Advice from a Navy bomb squad expert on better decision making during times of emergency.
Recently, I interviewed Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD — read “bomb squad”) expert Ryan Anderson for Episode 14 of The Emergency Mind Podcast. At the end of a deeply interesting conversation about things like preparing to perform complex tasks under fire and how training your most basic skills will save lives, I asked Ryan what I thought was a joke question. His answer blew me away (pun half intended).
The (admittedly not super intelligent) question I asked was this: If I had to disarm a device, should I cut the red wire or the green wire? His immediate response — look for the yellow wire. Look for the yellow wire: Don’t just cut the red or green wires, instead try to figure out what will actually disarm the device, and then go make that happen. Now, unless you’re also trained in EOD, I hope you never need to disarm a device. But all of us face situations where the initially most obvious choices during an emergency might not be the best options. Remembering to look for the “yellow wire” in a complex situation can improve our performance during times of crisis by helping us ask better questions and therefore uncover better answers. Let’s dig into how.
What question actually needs to be answered?
To optimize our response during an emergency, we need to understand the question that actually matters in a situation — not necessarily the one we might first be presented with. I offered Ryan a choice between green or red wires, but instead of focusing on the immediate choice of which wire to cut, he looked more deeply at the underlying issue: how could he disarm the device?
In this case, looking for the “yellow wire” is less about finding an actual yellow wire to cut, and more about understanding that the most important question to answer might not be the first one you are asked.
Consider this example: You’re working the night shift in a small emergency department, and a radiology technician calls you about your patient in bed three. It turns out that the patient might be having a small allergic reaction to one of the chemicals involved in her test. Do you want to continue the current test since she’s almost done, or should they switch to an alternate machine and obtain a different set of images?
It is possible to make a case for either choice. If she’s almost done, perhaps it is best to just finish the test; but maybe switching to the other machine might carry less risk?
Asking which machine to use to image the patient though, is like asking which wire to cut. It misses the point since the crucial question is not which machine to take the images on, but how is the patient breathing? Allergic reactions can progress quickly to respiratory distress, and your job is to take care of the patient, not just to get those images.
When we view the problem from a deeper angle like this, we might find options that were not previously obvious, like unplugging the device instead of cutting any wires, or bringing the patient back from the radiology suite to the emergency department instead of using either machine to image her.
What options do I actually have available?
Once we understand the question we are being asked, we can begin to explore the scope of potential responses. The idea here is to avoid a “false dilemma,” which is the illusion of a choice between a set number of options when one or more alternative options also exist that are not initially presented.
Supposing for a moment that our job really was to cut a particular wire, and, like Ryan, we are offered the choice between the red wire and the green wire. If those are the only wires available, then this is a valid choice. If, however, there are other potential wires to cut, then choosing between the red and green wires is a false dilemma.
In this case, looking for the “yellow wire” is about finding other options not initially on the table that might better solve the problem than the options initially presented. (There are great examples of how this idea works in negotiation in the classic Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury.)
In the throws of the COVID-19 pandemic, a question multiple emergency departments are facing is how best to deploy personnel to address the incoming waves of patients. Should practitioners be front-loaded when the patients come in, or preferentially deployed farther back in higher acuity areas to care for the sickest patients?
If offered these two choices, looking for a “yellow wire” might involve considering broader options like flexible models of staff deployment which could change with demand, or staged deployment of staff that changes at set points throughout the day. Generally speaking, the options that are initially obvious might not be the best ways to solve a problem.
Unfortunately (as this study shows), being forced to make a decision under significant time pressure likely limits our ability to generate a broad array of possible solutions. Since most emergencies involve this time pressure, we need be extra vigilant during times of crisis about slowing down and looking beyond the red or green options that are immediately obvious.
Ask yourself: What is the yellow wire solution here?
Combing these two questions gives us the chance to look for what we can call a “yellow wire solution” — something that addresses the underlying, important question and without becoming trapped in the initial options.
So, next time you’re faced with a difficult decision in a fast moving environment, pause and ask yourself, “is there a yellow wire solution here?”
Try writing the question down or asking it out loud to your team. Doing so will allow you to slow down and confront the two important questions that Ryan did when faced with the choice between red and green wires: What question actually needs to be answered, and what is the scope of possible actions we can take to answer it?
Obviously, there are tradeoffs to this technique, since time spent processing the question and our potential responses is time not spent acting. In some cases, the gravity, danger, or speed of the situation requires that we act immediately within the confines of the initial question without fully exploring other options.
In general though, time invested in understanding the best question to ask and identifying a variety of potential solutions is time well spent.
We'd love to hear how you are using this technique, or how it applies to what you do. Let us know by leaving a comment, or head to www.emergencymind.com/contact .
Good luck out there!