Waiting Too Long to Decide

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Two weeks ago, an Arizona Air National Guard (ANG) F-16 tactical fighter jet crashed. Local reporters were told that the pilot had not yet been found and is “either in the wreckage or ejected moments before the crash.” While very few of us are competent, professional, high-performance jet pilots, this accident offers us an opportunity to learn from someone else’s mistakes.f-16

This occurred two weeks before another F-16 fighter jet crashed mid-air with a Cessna in South Carolina, killing two.

While there are, as of this writing, no details of the accident, reports indicate that the airplane was “on fire” before crashing and that (as noted above) the pilot ejected late or did not eject at all.

*Information released after the writing of this article indicate the pilot was killed during the crash.

Historically, the majority of non-combat fighter jet fatalities are the result of delayed ejection from a damaged airplane. At the same time, news articles have presented reports of pilots continuing to fly a damaged airplane to ensure that, when it crashed, it would not endanger civilians. So it is obvious, now, that ejecting from a damaged airplane is not a simple decision – it often requires the pilot to make a choice between self-preservation and endangering civilians. Thankfully, most pilots opt for preventing civilian casualties and still live to tell about it. But sometimes, as in the case of the Arizona ANG F-16 pilot, there is no danger to civilians and the pilot still probably stayed with the airplane for too long. Why and what can business leaders learn from this?

There are two dominant reasons that pilots “stay with the airplane” beyond the point of self-preservation:

  • Overconfidence – the tendency to assume more control than actually exists (or is even possible). This applies to every human being to one degree or another. One of the reasons that business leaders don’t feel urgency about planning for crises is that they believe that they are capable of responding well without prior planning. That is an erroneous belief.  When faced with an emergency (and in the absence of a practiced plan), every human being will freeze, flee or fight.  Millions of years of evolution have honed that emergency response and that isn’t going to change just because we believe that we can respond without prior planning and practice.
  • Status Quo Bias — this is an inherent human preference for the things with which we are comfortable. In this case, the pilot may have been more comfortable in the familiar environs of the cockpit and was, subliminally, unprepared to eject and leave those comfortable (albeit on fire) environs. In the business world, the same kind of thing happens: leadership ignores warning signs because they portend a change to the status quo and, “if I pretend it ain’t so, maybe it’ll go away.” We call this denial, but it is actually a deep-seated preference for the status quo – the way things are right now.

Neither of these biases is unique to jet pilots. They are characteristics of every human being. Business leaders can be every bit as overconfident as any fighter pilot. Some of them may be even more overconfident during normal operations and times of crisis.  

f16 crash siteSimilarly, business leaders can succumb to a subconscious preference for the status quo. The business leaders frequently recognize that a preference for the status quo is often a problem when they’re contemplating organizational change, but they seldom attribute that same preference to themselves during either normal operations or in times of crisis. We all prefer the known and comfortable over the new and uncomfortable – “Change is good. You go first.

Overconfidence during crises can be overcome by creating a plan and practicing it before encountering a crisis. The plan/practice helps develop the skill of responding to an emergency or crisis and has been found in research to enable rapid recovery from the freeze/flee/fight response.  

To overcome the tendency to do nothing until it is too late (the status quo preference), your plan should include a “trigger matrix” that sets out criteria for initiating specific actions. Since these criteria will be developed in the cold, unstressed planning environment, they are much more likely to be the right criteria for action and can move you out of any dangerous status-quo position.

The (not so) secret sauce is, again, PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM.®

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