Helping Managers Make Better Decisions

Interview: Dr. Tanja Becker, an entrepreneur and airline pilot, applies aviation methods to business—to enhance safety and decision-making.


As a pilot, Tanja Becker is trained to master crises. As a coach, she passes on this knowledge to managers. Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible

Dr. Becker, you are a long-range pilot and senior first officer on Airbus A340 jets, you’ve co-founded a business in Hamburg, and you have a four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. Has the coronavirus pandemic hit you in three different ways—as an employee, a business owner, and a mother?

Dr. Tanja Beck­er: Indeed it has. I’ve had to face three dif­fer­ent dif­fi­cul­ties right from the start. For one thing, of course, there’s look­ing after my chil­dren twen­ty-four hours a day. Then there’s the sober­ing image of planes parked at so many air­ports in Ger­many alone. And final­ly, there’s the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of a start-up that had begun to show very pos­i­tive incom­ing orders and now has to deal with new chal­lenges result­ing from the virus.

What are those challenges exactly? The company you founded works with lighting conditions in cabins to lessen the effects of jet lag from long-haul flights.

Beck­er: Sim­i­lar to many self-employed peo­ple or restau­ra­teurs, start-ups of course have not accu­mu­lat­ed the liq­uid­i­ty to counter the very rapid effects of a sud­den drop in sales. As you noted, we began by focus­ing on air­lines and other com­pa­nies in the trav­el indus­try. This sec­tor was the first to be hit by the virus, and will be the last to recov­er. That means we had to pivot and focus on other clients and mar­kets. The signs are slow­ly sug­gest­ing that we’ve taken quite a suc­cess­ful tack. One of the key fac­tors for suc­cess as a start-up is the abil­i­ty to rethink prod­uct devel­op­ment and strategy.

The pandemic is a global crisis. A crisis by definition is the most extreme point of a very dangerous situation. But it can also be the turning point—and a chance to find solutions. If the situation cannot be dealt with, the crisis can turn into a catastrophe. An example in aviation would be if a plane’s engines fail and it starts going down over a densely populated area. How are pilots trained to prevent that type of outcome?

Beck­er: Train­ing is cru­cial for han­dling that type of predica­ment. It pre­pares us in tar­get­ed ways for con­crete sit­u­a­tions, but it also helps us inter­nal­ize approach­es and pro­ce­dures. You might have heard of the “avi­ate, nav­i­gate, com­mu­ni­cate” prin­ci­ple, for exam­ple. In sim­ple terms, the first thing to do is to keep the plane in the air. Then you want to work on its loca­tion and direc­tion. Only then do we com­mu­ni­cate with flight safe­ty per­son­nel or our col­leagues in the cabin. Train­ing not only pol­ish­es your skills but also rais­es your level of expe­ri­ence. This helps build up a pilot’s abil­i­ty to take action and make deci­sions intu­itive­ly in actu­al prac­tice. That in turn frees up capac­i­ties to deal with addi­tion­al prob­lems. To put it sim­ply: faced with an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion, I as a pilot should have suf­fi­cient reserves to con­cen­trate on the essen­tials and not become hec­tic in the process.

Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible
In the Spotlight

Dr. Tanja Becker

… is a pilot and senior first officer on long-haul Airbus A330/A340 flights. Born in 1981, she earned a doctorate in engineering, co-founded the Hamburg start-up jetlite (product: next-level human-centric lighting), and has two children. Becker also works with the WeOne consultancy to train and coach companies, managers, and employees in the field of human factors.

You’ve talked about the FORDEC method. “FOR” stands for the facts, options, and risks and benefits needed for analysis. “DEC” stands for the subsequent actions: decision, execution, and check. This method helps pilots make the right decisions when faced with stressful situations like emergency landings. Is the method only useful in cockpits, or could it also help medical directors at hospitals and board members at major corporations chart a course out of the danger zone in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic?

Beck­er: It might be slight­ly pre­sump­tu­ous to say the method can guide some­one com­plete­ly out of a dan­ger zone. How­ev­er, very com­plex sit­u­a­tions can arise on a plane, which are def­i­nite­ly com­pa­ra­ble to the pan­dem­ic and its effects on the oper­a­tions of a hos­pi­tal or large com­pa­ny. Deci­sion-mak­ers often find them­selves faced with the typ­i­cal dilem­ma of more than one option. And the FORDEC method helps select the option with the low­est impact …

… to avoid negative consequences or at least minimize them as much as possible?

Beck­er: That’s the idea, yes. The FORDEC method uses a deci­sion-mak­ing process based on oper­a­tions research. The under­ly­ing sci­en­tif­ic prin­ci­ples apply not only to the deci­sion-mak­ing process­es in avi­a­tion but also to other areas, includ­ing every­day life or wher­ev­er humans are involved. We often make our deci­sions on an ad hoc basis, or are influ­enced by our pref­er­ences and assump­tions. We tend to use heuris­tic prac­tices like trial and error. But pre­cise­ly that type of prac­tice is often sub­ject to cog­ni­tive bias. That’s because peo­ple are rarely able to objec­tive­ly and com­pre­hen­sive­ly com­pile all the facts rel­e­vant to a given sit­u­a­tion. FORDEC enables us to achieve this goal rel­a­tive­ly quickly—without using com­plex deci­sion­al matri­ces like prob­a­bil­i­ties or the math­e­mat­i­cal oper­a­tors need­ed in pre­scrip­tive decision-making.

It’s very important to check your decisions for any changes to the underlying conditions.

Tanja Becker
Airline pilot and entrepreneur

What role do a pilot’s skill and experience play in this method?

Beck­er: FORDEC com­bines a stream­lined pre­scrip­tive deci­sion-mak­ing process with both expe­ri­ence and the prover­bial gut feel­ing. That’s impor­tant in avi­a­tion, but sure­ly also in med­i­cine and busi­ness. A descrip­tive approach will obvi­ous­ly make use of human expe­ri­ence. Pilots have to be aware of heuris­tic ele­ments and cog­ni­tive bias­es. That’s why train­ing is so impor­tant for them. They have to school their pow­ers of dis­cern­ment, and be ready to use them imme­di­ate­ly if called upon.

Let’s take a more detailed look at FORDEC.

Beck­er: The “F” stands for “facts,” and a key part of the method con­sists of ana­lyz­ing the facts of a sit­u­a­tion. This is based on com­pre­hen­sive sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness. Which in turn is an essen­tial part of a pilot’s every­day work—including the abil­i­ty to draw on past and present infor­ma­tion as well as mak­ing a prog­no­sis for the future. The avail­able “options” in avi­a­tion might be var­i­ous alter­na­tive air­ports or unsched­uled land­ings. In other sec­tors, these might include invest­ment deci­sions, treat­ment meth­ods, or dif­fer­ent process­es or tech­ni­cal sys­tems. The “risks and ben­e­fits” include eval­u­at­ing the rel­e­vant options by means of defined cri­te­ria such as safe­ty or oper­a­tions. So the option of land­ing at an air­port from which you couldn’t take off again would not make much sense if you only had a minor tech­ni­cal prob­lem. Mov­ing on to the “deci­sion” stage, this is where the choice is made by tak­ing major con­sid­er­a­tions like safe­ty into account. Deci­sions in peri­ods of cri­sis should ensure that the core oper­a­tions, or cen­tral proces­sor, of an enter­prise still func­tion in order to ramp them up faster again when the time comes. After “exe­cut­ing” the req­ui­site actions—here we’re at the “E” in FORDEC—you then move on to the “check,” which is a point that is often neglect­ed. But it can be very impor­tant to eval­u­ate your deci­sions, also with respect to any changes in the under­ly­ing conditions.

When pilots apply to training programs, psychological screening is part of the selection process. Do you think similar evaluations would be a good idea for top managers in business and industry?

Beck­er: I would def­i­nite­ly sup­port that idea. That’s the rea­son why many com­pa­nies have their own com­pre­hen­sive selec­tion pro­ce­dures and devel­op­ment tracks for top man­agers, or use the ser­vices of spe­cial­ized providers. The qual­i­ties to be eval­u­at­ed are open to dis­cus­sion, how­ev­er, and would depend not least of all on the company’s phi­los­o­phy or on gen­er­al cul­tur­al con­di­tions. But the actu­al selec­tion of lead­er­ship per­son­nel is just one side of the coin. As expe­ri­ence in avi­a­tion shows, fur­ther devel­op­ment of lead­er­ship skills with the help of work­shops, train­ing pro­grams, and also test­ing is an area that could be pur­sued more con­sis­tent­ly. Stud­ies in the avi­a­tion sec­tor have shown that iso­lat­ed sem­i­nars are not ade­quate because the knowl­edge gained at such events will dis­si­pate if not applied. 

In aviation, safety is of major importance. Fixed procedures like the FORDEC principle support this. James Lauritz
In a Nutshell

The FORDEC principle

… helps pilots make the right decisions under stressful conditions for safe emergency landings. It consists of the following steps:
F – Facts: analyze the facts O – Options: identify the options R – Risks and benefits: weigh risks and benefits D – Decision: make the decision E – Execution: act C – Check: check the results

How do managers on the ground differ from pilots?

Beck­er: Top man­agers have a high level of respon­si­bil­i­ty for peo­ple and their com­pa­nies, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly direct­ly for human lives, with the excep­tion of the health­care sec­tor. The main dif­fer­ence between pilots and man­agers, includ­ing doc­tors, is that we as pilots are also always direct­ly affect­ed by the deci­sions we make. Specif­i­cal­ly, our lives are also at play. A depart­ment head at a mater­ni­ty hos­pi­tal here in Ham­burg hit the nail on the head in describ­ing the dif­fer­ence between doc­tors and pilots. If med­ical deci­sions always direct­ly affect­ed the deci­sion-mak­ers as well, the need for reg­u­lar fur­ther train­ing in human fac­tors would be obvi­ous. There would also sure­ly be a dif­fer­ent approach to deal­ing with error. This insight can be sim­i­lar­ly applied to many other parts of the economy.

Does that mean that top managers should assume more responsibility for their decisions and be more open to constructive criticism or the services of good consultants?

Beck­er: To my mind, the abil­i­ty to reflect on one’s own deci­sions and per­for­mance is cru­cial for mod­ern lead­er­ship per­son­nel. But that’s not what we cur­rent­ly see in either busi­ness or pol­i­tics, espe­cial­ly fol­low­ing poor deci­sions. Peo­ple can ruin their careers if they open­ly address their mis­takes. This is a flaw in the sys­tem at large. We need to bring about a fun­da­men­tal change here, although that will take some time. How­ev­er, a good first step for lead­er­ship per­son­nel would con­sist of an ongo­ing series of train­ing and edu­ca­tion, also in the form of coach­ing. One shouldn’t for­get the fact that a CEO is often alone with his or her decisions.

Porsche Consulting

Outside the Box

Porsche Consulting was founded in 1994 in the wake of Porsche’s successful response to an economic crisis. The sports-car maker achieved its turnaround at the time with the help of lean processes. Today the management consultancy helps companies from a wide range of industries boost their innovative power and master transformations and crises. The consultants apply proven methods from the automotive and other sectors to the challenges faced by their clients. They have an eye for good examples, such as the crisis training that airline pilots undergo and the associated culture of openly addressing mistakes. Both practices can help companies remain on course in difficult situations.

In addition to your career as an airline pilot, you have also studied the behavioral patterns of leadership personnel very closely with a focus on the human factors in their work. What would you improve in that area, and what means and methods would you use?

Beck­er: The role of lead­er­ship per­son­nel is chang­ing not only because of the greater com­plex­i­ty aris­ing from glob­al­iza­tion, dig­i­tal­iza­tion, and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, but also due to new chal­lenges posed by employ­ees’ chang­ing needs and desires. Lead­ers have to be able to inspire. Their job descrip­tion extends beyond sim­ply man­ag­ing a sys­tem. They need to devel­op authen­tic lead­er­ship qual­i­ties, to be aware of their sta­tus as role mod­els, and to moti­vate their employ­ees in keep­ing with the aims of their com­pa­ny. Peo­ple are not nec­es­sar­i­ly born lead­ers, but they do con­tin­u­ous­ly devel­op their qual­i­ties over the course of their pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al lives. A key part of lead­er­ship suc­cess con­sists not only of tech­ni­cal exper­tise but also of inter­per­son­al skills.

What does that look like in their everyday work?

Beck­er: Lead­ers can only be suc­cess­ful over the long term if they rec­og­nize the impor­tance of psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being for those in their sphere of influ­ence, and how they affect that state of being. They must be able to instill trust, com­mu­ni­cate hon­est­ly, and value those around them. They should bring a num­ber of impor­tant qual­i­ties to their job in the first place. But some types of inter­per­son­al skills can be taught, includ­ing both com­mu­ni­ca­tion and deci­sion-mak­ing. And for lead­ers to apply the prin­ci­ples they learn in prac­tice, their com­pa­nies need to have suit­able basic con­di­tions with respect to things like feed­back, meet­ing rules, and hier­ar­chies. This is why I use not only train­ing and con­sult­ing but also the holis­tic approach of accom­pa­ni­ment. The first step con­sists of exam­in­ing var­i­ous human fac­tors in the form of audits. We then for­mu­late cer­tain mea­sures and put them into prac­tice togeth­er with the employ­ees. But the process is not yet fin­ished, because it’s impor­tant to con­tin­ue accom­pa­ny­ing them to mea­sure suc­cess, sim­i­lar to the “check” step at the end of the FORDEC method. Above and beyond that, I’m con­vinced of the rel­e­vance of con­tin­u­ous devel­op­ment for lead­er­ship per­son­nel. Indi­vid­ual coach­ing or spar­ring part­ners over the long term are some of the ele­ments of my approach.

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