Technical information, news, research, and opinion on avalanches, snow safety, and winter backcountry travel.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Behavioural Strategy

I can't live, with or without you—U2

I've been busy with job, family, and snow. So I haven't really had a chance to properly finish two posts on which I am currently working. My day job involves business and software, so for the business side of my life, I subscribe to the McKinsey Journal. Today, a very interesting article from their newsletter arrived in my inbox.

It's probably hard to see how a hardcore business journal could have any applicability to backcountry skiing. Yet, after the recent events in British Columbia, I think an article on behavioural strategy is highly appropriate. I had to read the article several times to digest the information, but it's definitely worth the effort. The article touches on some topics that will be familiar to most people who have studied avalanche accidents: why do people make such poor decisions in the face of hard evidence? And why does it happen ... again and again and again?

The article also discusses the importance of the process used to make decisions, which for many recreationists is not formalised. Information from the article dovetails nicely with important behavioural research by Pascal Haegeli, Ian McCammon, and Laura Adams.

At the beginning of the 2009-2010 season, I wrote a short article on the strategies and tactics of safe winter backcountry travel. When traveling in the backcountry, we all have a set of tactics ( travel technique, snowpack analysis ) that we use to implement our ski trips. This begs the question: what's the strategy? And what procedures are used to uncover and neutralise biases in the strategies we use to reach our objectives? Consider the following model:

objective = strategy + tactics

Now consider that each term in the model is subject to biases that serve as possible sources of error. Have unconscious biases caused you to make an error in your choice of objective? Is Mt. Snoqualmie a suitable objective for current conditions? What about errors in your strategy, such as choosing to ascend Mt. Snoqualmie by Phantom Trees instead of Cave Ridge? Finally, what about errors in your choice of tactics? Are you openly discussing your tactical choices, such as route-finding options, with the other members of your party?

Since dangerous errors are possible at any level ( objective, strategy, or tactic ), it seems important to devise methods of uncovering errors for each level. Products such as the NivoTest, Werner-Munter 3x3 and the Avaluator are designed to help backcountry skiers choose appropriate objectives. However, these products do little to address the relationship between biases and the potential for error at the level of strategy or tactic. While it certainly is true that choosing an objective that is unsuitable for current conditions is likely to result in dangerous strategic and tactical errors, strategic and tactical errors can be just as dangerous even if the choice of objective is reasonable.

For Example: the backside of the Avaluator features obvious clues about snowpack instability, but I wonder if obvious clues about biases such as poor communication and failing to acknowledging uncertainty would be more appropriate? Neither the NivoTest, nor the Werner-Munter 3x3, address these, or other, dangerous biases in any manner whatsoever.

Further research is needed, but since the same biases can affect objectives, strategies, and tactics, I don't think it's terribly difficult to develop sound methods that address biases at all three levels.

Some interesting points from the article:
  • Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, the odds of defeating biases in a group setting rise when discussion of them is widespread. ( His work has been cited by many avalanche researchers. )
  • Particularly imperiled are senior executives, whose deep experience boosts the odds that they will rely on analogies, from their own experience, that may turn out to be misleading. ( This finding is perfectly aligned with research from Laura Adams. )
  • Pattern recognition is second nature to all of us—and often quite valuable—so fighting biases associated with it is challenging. The best we can do is to change the angle of vision by encouraging participants to see facts in a different light and to test alternative hypotheses to explain those facts. ( The Avalanche Handbook specifically discusses this as well. )
  • Most executives rightly feel a need to take action. However, the actions we take are often prompted by excessive optimism about the future and especially about our own ability to influence it. ( This has been discussed by avalanche researchers as well. )
  • To make matters worse, the culture of many organizations suppresses uncertainty and rewards behavior that ignores it. ( This has been discussed by avalanche researchers as well. )
  • Superior decision-making processes counteract action-oriented biases by promoting the recognition of uncertainty. ( Managing uncertainty is discussed throughout this blog as a fundamental element of safe winter backcountry travel. )
  • Stability biases also include loss aversion—the well-documented tendency to feel losses more acutely than equivalent gains—and the sunk-cost fallacy, which can lead companies to hold on to businesses they should divest. ( Or, loss aversion can cause us to continue toward a summit when we should turn around. )
  • An absence of dissent is a strong warning sign. ( Poor communication. )
  • To support those new norms, we also need a simple language for recognizing and discussing biases, one that is grounded in the reality of [mountain] life, as opposed to the sometimes-arcane language of academia. ( Avalanche education could use this as well. )
I realise that an article from The McKinsey Journal could seem highly out-of-place in a blog about avalanche safety. Yet, after a second and third read, it's easy to see how dangerous and costly biases become embedded in our decision-making procedures.

This is made all the more difficult by the fact that decision-making errors don't matter when the snowpack is mostly stable, since the chance of triggering an avalanche is relatively low. Over time, as the article points out, these biases become embedded in our procedures and errors arise ... then what happens?

Well, you get to decide.
My next post discusses the 7 Deadly Sins of Winter Backcountry Travel.

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