Developing Competency in Problem-Solving and Decision Making: The importance of Process vs Outcome.

Ignoring the ever more insistent advice coming from his beleaguered co-pilot, the autocratic captain once again initiated a climb into the base of a dark, thick layer of cloud. It was a bad decision, but it had been taken early, assuredly, and without much consideration. Within less than a minute it was clear to both of them that something wasn’t right; the nose came up fast, the torque was high, but no rate of climb was indicating and the altimeter was stubbornly still. The HSI was moving though, and soon a gradual turn through north developed into a steadily increasing yaw through 180-360-540º. The helicopter broke cloud shortly afterwards 30 degrees nose down in a terrifying, unrecoverable descent, its crew utterly disorientated. There was a sudden jolt, a loud crash, and the inevitable red screen of death spread across the vista in front of them.

Since the start of this year I have been involved with the introduction of concepts of Competency Based Training and assessment to the instructor cadre. Using a flight simulator to role play different crew behaviours, and facilitate instructor understanding and assessment of these behaviours is an illuminating experience, not least because an identical scenario can – and will – give you an entirely different outcome each and every time. Human behaviour is the ultimate variable.

One of these core competencies is that of Problem Solving and Decision-Making (PSDM). It is a particularly difficult competency to debrief and assess correctly because most people find that their view on the merits of a decision tends to cloud their ability to assess the quality of the decision-making process itself.

Process vs Outcome

Separating the quality of a decision from the quality of the processes which lead to a decision being made sounds like it should be straight-forward, but it isn’t. This is especially true if we judge a decision to be a bad one, or a wrong one, when our negative perception of the choice can easily overwhelm what could have been a perfectly acceptable, collaborative, and well-communicated thought process.

Separating the quality of a decision from the quality of the processes which lead to a decision being made sounds like it should be straight-forward, but it isn’t.

The distinction between the quality of the decision-making process and the decision itself is an important one to make in the context of training for competency because although we won’t always make the right, or the best, decisions in any given situation, the ability to develop and improve our decision-making processes, is what competency-based training is all about. The idea is that in the long run the quality of the decisions themselves will also improve as our behaviours build in more inputs to problem solving, and more checks and balances to bad judgement or bad choices.

Two examples of behavioural markers used to assess pilot decision-making are:

  • Identifies and considers appropriate options
  • Perseveres in working through problems whilst prioritising safety

It is easy to argue that good decision-making behaviours have not been demonstrated successfully if they lead to a poor decision with a bad outcome. For example, we might state confidently that a crew that end up in a big smoking hole in the ground obviously didn’t “Identify and consider the appropriate options”! We might also conclude that a crew can’t have been “prioritising safety” if the outcome of an event is an unsafe act. However, this would be intellectually lazy.

The effect of Outcome Bias

Outcome bias happens when we believe we can prove a decision was the correct one because it had a good outcome. In fact, most of the decisions we take every day, we evaluate on the basis of outcome. That makes it a very powerful dynamic in how we review or judge our own decisions and those of others. But it’s not to be trusted. If, for example, we take a chance in flying on ten miles to the nearest point of land rather than ditch an aircraft in the sea, even though the checklist and all the indications tell us to land immediately, can we congratulate ourselves on a good choice well made just because we manage to put down safely on the cliff top?  

But outcome bias can swing both ways, and we must therefore be able to apply the flip side of the argument. The fact that you might have a really bad outcome does not ergo mean you have made a really bad decision. You could have had a bad outcome as a result of a perfectly good decision, (which others will be quick to judge disproportionately negatively on the basis of outcome). Just as it is important to look beyond the outcome when assessing the validity of a decision, we must be able to look beyond the decision itself to be able to assess the decision-making process.

Positive Behaviours in PSDM

So what are the behaviours that we are looking to develop in order to demonstrate competency in the processes of Problem-Solving and Decision-Making?

In most taxonomies of behavioural traits the decision-making behaviours that we want to improve fall roughly into three areas:

  1. Information gathering, verification, and prioritisation of options.
  2. Capacity for flexibility, adaptation, and resilience.
  3. Revisiting and assessing outcomes.

Sharing thought processes

If you fly as a crew the most obvious step towards good decision-making is encouraging active participation in a group decision-making process. That means verbalising your own thought processes, talking through options out loud, and putting forward the reasoning behind your decisions. At the same time it requires you to elicit the same process from others and be open to their input. This is not as easy a skill as it sounds, particularly for those who believe they already know the solution to a problem, or are certain about their approach to a decision. Creating the habit and ingraining these decision-making behaviours to reap the benefits in the times when we are faced with genuinely difficult problems and decisions is what training the competency aims to achieve. 

In one training scenario I ran recently, the decision making process went like this: 

[In the throws of a precautionary landing…]

  • Captain to Co-pilot: “I’m putting it on the beach.”
  • Co-pilot to Captain: “Ok…?” 
  • Captain to Co-pilot: “The decision is taken. I’m putting it on the beach.”

Landing on the beach, wasn’t a bad decision. In fact, in the circumstances, it was a good one. However, there were a number of other valid options available to the crew. When debriefed on their decision-making process, both Captain and Co-pilot insisted that they had fully considered the other options and decided against them. I’m almost certain that they did, but when I put it to them that the only decision-making that had been shared out loud between them was the Captain’s concluding comment, “The decision is taken!” they protested heartily. Sometimes to make a change we have to be shown what’s wrong with how we currently do it. Verbalising the thought processes that run through your head takes discipline and practice, but it is the key to unlocking a collaborative decision-making process.

Verbalising the thought processes that run through your head takes discipline and practice, but it is the key to unlocking a collaborative decision-making process.

Countering complexity with prioritisation

We may not always have the time available to identify the root of a problem and fully consider all the options open to us. If a problem is too bewilderingly complex to do so, it is about prioritising simple, safe steps to allow you to see the wood from the trees. Easy to say, not so easy to do. But time and again in incidents with multiple failures and confusing indications those that have done so successfully tell us that they did it by focusing on what was working for them instead of what was not. That is the reason the ultimate aviation adage of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, is so enduring: if nothing else is going for you, fly the aircraft!

Changing Tack

Flexibility in your decision-making is not just about considering alternative courses of action, it is being able to adapt your response to changing circumstances. This requires the discipline to revisit a decision after it has been taken and ask yourself whether or not it is achieving your objective. This process of review might also, crucially, depend upon you having the humility to accept that it wasn’t the right course of action, or perhaps no longer is. One of the reasons this is such a challenging part of the decision-making process is that we all tend to see or seek out the things that confirm the veracity of our decision, and can easily be blind to evidence that proves the contrary. Having other people in the loop on your decision-making process can be an important countermeasure to this confirmation bias.

Developing Competency in PSDM

Back to the real question however, which was how we train these skills to develop competency. 

Although we won’t always make the right, or the best, decisions in any given situation, the ability to develop and improve our decision-making processes, is what competency-based training is all about

When we are debriefing non-technical skills we need to teach people to focus on processes, not on outcomes. Instead of training learned responses to specific events, failures or scenarios, this will allow us to engrain the habits and team-behaviours which will support a good outcome in any or all situations. And that is the rationale behind training for competency. As far as the particular competency of Problem-Solving and Decision-Making is concerned, we need to focus on developing a conscious process in crews which is open-minded, out-loud, collaborative, and iterative. Getting there requires us to examine and evaluate our own performance in these skills as often as possible.

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