My friend Dan is a very experienced Air Traffic Controller. He teaches other Air Traffic Controllers how to safely separate airliners with hundreds of lives on board moving with closing speeds of up to half a kilometre a second tens of thousands of metres above the ground. (Dan has done this for years in the RAAF and Reserve as well - where closing speeds can be closer to a kilometre a second.) Constant decision-making in seconds with high consequences for failure is the nature of Dan's workplace.
Yet Dan nodded when I first told him about the first step towards a good decision being for the decision maker to step back.
He explained how he teaches his trainees to do the same.
'They need to have a rote understanding of what to do in any situation,' Dan said. 'The novice Air Trafficker knows that if X happens they do Y. It's automatic and requires very little thought process.'
'We want them to develop beyond that reactive drill. We want them to feel confident to explore and consider other options to situation X. They can only evolve to this ability if they have the discipline of automatic response Y. If they instinctively know that Y is available to them, then they gain themselves time to be more creative in finding alternatives to Y. It might only be an extra few seconds, but that's often sufficient time for them to think of a better decision for an aircraft. It may save an airline thousands of dollars in fuel by flying a more direct route. If a controller can't find a better decision than Y, then they just default to Y.'
Dan's explanation is an excellent example of how rules and procedures in workplaces actually encourage creativity. They eliminate variables and force us to focus on what is available to us. They allow us to assume the ordinary so that we can explore the extraordinary - knowing that we have our boss's permission.
At the very least, boundaries that define our scope of decision making force us to decide whether we want to find or create our own decision-making space with another employer or on our own. (Instead, some people choose to pound their fists against their organisation's boundaries demanding that they shift. Dan's Air Traffickers don't have that option.)
If Dan can routinely step back in his decisions that are measured in seconds with catastrophic consequences from error, then it should be easy for workplaces where results are usually measured in months and mistakes don't risk hundreds of lives.
Dan has a simple way of seeing whether his trainees are applying the Step Back approach to decision making.
'I walk behind them as they're sitting at their screens. If I see someone leaning forward, I gently pull their shoulders back into the chair.'
My friend Liz told me about similar advice that she gives the Alternative Dispute Resolution practitioners that she trains and mentors. 'It's important that they don't get drawn too much into the details of the dispute between the two parties at the table,' she said.
'So I say to them: 'Make sure that you can always feel the back of your seat.'