Over the last two years, I’ve been active in my local emergency response volunteer community. I’ve participated in several mass casualty training exercises (e.g., earthquakes, plane crashes, collapsed building structures).

In several of those exercises, I had the opportunity to train in the role of incident commander (IC) and other leadership roles. 

It was a useful, albeit at times humbling, experience.

I thought of myself as a logical, good decision-maker. However, when faced with real-world stress, it is much harder!

At the very start of one of my exercises, all of our “patients” began screaming in agony and pain. It is very hard to think clearly when a dozen people are yelling and groaning!

I learned a few things about decision-making in a crisis versus in everyday situations.

The process I eventually gravitated to can best be described as the: Assess, Decide, and Act Cycle.

1) Assess

Assess refers to gathering data and developing a comprehensive awareness of the situation.

The advice I got from previous incident commanders was how vital it is for the IC to maintain situational awareness. Every person on the team has a specialized role. Only the IC is in the information flow to grasp the entirety of the situation.

The other feedback I got from those who had been in that role previously is how extremely difficult it was to grasp the situation in the midst of so much chaos and incomplete information.

Even questions as simple as “How many people do you have in the field? What are they doing right now?” were surprisingly difficult to answer.

2) Decide

After you know what’s going on, you decide. You decide on either a next course of action or an entire plan.

3) Act

Execute your plan, or at least what you decided is the next step.

Now… repeat the cycle by reassessing, adjusting your decision based on the new assessment, and acting based on these revised decisions.

In my training exercises, I found it incredibly annoying that there wasn’t enough information to develop a full-fledged plan.

Q: How many patients do we have?
A: Nobody knows.

Q: Where are they located?
A: Nobody knows.

Q: What safety risks are there to the team?
A: Nobody knows.

The one constant was that there was never enough information to make a truly well-informed decision.

In many cases, the only decision I could make was to simply decide on the next step. This usually involved either gathering more information or solving the known part of the problem… then reassessing the situation and repeating the cycle.

While this approach to decision-making is hardly new (the military uses a version of this called the OODA loop — observe, orient, decide, act), it turns out that this approach has applicability in a wide variety of situations.

If you thought you were doing great at your job, but you got a poor performance review, you need to reassess what you thought you knew about your career trajectory, decide what to do next, and then act.

If you thought your product would be well-received by prospective customers, but they hate your product, you need to reassess the situation, decide what to do next, then act quickly.

What I’ve come to appreciate about decision-making in situations with extremely high uncertainty is getting accustomed to the idea that my decisions will likely be “wrong” but to do them anyway.

Let me explain.

In school, I learned that there was one right answer. I would do all of my work to get that “right” answer.

At McKinsey, all of my training focused on getting the correct fact-supported conclusion.

In both of these environments, a lot of information is either known or knowable that allows one to make a well-informed decision.

However, in much of life and career, there is uncertainty. This definitely struck a nerve with me during these mass casualty exercises where there is only one bit of information (e.g., “airplane crash),” a dozen screaming voices, and a mandate to start leading.

In those moments, all of my training to get the “right” answer became a huge liability.

I hesitated.

I wanted to get it right.

I was slow to recognize and admit my initial decisions were wrong.

I was slow to correct my errors because my ego was invested in wanting my original decisions to be correct.

And in my after-action review (post-exercise “autopsy”), I realized that this was the wrong mentality.

In times of high uncertainty and lack of information, the goal should not be to get your decisions “right.”

The much better approach is to assess the situation, be decisive in making “good enough” decisions, take action… and then quickly repeat the cycle. 

This is a much better approach than falling for the illusion of making the “right” decision when there isn’t enough information to figure it out just yet.

It is better to try to make a “good enough” decision and iterate through the whole cycle much more quickly.

This is the big difference between working with established companies with $500 million in sales versus a completely new startup.

The established company has so much data and information that is knowable. In those situations, it actually does make sense to analyze the data you have (because you actually have quite a lot) to make the “right” decision.

In a brand new startup, very little is known (versus what you wish was known). So, iterating quickly (and getting used to the discomfort of being wrong often!) is the better approach.

In both your professional and personal lives, where are you in the Assess, Decide, and Act cycle?

Do you notice fear, concern, or stress about being “wrong”? Does taking more time to consider the “right” decision actually improve the quality of your decision? If so, by all means, take the time to make a good decision. But if more time doesn’t improve decision quality, it might make more sense to make a “good enough” decision and then see what happens as a result.

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