How to help correct the biases which lead to poor decision making

- english gareth lock Feb 17, 2016

Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, found that prospective hindsight—imagining that an event has already occurred—increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. - Harvard Business Review

Successful people are normally optimistic, they can think about how to get past the barrier or the problems, even if they don't actually acheive it when it comes to the actions themselves. Optimism is good. But optimism, especially group-think optimism, can lead to some spectacular disasters.

One of the problems encountered on the journey to reach the team's goals is when the leader is optimistic and he creates a team who are all optimisitic and aligned with his or her goals. Who is going to have the moral courage to stick their hand up and express the counter-position, especially as the time ticks away and they get closer to the execution time, and more time and resource has been sunk into the project ('sunk cost fallacy' / loss aversion). Authority, or cross-cockpit gradient as it is known in aviation terms, also makes it much harder to speak up.

There are a number of biases at play which negatively impact sound decision making; some of them are very powerful. However, there are ways to break down these biases and end up with more rationale and logical decisions and one of them is use that group-think to your advantage but it requires the scene to be set in a specifc way, it needs to be framed in future with the disaster having already happened or the barriers expected have been overcome, not in the now looking forward, because that is too easy to say that it wouldn't happen, especially if such events are rare or there is limited data to support that position.

This technique is known as pre-mortem or prospective hindsight.

Researcher Gary Klein developed this concept by modifying the 'post-mortem' process which looks at why a person died by examining everything, but applying it before the project kicks off or before a formal decision has to be made.  This short video clip gives more detail.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes the "pre-mortem" to eliminate thinking biases from Kepner-Tregoe on Vimeo.

So what has it got to do with developing human and team performance in the context of diving?

What about when you plan to go diving for the weekend with a buddy or two? Ask the question, assuming that you are now a week after the dive and there had been a major issue on the dive and your best friend, an 'experienced' instrcutor, ended up dead or seriously injured.

Why did it happen? What could you have done, in hindsight with knowledge of the outcome, to make things safer and/or more enjoyable?

Did you have a clear plan about who was going to do what when? Were there assumptions made about gas mixes or contents? Decompression strategies? Recency of diving? Potential equipment issues? Gas consumption rates so that bottom times can be determined?

Or any one of number of factors which can impact the safety of the dive?

This doesn't mean you have to be the person who walks around with the sandwich board of doom or gloom on their shoulders but it does mean that we need to communicate our concerns in a frame by which they can be resolved before they happen.

By being pro-active in terms of identifying, communicating and actively controlling the risks, we able to get closer to the unacceptable line with less fear of dropping over the edge.  

If you are involved in a larger diving project, such as an expedition, then consider using something like this which Gary Klein outlines in his book The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Plan for this exercise to take about an hour. This process requires a strong facilitator.

Step 1 - Preparation: Convene the project team and assure that participants are comfortable and have several sheets of paper.

Step 2 - Imagine a Fiasco: The facilitator starts by claiming to look into a crystal ball to see the outcome of the proposed plan, and then says: “Oh, no, oh, it's a failure! Not just any failure, but a complete, total, embarrassing disaster. It is so bad; no one is talking to each other! Things have gone as wrong as they can go! But this cheap crystal ball keeps buffering and won’t reveal the reason(s) for the failure. The question of the hour is "What could have caused this?”

Step 3 - Generate Reasons for Failure: Ask each person write down all the reasons they think the failure occurred, giving them just three minutes of quiet time to generate a full list. Klein explains that this is where the differing intuitions of the team members come out. “Each has a unique set of experiences, scars, and mental models they bring. The collective knowledge in the room is far greater than that of any one person.” Klein has found that this activity helps the group share experiences and calibrates their understanding of the difficulties.

Step 4 - Consolidate the Lists: Each person shares one item on their list. A facilitator records them on a whiteboard or flipchart paper. After each person has shared one item, continue to go around the room, sharing one item each time, until everyone has exhausted their lists. By the end of this step, the list should include everyone's concerns.

Klein explains that this process liberates people who might otherwise be afraid of looking like they’re not a team player. “Now, everybody is being asked to think about failure. So instead of looking like a bad teammate, you’re pulling in the same direction as everyone else.”

Step 5 - Revisit the Plan: Address the two or three items of greatest concern, and then schedule another meeting to generate ideas for avoiding or minimizing the other problems.  If the project has a charter, these prioritized areas of concern can be listed in the “Assumptions, Constraints, and Risks” section, along with the planned strategies to mitigate the risks.

Step 6 - Periodically Review the List!  Take the list out every 3–4 months to re-sensitize your team to problems that may be emerging.

Another way to consider this pre-mortem is to use the same sense of failure, but look at how the team has overcome the barriers or failure points, framing in a positive context but still using prospective hindsight.

Gareth Lock is the owner of The Human Diver, a niche company focused on educating and developing divers, instructors and related teams to be high-performing. If you'd like to deepen your diving experience, consider taking the online introduction course which will change your attitude towards diving because safety is your perception, visit the website.