Aerospace & Defense

Managing the Blindside: Critical Decision Making Under Pressure

12 May, 2011

By: John Tillison


Captain Alfred C. Haynes
Captain Alfred C. Haynes

On the afternoon of July 19, 1989, Captain Al Haynes was blindsided. The number two engine on his United Airlines DC-10 had blown apart, sending shrapnel into the fuselage, disabling all three of the aircraft's redundant hydraulic systems rendering the jet uncontrollable. The odds of this happening were a billion to one.

Haynes was now piloting a 300,000 pound iron leaf, without the luxury of being able to control it.

The situation required swift and immediate response, requiring the crew to tap creative problem-solving skills to literally reinvent how to fly a critically disabled airplane. The methodology used was not unlike that required of companies faced with sudden market changes or supply chain disruptions requiring quick, innovative solutions.

As our current global unpredictability meter spins off the scale, responding favorably to unforeseen change becomes a skill worth its weight in diamonds. Indeed, those who plan for and manage the inevitable "blindsides" will buck the winds of change better than those who keep their heads in the sand and hope for the best.

But how do we manage the blindside? To gain some insight, let's go back to the United Airlines situation for a moment. We'll quickly discover two key ingredients required to facilitate optimal decision making while under the gun of urgency and substantive change.

Adopt Scenario-Based Planning
Airline crews are required by law to train in almost every imaginable in-flight situation. Therefore when an "emergency" surfaces, it is often handled as a standard operating procedure as opposed to a dire threat which produces panic, precisely because the crew has contemplated and practiced handling potential problems in advance.

Although the United Airlines crew had not specifically anticipated complete hydraulic failure, scenario-based training helped them remain focused and in critical decision making mode while caught in the jaws of insurmountable odds.

Peter Schwartz, author of The Art of the Long View, points out the advantage of using this scenario-based planning in business development and problem solving when he asks, "what if unexpected events changed our industry? Would we be overwhelmed or see the opportunities?"

Our objective, of course, is to see opportunities and solutions over despair or acquiescence. A fundamental advantage of this mental preparation is the psychological benefit this scenario-based process provides. In a sense, you've ‘been there, done that.' This helps eliminate the shock that might otherwise overwhelm and rob you of creative problem-solving instincts.

Cast a Wide Communication Net
Haynes was the captain - the final authority. Yet he didn't waste a nanosecond asking for help, tapping ideas, hunches and out-of-the-box thinking. Decision making was enhanced because multiple resources were instantly accessed. Emile Chartier said, "nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have." Options give you latitude to negotiate the seemingly impossible.

However, we've all experienced situations where so many stimuli hit us at once that our mind simply shuts down. In aviation circles this is known as task saturation. And it is just as deadly to businesspeople as it is to pilots. Even though you may not feel overwhelmed, task saturation is considered a silent killer that can subtly infiltrate your ability to concentrate and impair sound decision making. Outside assistance helps reduce the inherent stress and greatly mitigates the affects of task saturation.

Awareness is key. Know who and where your resources are and how to tap that knowledge base on short notice. Be primed to reach outside your bailiwick.

As our economy makes its recovery there will be stellar opportunities along with a few stellar challenges as well. But those who can manage the blindside will have a distinct advantage over those who are slow or unresponsive. It's incumbent upon those of us who will lead, to be prepared, clear-headed and action-oriented. Being aware of these facts can save your business and your bacon!

About the Author

John Tillison