The Miracle on the Hudson and Great Decision-making

Updated: Aug 1


Where were you on January 15, 2009? Let's journey back in time. The United States was in economic turmoil. The financial crisis was raging. Just a few months earlier, Lehman Brothers, one of the largest investment banks, spectacularly collapsed. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the symbols of the homeownership "American Dream," became insolvent. Tens of millions of homeowners were delinquent on their mortgages and faced potential foreclosure. Even more, people faced unemployment and other economic uncertainties.


The departing Bush administration had worked to stabilize the economy, but the unemployment rate was stubbornly high and consumer confidence was at historic lows. Obama had just been elected and was being sworn into office that week. It takes months for a new president to put their cabinet in place and build effective momentum. The country was at a low point not seen since the Great Depression.


Then IT happened. An event reminding people that real miracles DO happen. It was an event bringing hope to so many. The timing could not have been better. On January 15, 2009, Captain Chelsea "Sully" Sullenberger and his crew landed the disabled plane, U.S. Airways Flight 1549, on the Hudson River. All passengers and crew were safe. Sully made the seemingly audacious decision to land a hobbled commercial airliner on a river. How could that ever make sense? Why did the plane not cartwheel? How did the passengers get rescued before the plane sank in the hypothermic water? While there were certainly miraculous elements to the Sully story, much of the flight forensics since this time has revealed the hero of the story: Excellent Decision-making.


When people think of great decision-making, they usually think of the decision or the decision-maker after the fact. They think of people like Sully, who quickly and effectively made amazing choices that saved so many lives. Those of us in the decision sciences and behavioral sciences appreciate a great decision and a great decision-maker is a product of a great process in place prior to the choice. Without a great process, the probability of making a great decision drops significantly.


A great decision starts with effective data curation. That is, the ability to quickly ingest and process information. We call it curation because the decision-maker must decide from an overwhelming amount of information, what information is most important, and weigh that information. In the decision sciences world, this is known as weighing criteria. In an organizational setting, groups of stakeholders must come together to provide criteria input from multiple perspectives. This often adds complexity to the decision.


One of the most famous examples of successful data curation in recent times is when Sully landed that commercial airliner on the Hudson River. He had less than 3 minutes to make decisions that would impact hundreds of lives. The biggest unsung hero of this fantastic event was the Airbus A320's cockpit display. It allows pilots to quickly understand a small number of critical airplane measures, like airspeed and flight angle. This enables the pilot to make quick and effective decisions. The cockpit display had been designed based on thousands of hours of measure and criteria testing. The Airbus designers created a display that intuitively delivers the most important information to the pilot decision-maker.


In the decision sciences world, the cockpit display design is known as "choice architecture." Getting the choice architecture right is a critical enabler of the best outcomes. In the case of this flight, it enabled Sully to quickly "load shed." This is a pilot's focusing action when only the most vital information is needed. Sully was able to quickly load shed unimportant details and focus upon the highest weighted information to choose the best alternative and to make the best decision. The cockpit display delivered to Sully exactly what he needed to know and when he needed to know it.


The outcome was “The Miracle on the Hudson.” A perfect landing on the unusually calm Hudson River that day. They landed in front of commuter ferries that quickly mobilized to save all aboard as the airplane sank into the frigid water. If Captain Sully had been busy contemplating multiple flight vector alternatives, he may have missed the opportunity to land on the river.


Focusing on the decision process and choice architecture is a hallmark of good decision-makers and good decisions. Definitive Business Solutions provides a decision process platform to help organizations make the best decisions. The decision process enables organizations to implement an effective and customizable choice architecture. The Definitive process delivers DECISION A.C.T.:

  • Accelerate. Decisions need to be made quickly and fit the timing cadence needs. Often, new information becomes available that needs to be quickly integrated and decisioned.

  • Confident. The process builds consensus and increases confidence and buy-in to organizational decisions.

  • Transparent. The process provides reporting and artifacts, resulting in complete decision reasoning and outcome records. Good especially for “second-guessers” like internal auditors, boards, or regulators.

For more information:

John Sammarco | jsammarco@definitiveinc.com

Jeff Hulett | jhulett@definitiveinc.com


 

Notes:

Wodtke, Sully Speaks Out, History Net, 2016

Johnson, The Elements of Choice: Why the Way We Decide Matters, 2021

Dr. Johnson presents a nice rendering of the simple yet powerful A320 cockpit display available to Sully. "The goal is to include the most pertinent information in the display while minimizing unnecessary complexity."


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