rely on patterns to say, Well, here's what's worked in the past and it tells me what’s a plausible goal, because we’re in a situation where that level of expertise doesn’t exist.”

Klein said the most successful leaders will be those who are not paralyzed by this uncertainty.

“It’s about keeping an open mind and recognizing that you’ve never cracked the code, that you’ve never solved the problem entirely,” he said. “People will say, Here’s an approach that has worked in the past, and it looks reasonable here. But there’s always going to be some difference between where it worked in the past and what you’re facing right now. You want to be sensitive to what are the differences and what the implications might be, because something that’s worked in the past might simply be depending on resources you don’t have today, or connections that have been broken, or other kinds of disruptions.”

Klein said a powerful example of how to navigate this sort of complexity under extreme pressure is the “Miracle on the Hudson” back in 2009, when Capt. Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger successfully ditched his Airbus A320 with no loss of life after suffering a catastrophic engine failure due to a bird strike shortly after taking off from LaGuardia.


Klein’s Model? Miracle on the Hudson

Klein had an opportunity to sit down with Sullenberger and walk through his decision-making process moment by moment while listening to the cockpit voice recorder.

“His immediate reaction is, Okay, I’ve got to go back to LaGuardia and get this on the ground. That’s what they’re all taught: If you have a problem as you’re taking off, just return to the airport. He contacts air traffic control: ‘We've got an emergency, vector us back into LaGuardia.’ Air traffic control was working like a demon to try to get him back to LaGuardia. Sullenberger is just thinking through, What’s going to happen is, I turn left and do a go around and I'm losing altitude. Now there’s a good chance I may crash in the middle of downtown Manhattan. Not an ideal circumstance, and the risk seems too frightening to him – so unacceptable that he rejects that option. He does the mental simulation, and it doesn’t work. He calls the air traffic controller … and he says, ‘Yeah, we can’t make it. We’re heading west. What’s in New Jersey? Teterboro? Can you vector us to Teterboro?’”

But Sullenberger quickly realizes that is not going to work either.

“Sullenberger does the mental simulation and realizes it’s 11 or 12 miles away. They’re not going to make it, so he rejects that option,” Klein continued. “Now, as he’s heading 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 an airplane in the middle of the Hudson River in January when it’s so cold. But he was looking for the first option that had any chance of succeeding, and that was the one that he chose – and because he was such a marvelous pilot and stayed so cool under all of this pressure, he managed to land the airplane, and the tugboats came out, and not a single passenger lost his or her life. It was a huge success story, but what did Sullenberger not do? Sullenberger did not set up a matrix and say, Okay, here’s my options: back to LaGuardia, over to Teterboro, Hudson River. He was looking at options one at a time until he found one that would work, and that’s the one that he chose.”

Klein said leaders also need to cultivate a “culture of candor” in their organizations. More on that next week.


Originally published on Forbes.

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