CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
Work can feel pretty stressful for a lot of us. And then, you look at certain kinds of jobs that seem almost superhuman. Take the ability to fly a fighter jet for the military. It’s a job that requires physical strength, strong reaction time, the ability to stay calm under pressure. And behind much of a fighter pilot success is the ability to think clearly. It’s a skill set that many of us also want and need to develop in our more grounded jobs. And that’s something that today’s guest knows a lot about.
Hasard Lee is a US Air Force F-16 and F-35 fighter pilot. He’s also the author of the book The Art of Clear Thinking. Hi, Hasard.
HASARD LEE: Hi, Curt. Thanks for having me on.
CURT NICKISCH: Can I start with a very basic question and that’s, what’s your philosophy about decisions?
HASARD LEE: Well, I think everything hinges on the decisions you make. So, it’s critical to be able to have a framework for making decisions, and yet most schools don’t teach it. Technology is really leveraging the decisions we’re making, so there’s never been a time in history where decisions aren’t more important than they are now.
So, as a fighter pilot, when I’m flying, I am thousands of times more capable than I could be on my own. I’m sitting in a technological cocoon that amplifies everything I’m doing. That’s just not for fighter pilots, though. That’s for everyone. The computer you have in front of you, your phone in your pocket, everything is amplifying the decisions we’re making.
My hope for writing this book is giving people a framework to make better decisions, whether you’re a doctor, lawyer, teacher, whatever your job is, even parent, you’re making lots of decisions. We’re inundated with thousands of them each day. So, being able to improve people’s decision making by just a few percent can have a huge impact.
CURT NICKISCH: There was a story in the book that grabbed me about pilot training, and you based a lot of your success, you think, on boxing. I’m just curious why that was so critical for you.
HASARD LEE: Yeah. So, to elaborate a little bit on that, when you show up to pilot training, you’re already in the top echelon. So, at the Air Force Academy, only 10% of people make it in there. Fifty percent of people make it to pilot training. So, you’re already in the top echelon.
And so, the wing commander came in the 30 people in the class and said, “All right, I want you to close your eyes. How many of you want to be fighter pilots?” I raised my hand. He said, “Now, open your eyes.” Everybody had their hand raised. He said, “All right, two of you will get to fly fighters. The rest of you will fly tankers and transport. I want you to think about that while you’re here,” and walked out.
And then, after that, it was game on. I was never the best pilot. I was never the smartest student, didn’t have the best hands. But one thing that really helped me a lot was I boxed at the Air Force Academy as an intercollegiate athlete.
Pilot training pushes everybody to their limit. So, nobody starts out as a great fighter pilot. We had airline pilots who had thousands of hours. We had people with no experience. I had just maybe 80 hours flying Cessna 152s, they’re essentially like a flying lawnmower with wings.
And so, pilot training stresses you. Even the airline pilots, they don’t do a lot of formation flying. So, everybody fails in pilot training. And so, a lot of the people that we thought would do really well, some of those airline pilots and people with hundreds or thousands of hours, they would screw up. They’d make a mistake, and things would snowball out of control.
And my experience boxing, and with that sports psychology background, being able to isolate that mistake, let it go, and move on to the next one while keeping my confidence up, I felt like that was my superpower when I was in pilot training.
CURT NICKISCH: Is clear thinking and decision making a muscle that you can build through practice?
HASARD LEE: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I think clear thinking is one of the best compliments you can give somebody, far better than that somebody is smart. Being able to think clearly is much more important. More information isn’t necessarily better. So, I think we all know people that are book smart, but as soon as they get into the real world, which is messy, it’s full of a lot of different variables, things are changing, they can’t really think as clearly in that situation as they can when everything is laid out in front of them.
So, being able to prioritize, as pilots we call that our crosscheck, being able to focus on just a few key variables and not getting inundated with the thousands of pieces of information that are flying at us is a critical skill that goes beyond just memorizing facts or being, I’ll call it, just being book smart. You need to be able to apply it. That’s what a good decision-making framework will do for you.
CURT NICKISCH: So, let’s talk through the decision-making model that you feature and really forms the structure of your book, and that’s the model of ACE helix, A-C-E. Can you break that down for us to start?
HASARD LEE: Sure. So, ACE stands for assess, choose, and execute. First, being able to assess the problem in front of you. If you aren’t able to assess the problem, then you’re not going to be able to consistently make good decisions. Next is being able to choose the correct course of action. Oftentimes we have tactics as fighter pods that are memorized. You just have to choose the correct one for the situation that you’re in. But oftentimes, we’ll be planning missions that are days, weeks, sometimes, years into the future. So, you have to develop your own custom tactics. And so, being able to find a way to do that that’s effective is important.
And then, lastly, being able to execute. We talked on the mental performance side of things, but as fighter pilots, sometimes we’ll be flying missions that 1,000 people have touched before us. So, everybody from spies on the ground to intelligence operators, to satellite operators, to tanker crews, tankers are airborne, essentially gas stations that refuel us from other continents, all to get us over target on time, and you’re the last link. So, if you screw up, everybody’s effort is wasted. So, it’s important to be able to execute in the heat of the moment like that.
CURT NICKISCH: Assess is the first letter. That’s the one that you say a lot of people skip over or don’t get right. They jump straight to the solution phase without really understanding the problem that they’re trying to solve.
HASARD LEE: I think everybody is challenged in different ways when it comes to making decisions. Being able to assess the problem is an issue with a lot of organizations because it’s difficult to be able to measure progress when you’re just brainstorming.
When you’re trying to figure out the correct solution, assessing the problem, breaking it down, it’s tough to be able to track that with metrics. Once you start building the house or building whatever project you’re doing, it’s a lot easier to start assessing the progress you’re making. But when you’re just trying to understand the problem, it’s difficult to track that progress.
And so, the natural inclination for people is to start jumping to a solution, the first thing that pops in their brain, and then start making progress on that as opposed to taking some time to thoroughly break down the problem and then choose the correct solution.
CURT NICKISCH: It’s just being comfortable with the uncertainty, somehow.
HASARD LEE: Yeah. As humans, we really are uncomfortable with risk and uncertainty. And you’re never able to completely get rid of that. So really, what I want people to do after reading this book is to be able to think critically, come up with a decision on their own, hold themselves accountable, and then turn to those other aids.
They should be seen as aids and not the decision makers themselves, and then compare their own critical thinking to other peoples, and that’s how you, A, get better and B, double check that they’re making the right decision.
CURT NICKISCH: In the combat pilot context, how do you get more comfortable with that uncertainty of the assessment phase? What are some things that the Air Force does to make sure that you’re spending that time assessing the problem even when it’s difficult to map progress?
HASARD LEE: I think the debrief is one of the best tools that people can use to help improve their decision making, their assessment phase, because if you debrief, you’ll be able to see where the errors came from.
And so, as fighter pilots, when we go and fly, we’ll fly for about an hour to an hour and a half, combat’s much longer, but that’s generally all the fuel we have when we fly. And when we come back, we will debrief that sortie for two to six hours.
So, we’ll break everything down. We’ll sometimes listen to the same radio call 15 times to be able to see what we could have done better. So, that debrief will be able to isolate those errors. Ultimately what you’re trying to do is trying to see what you did well and then what you did wrong, and then not make those same mistakes twice.
And so, when I go and fly with a new student, I’ll break everything down after those two to six hours. So, we’re really digging into it. We’re learning a lot of new things, try to isolate it to three things that they did well because as we talked to you earlier, confidence is really important. You don’t want to just tear them down because they need to be engaged and they need to be excited about learning more about being a fighter pilot. It’s not just a two-week course, it’s a 10, 20-year career.
So, we need them to have a high amount of confidence and be excited about what they’re doing. But also finding three things that they did wrong and writing those things down. Anytime I have my flight suit on, I have a small black notebook in it, and I have those three mistakes that I’ve made on each flight. And at this point, I’ve flown well over a thousand times, so I’ve had to go through many of those books. So, being able to debrief is the best tool for being able to see when people are making mistakes in the assessment phase.
CURT NICKISCH: The other thing that was really interesting about this debrief is how it’s run. You might have a base commander there. You might have people who are very early in their career and who are in a support role, and rank is stripped in the situation, so nobody outranks anybody in the debrief. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of that?
HASARD LEE: Yeah. So, the debrief is critical and there are a lot of best practices associated with it because it is not a stable system. We have egos as people, as humans. You don’t like to call yourself out for making a mistake.
So, it needs to start at the top. It needs to start with the highest ranking person in the room or the most experienced pilot. They need to be willing to call themselves out because as soon as one person starts trying to shirk their responsibility, everybody clams up.
So, it is a sacred place for us. It’s a sterile environment. It’s nameless, rankless, faceless. We’re not worried about the person. We’re worried about the action that happened. And as you said, the base commander could be flying as a wingman. He’s in charge of the entire base. He’s flown for 20, 30 years. And he could be being debriefed by a 23-year-old captain. So it really takes a lot of effort and work. But if you’re able to do it right, I’ve never seen a better tool for being able to improve decision making than the debrief.
And I work with organizations now. I think that’s one of the things they’re most excited about is the debrief. It doesn’t have to be two to six hours. It can be as short as five minutes, just finding those three things that went well, three things that went wrong.
I mean if you schedule it for five minutes, it’s probably going to be one minute. So, schedule a 30-minute block and go through how you can be better. After every project at the end of every week, try to get better, write down a few things that you can improve upon. And over the course of a year or two, you’ll be surprised at how much improvement you make.
CURT NICKISCH: It sounds like the ultimate scenario for psychological safety, but a lot of these are judgment calls, right, and a lot of decisions that you might be questioning or criticizing, they are, I don’t want to say subjective, but it’s complicated. It’s not black or white. So, there might be information that the base commander has about that decision that makes it seem more right to them than it does to the 23-year-old captain who only has a certain view. When there are gray areas like that, how does that work in a debrief? It seems difficult.
HASARD LEE: Sure. So, most things are in shades of gray. So, I would say most decisions fall on a bell curve. So, some are black and white, but most have some gray. And some, there’s so much uncertainty that you don’t know what the right decision was in retrospect.
So, you’re absolutely right, that base commander is going to have a lot more information than that 23, 25-year-old captain. And that’s why it’s important to not just be criticizing that commander without asking information. So usually, we’re asking information to dig in to the why: why they made the decision. It’s not just enough to see they made a decision and say, “That’s the wrong one, let’s move on.”
We’re asking a series of questions of why they made it. Usually it takes about, as a quick heuristic, about five whys to really understand why somebody made a decision. And so, you’re breaking it down because that’s how you isolate into did they make a mistake during the assessment phase, did they hear the wrong radio call and then made the right decisions after that even though the radio call that they heard was wrong.
And then, we can dig into ways to improve that next time. Did they assess the problem correctly and then choose the correct course of action incorrectly? We have ways of dealing with that. We have thousands of tactics that we have to study. So, maybe they chose the wrong… Essentially, it’s like a play in a football game or execute. Did they assess the problem correctly? Did they choose the correct course of action, and then did they just botch it with the switch actuations or with choking and just doing the wrong thing that they know better how to fix? So, that’s really how we’re able to isolate those.
CURT NICKISCH: So, choosing course of action, that’s the C in this ACE helix. That’s a decision that you’re making, you’re choosing something, and you’re not choosing something else. And how quickly you do that and how well you do that is going to end up affecting your outcome. What are some of the best practices for choosing, for choose that you’d like to share?
HASARD LEE: Sure. I think it comes down to expected value. What is the expected value of the decision you’re making? So, the expected value is what is the good that’s going to happen? What is the probability of that happening, minus the risk, what is the bad that’s going to happen, times the probability of that happening?
Now, you’re not going to have exact numbers, even a powerful computer model, and we have a lot of them for simulating when we’re going to war with different countries. They’re going to be some variables that you’re not sure of. So yes, it’s not going to be an exact solution, and that’s fine. That’s actually a good thing when you’re using this mental model right here. So, come up based on your experience with the probability of whatever that good is happening, that’s going to force you to just focus on the few variables that you can keep in your brain.
So, simplify everything down as much as possible. We’re trying to make this rough math so you can make a decision quickly and move on, or if it’s a complex decision for you to make a decision and then crosscheck it with your team or with that computer model.
That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do when we are choosing the correct decision. It’s just finding the expected value of the decisions we have at our disposal. Sometimes those decisions are obvious or they’re regulated. We only have three decisions that we can make. Sometimes you have to come up with the potential courses of action.
And one of the chapters I talk about in the book is effects-based planning. It’s a framework that we’ve used in the Air Force for the last 30 years, and it’s really where you’re separating the desired effect that you want from the means of achieving it. Really, there is a man named John Warden, Colonel in the Air Force that came up with this effect-based planning model where you separate those two. What’s the ultimate desired endstate that you’re trying to achieve? So, I think that’s an important planning framework for increasing creativity to be able to come up with alternate solutions that you can then run through this expected value framework.
CURT NICKISCH: You mentioned fast forecasting. What’s that?
HASARD LEE: Fast forecasting is just quickly estimating. It’s rough math, quickly estimating the expected value of a decision. So, oftentimes when we’re trying to make a decision, we’re pulling on multiple concepts. We have a lot of different sources of information all coming in. If you stop and have to have a meeting with a committee or to send an email to somebody to be able to figure out a decision, you’re now stopping that mental model of understanding the world around you.
If you can just quickly fast forecast a placeholder decision right there and then move on, it’s a lot more effective for being able to make quick decisions because one of the sayings we have as fighter pilots is no decision is a decision and it’s the worst one that you can make.
And so, you want to be able to get used to quickly making decisions. Some decisions are extremely critical. You got to get it right. It’s a one-way door. You can’t come back. Most decisions, though, aren’t quite as important. You want to be able to make quick decisions and move on to the next one because quantity matters. If you’re able to get through 100 decisions, it’s a lot more effective than getting just two or three decisions a little bit better.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, some people are quick and decisive when it comes to decision making. Other people are really deliberate for a long time. I mean, you’re in a setting where quick decisions matter, especially as a fighter pilot, but for any situation, how do you know when you’re done evaluating information and ready to make a call?
HASARD LEE: So, it depends on what you’re trying to do. You’re right, when we’re flying fighters, closure speed’s extremely high. You got to make decisions within a few seconds. But sometimes, we’re planning wars a year in the future, two years in the future. And so, we have a long time to be able to figure out what exactly we’re going to do.
One of the concepts I talk about in the assess phase is the law of diminishing returns. So, as humans, we’re really evolved to think linearly. You walk 30 steps. You’re now 30 steps away. But most variables in life adhere to a parallel exponential growth, the law of diminishing return or long tail parallels.
And so, the law of diminishing return applies to the assessment phase of problems that you’re trying to solve. As you are trying to assess a problem, initially, just like working out, the first little bit, you’re going to be able to make a lot of progress, and eventually, it’s going to start to taper off. So, you have to make an expected value call of, if you’re going to spend an extra day, two days, six months making this decision, how much more information are you going to get relative to the importance of the decision?
Because most of the time you’re going to reach a point where the expected value isn’t worth it anymore. And then, if you make that decision now, you can move forward with that progress and then you can assess again. So, you can make a series of decisions and get you there and course correct along the way. And that’s generally the best way to do it, unless it’s an extremely important decision and it’s a one-way door and a lot of people’s lives depend on it. You really want to be able to iterate and course correct along the way as opposed to spending forever just in the assessment phase, that’s where you get that paralysis by analysis.
CURT NICKISCH: You had one concept in the book that I think really applies to teams and organizational settings, and that’s the good idea cut-off line.
HASARD LEE: Yeah, when it comes to planning missions, we will always have a good idea cut-off line. So, when we’re planning these missions, sometimes hundreds or thousands of people are coming together all to align towards one common goal, overall mission success.
And we have some extremely smart people that are working on these problems. And so, everybody wants to throw out their good idea. Everybody thinks that they can do it better. And so, what we’ve found over the years is having a good idea cut-off line, and it can vary where it is. Usually, it’s about two thirds of the way through a mission or a project. And it’s a hard deadline. So, we have it drawn up. We usually have a timeline up on the board. We have the GICO line, good idea cut-off line, where we’re not going to accept any more good ideas because what we found is once you start getting away from the brainstorming phase to the implementation phase, that if you start throwing in good ideas, you start really rocking the boat and that a lot of mistakes start falling through.
So, we need everything to start firming up at that good idea cut-off line where we can still work on executing that overall vision as opposed to doing a large course change and a pivot where you’re starting to start over from scratch again and have the potential of making a lot of mistakes.
So, that good idea cut-off line has really helped us out a lot. There’s also another thing, a bad idea cut-off line. There’s never an end to a bad idea, so you can always throw out a bad idea all the way up to the day of execution. So, the bad idea cut-off line, it’s always open. But the good idea cut off-line, usually about two thirds of the way through a project, stop accepting new good ideas because everybody has them, but it’s just going to throw in chaos into the project and start focusing on just implementing it.
CURT NICKISCH: The E in A-C-E is execute. What’s critical in this step?
HASARD LEE: So we have now assessed the problem correctly. We’ve chosen the correct decision. Now, we have to execute. That’s where the rubber meets the road. We talked earlier about being able to execute under pressure. So generally, as fighter pilots, what we’re thinking about is how to execute in the air without choking, without… We’re having thousands of people that have been part of this mission. You’re the last link in the chain. You don’t want to screw it up and have this high-value target never show itself again.
Additionally, when we’re refueling, so airborne tankers are flying around. When we have new students go to the tanker, oftentimes, that’s a pretty stressful event. They’re taught their whole career is never to hit another aircraft. And now, you’re intentionally touching another aircraft. And for people that don’t know, it’s essentially a flying airliner that’s been hollowed out, filled with fuel, fully manual maneuver.
You’re now going up behind it and there’s a receptacle behind your head, and you’re pulling up right underneath the tanker and it’s plugging you into the receptacle with a boom and refueling you. And so, new students often get really nervous doing this, and their heart rate will spike to like 175, 180 beats per minute.
CURT NICKISCH: You feel it, too, right? You hit that, and you feel a bump, which is going to be a little nerve wracking.
HASARD LEE: It is, it is. And you’re flying next to a couple hundred thousand pounds of fuel, so it can turn into a giant fireball pretty quickly. And so, we do a lot to be able to get us into what’s called the zone of optimal performance. So, the Air Force has done quite a few studies on this. Really dating back to World War II where they found that good pilots were making dumb mistakes in combat, and that’s because they were overly stressed.
So, you have that optimal zone of performance. If you get above it, you start making mistakes. We have a saying that you lose 20 IQ points as soon as you put on your helmet because you’re now in hot cockpit. It can be 130 degrees. You’re pulling nine times the force of gravity going fast. So what looks simple on the ground gets a lot more complex when you’re actually in the thick of it.
CURT NICKISCH: There are a lot of great models and information and examples in this book. For people who are leaders in offices around the world, leaders in workplaces, what could they start doing tomorrow to get started on a path of clearer thinking and decision making?
HASARD LEE: I think forecasting an expected value for the decisions that they’re making. So, if you can just, as a leader, write down what you think the expected value is before you interact with your team, and then if you can instill this with your team members, because it’s easy to get into group think, and everybody wants to listen to what the boss is doing.
But have them, before you share your opinion, have them fast forecast a quick expected value, and then be able to share the why, you will now be able to dig in and understand their thinking. And so, I think that’s critical for understanding who is the best person for what job, and then also to improve it so that they can become better decision makers in the future.
But I think there’s a lot of things you can do. I think decision making is primarily taught, and I think as an Air Force, we’ve proven that where we can take people who have never flown before and within a couple years they’re flying combat missions on the other side of the world. So, I think it can absolutely be taught and improved.
CURT NICKISCH: Hasard, this has been really great. Thanks for coming on the show to talk about this.
HASARD LEE: Thank you, Curt. It’s been a pleasure.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Hasard Lee, combat pilot and instructor in the US Air Force. He’s the author of the book, the Art of Clear Thinking. And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career.
Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.