In a miraculous instance of giving birth on a flight, a woman recently delivered a baby at 39,000 feet while flying from Delhi to Bangalore. The story went viral when the pilot, Captain Sanjay Mishra, wrote about his experience. He described how he went about making critical decisions that day–decisions that were literally about life and death.

When he learned that a pregnant passenger was feeling unwell, the pilot had to decide whether he wanted to make an emergency landing. 

Luckily, Dr. Sailaja Vallabhaneni, a trained gynecologist and obstetric surgeon, was on board. She jumped into action to help the passenger. 

The pilot was on his guard throughout and monitored the situation closely. He was reluctant to divert the flight to another city as the passenger was traveling alone. 

It turned out, he didn’t have to. Much to everyone’s relief, the baby was born safely. Even after the delivery of the baby, the pilot said he stayed focused on his job, ready to land the airplane in case something changed. 

The gynecologist, on her part, helped deliver the premature baby using the tools available on the plane. She later said in an interview: “You cannot expect a delivery room-like set up in an aircraft, so I had to improvise”. She was assisted by the crew. 

It took many people to act on their feet and make critical decisions in the spur of the moment. The pilot and the gynecologist made sure they did the best they could for the pregnant woman and her to-be-born child. 

Decision-making in high-stakes situations

This story is an example of an extremely high-stakes situation where the decisions had a tremendous impact. While you may not always find yourself in such a serious situation, there may be other occasions where you need to make decisions that will have a considerable impact. So is there a way you can build your decision-making muscle consciously? 

In their book Judgement in Managerial Decision Making, Harvard University professor Max Bazerman and the University of California, Berkeley professor Don Moore cover a variety of decision-making research. Based on their work, Harappa’s course on Making Decisions recommends a five-step framework for making rational decisions: 

Step 1: Define the problem 

Step 2: Identify the criteria

Step 3: Weigh the criteria

Step 4: Rate each option on each criterion

Step 5: Determine the optimal decision 

Let’s see how this framework was used by the gynecologist to make decisions on the flight.

The on-air crew announced that they needed a doctor urgently when the pregnant woman went into labor prematurely. She was in pain and discomfort. The gynecologist stepped up to check on the pregnant woman. At first, she thought the woman may be aborting, but on further inspection, she realized her water had broken. She knew that the child had to be delivered. 

She then identified the various other symptoms that the woman was going through to gauge how best she could help her. After weighing the situation and knowing she wouldn’t have the usual support of medical equipment and nurses, she reviewed her options. That's when the gynecologist decided to deliver the baby in the airplane bathroom using the things she could find in the plane’s first-aid kit. 

Professionals like the gynecologist and pilot are trained for years to handle such high-stake situations calmly. In the gynecologist’s words, “There were many challenges but no fear–for when fear sets in, you cannot work.”

How to use the five-step method to make decisions

The two professionals could stay calm and focus on the job at hand because they had practiced decision-making as a skill for a long time. 

You can do the same by following the five-step method for decision-making:

Step 1: Define the problem 

Be specific. Don’t just go with your instinctive understanding of what you’re solving for or deciding on. Look beyond the symptoms of a problem and address the root cause. 

Step 2: Identify the criteria

Once you’ve defined the problem you need to make a decision about, break down the various criterion that you will use to evaluate your options. This will help you clear the clutter in your mind and think through the various factors that will affect your decision.

Step 3: Weigh the criteria

Next, rank the criteria in the order of importance. Remember, priorities can change depending on the circumstances. This is arguably the most important step because you need to be clear about what is most important to you to make the right decision.

Step 4: Rate each option on each criterion

Not all criteria are equal. Some elements of a decision are more important than others. Make sure to rank criteria in order of importance. It can be helpful to include another person or two to help you make the best judgment. 

Step 5: Determine the optimal decision 

All the previous four steps will be for nothing if you don’t engage in the final component of the process: making the actual decision. This is the most difficult stage in the process because more often than not, the answer isn’t obvious. It’s rare to have a clear, unanimous winner in any complex decision. But trust your decision-making process and your gut and go for it! 

Decision-making is not easy, especially when it is a complex high-stakes decision. But you can train yourself using tried and tested methods that help streamline the process for you. The five-step framework of Define, Identify, Weight, Rate, and Determine is one such method. To learn more about such tools and become better at this complex and crucial skill, don’t forget to check out Harappa’s Making Decisions course. 

Manisha Koppala is an Associate Specialist in the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. The literature graduate from Ashoka University loves a cup of good coffee and happens to be a free-hugs dispenser, these days via screens. 


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