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So what the heck are decision controls, you may ask? I happened upon this phrase hearing about Dr. Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, a British fire fighter who’s also a doctor of behavioral neuroscience. She wanted to know if decisions made by fire fighters in the heat of the moment (yeah, I couldn’t resist) were as well informed as they could be, in order to be effective and also safe.
Here’s a quotation from her: “I found 80 per cent of all industrial accidents – including the fire service – are caused by human error. Not inadequate policy or bad procedures, but someone making the wrong choice, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. In high-stress environments, we also found ‘situational awareness’ was limited; commanders were operating very much in the here and now rather than anticipating what may happen next.”
Okay, so you’re not a firefighter. This applies to anyone. It applies to any time you’re in a high stress situation. It also applies whenever you’re in a situation where because of boredom, inattention, overwhelm or impatience, you make a decision NOT based on analyzing the situation to come up with the right decision.
Sabrina and her colleagues came up with a list of questions to ask in these situations. The first one is: Why are we doing this? This meaning the solution we’re about to implement. Instead of stopping yourself and saying, wait a sec, is my gut feeling or habitual reaction the right answer, you back up further and ask why you’ve chosen that course of action.
This is important because the first question, is my gut feeling right, is a yes or no answer and in a pinch you may just want to say yes and get on with it. But if the question requires that you explain why your solution is appropriate, that forces you to come up with actual reasons, rather than relying on past experience or your gut. Gut reactions give you valuable information, but they should be confirmed with other evidence. I think this is similar to the phenomenon I mentioned last time, that talking to yourself forces you to string together a coherent argument, not simply spin in your head.
The next question the study came up with is “what do we think will happen?” This question also takes you out of the moment a bit so you can visualize what the result of your action will be. We can get caught up in taking an action, like throwing a bucket of water onto a fire, without thinking any farther than the water hitting the fire. But what happens right after that? Will one bucket make a difference? Is it a fire that will even be affected by water? What else might occur as a result, that might change the whole situation, or even backfire?
Both these questions bring you back to the here and now. Instead of being tempted to do what you did last time, you are encouraged to be more analytical about this particular situation, right now, that may well have significant differences from previous ones.
What you want to develop is that situational awareness I mentioned, which just means knowing what’s going on around you. From a non-fire fighter’s perspective, this can mean taking a look around you and registering that there are dishes to put away, paperwork to take back to your desk and old newspapers to throw out.
It could mean looking at your calendar and to do list and seeing that you have a meeting in two hours, several errands that need to be done and you need to take time to do your arm exercises if you ever want to recover from that injury. You could just leap into action (often a perfectly viable idea) or you could pretend you’re a fire fighter and run through those questions, adding on a third which is: am I confident this is the best practicable solution?
Clearly, when you’re in a burning building you aren’t going to get out a list and a pencil and go through each question. The idea is to internalize them so that they become an easily available decision-making tool. In the study I mentioned, the decision controls were shown to increase situational awareness without slowing down decision making.
The big takeaway here is to stop or at least slow down enough to take in what’s actually going on right now without being tuned out or distracted or overwhelmed. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.
What you can do now: Practice for that next volatile situation by using the questions in a more mundane context. Let yourself take time to analyze what’s happening and see how that changes your decision making.