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How to make better decisions

(Extracted from the book "Airmanship")

What is decision making?

It is a conscious mental process that we use to choose the best option for a given situation, even though much of the process may be sub concious. The decision becomes apparent to others when we take an action based on the choice we make. When they make poor decisions it is often for the following reasons:

They have used the wrong process for the situation.

They have used the right process but incorrectly.

They are using wrong or inadequate information.

Decision making is the area where the greatest distinction between an expert and a novice is noticed. Experienced pilots tend to have a large database of prior decisions to access, which is almost impossible to transfer to someone else verbally. Also experts know which decision making process to use, the importance of getting correct and adequate information before making the decision and where to get it; and finally how to use the time available. Although not part of the decision making process, decisions can also appear to be wrong if they have not been implemented properly.

 Before going on to the specific choice processes, there is an overall process that can be used, which is familiar in different forms to many pilots. The first step is to determine how much time is available to make the decision and how important it is. The more time and importance, the more effort and care should be put into the decision. Then there is normally a mnemonic associated with the next stage such as DODAR, FORDEC or GRADE.


D – Diagnose                      G – Gather information        

O – Options                          R – Review information

D – Decide                           A – Analyse

A – Action                            D – Decide

R – Review decision            E – Evaluate decision


F - Facts

O - Options

R - Risks

D - Decide

E - Execute

C - Check 

In practice these checklist type decision tools are not often consciously used, particularly by experts who have probably made the decision several times before in various forms. Nevertheless, they are useful in new situations, doubt or pressure to help the crew think in a structured manner, and also to explain the intuitive decision to someone less experienced after the event. These normally include an information-gathering step, then an analytical step, a decision step, an action step and then finally a review step to monitor if the decision was correct. The process is also circular in that after review you go through it again. However, on all of these the key step, that of DECIDE, is not developed into much detail and it is this step where the main decision making processes take place. We have identified eight  processes that people use in various situations to actually make the choice.


Decision making ‘constants’

There are some constants that surround the subject of decision making.

Information collection

In all the processes the correct information must be used whether this is done consciously or unconsciously. Using communications, situation awareness and techniques for minimising fatigue or other physiological effects will ensure that the correct information is obtained.


At various stages in all the decision making processes a person is making an assessment of the information they have and estimating the outcome. In other words, they will have to use their basic judgement of the facts in front of them. It is not unusual for people of equal intellect and experience, using the same decision making process, to come to opposite conclusions. It is why we can never know who will win the 3.30 race at Ascot, or who will be elected, or what the stock market will do next week.


Similarly people with the same information, decision making process and even judgement can often have a different attitude towards risk. In other words, I might agree with my friend that 5-1 are the correct odds for the horse, but still feel the best decision would be not to invest my £10.


All decisions should be subject to continual review and of course further decision making if necessary.


This is always going to have an influence on the way we make decisions and it is an area that is not easily understood. Experience is the sum total of everything we have seen, heard, smelled, tasted or felt, and thus it is a massive database of information. There are theories that all this information is still in our heads, somewhere, because unlike computers we do not have a delete function or the ability to reformat the brain. The problem that most of us have is trying to remember which file the information is stored in, and how we can retrieve it when needed. Nevertheless, experience assists us in strange ways, as we are able to make sound decisions with no more guidance than a feeling we have. Yet sometimes as our memories fail we wonder if it is all being wasted.

 Group decision making

It is often easier to make decisions on your own rather than having to agree with someone else, but joint decision making is a skill that crews must develop. One of the essential things for groups to agree on first is which process they should use. Often the cause of conflict in group decision making is that the participants are using different processes. Another key factor in group decision making is the validity of assumptions. Many disagreements between people occur because the assumptions they are working from are different and they do not realise this is happening. Once the argument is in full swing and the interpersonal conflict has overtaken any rational thought, it is often too late to get any agreement. It is therefore essential when trying to make group decisions that the participants also agree on the validity of their assumptions. These assumptions are generally based on facts that can be verified, or judgements that the participants can more easily agree. The final factor in group decision making is differing attitudes to risk. Even though all parties agree on the assumptions supporting each option, they may be less or more willing to take risks.

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