Justin Hughes writes on issues relating to team and organisational performance. A former Red Arrows pilot, he is now Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy focused on improving clients’ execution – their ability to close the gap between what gets talked about and planned, and what gets done. Justin previously spent 12 years as an RAF fighter pilot and is a renowned speaker on performance and risk and has presented alongside Richard Branson and Kofi Annan. He can be found on Twitter at @JustinMissionEx.

I’m not sure that anybody has ever worked out how fighter pilots should make decisions at 600mph. No super pilot psychologist decision-making guru has come up with a theory or model of how to deal with complexity, ambiguity, imperfect information and time pressure simultaneously, but people in that role do it all the time; the skill set has simply evolved through necessity. So it’s perhaps useful to take an empirical approach and attempt to deconstruct some of the key factors from experience:

  1. Process. For events or procedures which are repeated exactly, need to be perfect or for which there is a defined best practice, the ‘solution’ is captured in some sort of process or checklist.  The aim of these is not inflexibility; it’s to free up brainpower for the clever stuff.
  2. Plan B. For issues which are not part of the plan, but which one might reasonably foresee or to which some specific exposure exists, fighter pilots do contingency planning. This means working through some ‘what if’ scenarios looking forwards, not just stress testing against events which happened before. You can never model all the unknowns exactly, but you can start to inculcate a certain ‘way of thinking’. When you are highly reactive to the ‘real world’, plans are useless but planning is indispensable (credit to Eisenhower). The value is not in the plan, but the thinking which went into it.
  3. Priorities. However the thing most likely to kill you will, almost certainly, not have happened before (otherwise you’d have prepared for it).  Self-evidently, there will be no process.  Faced with a completely unanticipated situation and total confusion, it’s time to fall back on priorities. The more complex your world, the simpler the priorities need to be. At 600mph the time available for a committee meeting or detailed decision and risk analysis is limited.  Approximately right for now is about as good as you will get. To achieve that, you must be equipped to quickly reassess and prioritise: what’s the ball you can’t afford to drop? And you must be empowered to react.

People tend to understand and agree with the logic above when you talk it through with them. However it appears that the rationality is ‘domain-specific’ (credit here to Nassim Taleb and his ‘black swans’). When the same people go to work and their organisation attempts to be ‘precisely right’ (conveniently ignoring the rather inconvenient unknown unknowns), nobody challenges the complete irrationality of this. 

The victory of compliance over outcomes in pursuit of being precisely right can be seen across a wide range of sectors ranging from asset management to oil and gas. I would estimate that at least 75% of the risk management effort tends to focus on process, which in practice often means compliance (not strictly the same thing).

Maybe 25% of the effort is devoted to plan B, most commonly focused on preventing a repeat of previous major catastrophes, which were often unique idiosyncratic events when they happened. And approximately zero effort is focused on equipping and empowering teams and individuals to deal with unknown unknowns.

Now I am not suggesting for a second that systemised process and contingency planning are not important (quite the opposite); as the CEO of a FTSE-100 engineering business put it to me: ‘you earn the right to deviate from SOPs’ (standard procedures).

However the problem here is that one major completely unforeseen catastrophe can kill more people or destroy more shareholder value than 10 years of incremental gains in processes and contingency planning.

It is impossible to eliminate randomness, bad luck or the inherently unpredictable, however rather than accepting that and building the capability and resilience to cope, it seems that many managers and organisations prefer the illusion of systematic control (a mantra actually used by one of the oil majors).

The danger in aspiring to be precisely right is that it runs the significant risk of being precisely wrong.  

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