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An Effective Problem Solving Tool – Hack the Clock

Effective problem solving and decision making starts with three fundamental steps and pushing a button. 

Years ago I was a crew member in an Air Force helicopter rescue unit. In order to be ready for the actual rescue missions we performed, we did a lot of training. A big part of that training concerned procedures for handling emergencies. There were a few situations that required immediate action, but most situations allowed time for thought and at least some analysis. Incorrect immediate action could get us killed!

Our written procedures contained three cardinal rules: maintain aircraft control, analyze the situation, take the appropriate action. I haven’t been on a flight crew for a long time, but those three rules have stayed with me and they are a pretty good cornerstone for good leadership.

Maintain control. How often have you observed leaders who let an unusual or bad situation overwhelm them? There’s an old saying about how it’s hard to remember your mission is to drain the swamp when you’re up to your backside in alligators. That’s why it’s so critical to ensure leaders have a solid plan with mission, values, and goals clearly spelled out. Then, when the going gets a little difficult, there is a solid foundation which will help the leader remember what’s important and maintain control.

Analyze the situation. This is a step that many leaders miss. They take action without first analyzing the real problem. In the aircraft we had multiple sources of data to help us determine what the problem was: instruments, sound, the feel of the aircraft, even smell. We could put all that information together to come up with a pretty good idea what was wrong. Leaders also have a lot of data available. Various statistics, input from other trusted people, reports, and their own personal experience, all provide data. A good leader will take all this input and use it to analyze the situation before taking action.

Take the appropriate action. This is the last step, not the first. The word appropriate is descriptive. Many leaders will take action just to be doing something or, worse yet, to try to solve a problem quickly. That seldom works because they’ve missed the critical step of analyzing the situation. Only after as careful an analysis of the situation as time and resources permit should a leader pursue any action.

It may seem like I’m advocating a very slow approach to problem solving. I’m not. These steps can be performed quickly, though I strongly recommend using whatever time is available. I found the words of a very experienced instructor pilot in our unit enlightening. He said the first thing to do in an emergency is “hack the clock.” Let me explain. Aircraft have wind-up clock used for a type of navigation called time, distance, heading. The clock has a button that when pushed, starts a timer to give accurate timing for a particular navigational leg. Pushing this button is called “hacking the clock.”

While that seems kind of silly advice when faced with an emergency, it’s really quite sound. This instructor’s logic was that pushing that button, though it had nothing to do with the emergency, provided an action that allowed the brain to recover from the initial surprise and concern, avoiding an incorrect and possible deadly reaction.

So, next time you have a crisis, emergency, or some catastrophe, take a look at your watch, or take a deep breath, or do something that gives you a chance to recover. Maintain control and analyze the situation. Then and only then, take the appropriate action.

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