Think Clearly or Else!

Decision making for pilots is extraordinarily high-stakes, especially for those who fly in the military. Many of their choices in the cockpit provide little or no time for consideration. Fighter pilots make untold decisions each and every flight. They have to get it right or they may never fly again. The consequences of a poor decision can be catastrophic. How they manage these challenges is at the heart of Hasard Lee’s business best-seller, The Art of Clear Thinking: A Stealth Fighter Pilot’s Timeless Rules for Making Tough Decisions. It is a useful book that has relevance well beyond “top gun” scenarios.

Lee is a fighter pilot who became Chief of Training Systems for the US Air Force. Because of the USAF needs its pilots to get things right all the time, it invests tremendously in training. Lee’s experiences, as a trainer, teacher and pilot, give him a valuable perspective on the ways that decisions are made, can be made, and how training can help sharpen decision-making. The Art of Clear Thinking distills his knowledge, drawing on Lee’s personal history and examples from the world of aviation. Aviation risk is not found only in the military. The book opens with the pilot-induced crash of Air France 447, setting the stage and reminding all that without clear thinking, people can die.

The process for decision-making Lee endorses is straightforward: assess, choose and execute. He walks us through examples of how each of these stages of decision-making can work, drawing from real-life examples. Lee is a strong believer in developing and sharpening techniques to improve outcomes for each stage of the process. For example, when assessing, Lee urges decision-makers to determine if a power law is applicable to the situation. Power laws provide a framework and a short-hand for understanding relationships and, as a outcome, choice. The rule of seventy, as an illustration, means that if you divide seventy by the growth rate of something, you can find how long it will take to double. The 80-20 rule helps to appreciate a long-tail; much of the impact and results are driven by a smaller percentage of the whole. Lee even goes esoteric. Zipf’s law indicates that the most popular word in a language will occur twice as much as the second-most popular word, which will occur twice as much as the third most popular, and so on. Appreciating tipping points and knowing how and when to use them can help to narrow the scope of a decision.

Along similar lines, Lee emphasizes the values of non-traditional “fast forecasting” to help with quick decision-making. These mental frameworks give the person more time to focus on the more difficult parts of making a decision. He outlines basic scenarios in probability to make the exercise more readily applicable. While very few of us will ever have to decide whether or not to continue with a bombing mission in the face of limited jet fuel, the relevance of quick and thorough decision-making is vital. In Lee’s hands, too, the scenarios are memorable.

Lee argues that to make for more effective training, 1) concepts are more durable than facts; 2) training must be learner-centered; 3) coaching is more effective than evaluating; 4) assessing where technology can augment training is vital; 5) utilizing apprenticeship models are powerful; and 6) setting aside debriefing time is needed. These are approaches are not new. Commitment to them, though, is difficult, especially over longer periods of time. Expanding on what he learned as a trainer, Lee claims that we do not rise to the level of expectations, but instead fall to the level of preparation. He champions learning and training as absolutely essential. It has to be focused training, too. That means calming the mind and body, building confidence in subjects’ ability to problem-solve, and the visualization of solutions. Again, these are also known in education research to be effective, yet we do not employ them at scale.

Hassan Lee’s The Art of Clear Thinking offers both an individual approach to better decision-making (what can I do?) as well as a possible model for organizations (how can I train people?). Lee does not claim to have all the answers. Nor does he pretend that the tactics in the book are applicable to all situations. What the book does do, however, is emphasize how better decision-making can be taught and learned. That, in and of itself, makes this book worth your time and consideration.

David Potash

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