Episode 83 – Crisis Decision-Making: Climb a Tree, Run, or Stand Still

Episode #83
Original Air Date: 06.17.2019

35 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Ruth Middleton-House

What do you do when you are at a crisis decision point? What do you choose, and how do you make that decision? The process of making decisions in the midst of conflict and urgency is especially difficult when we’re facing competing risks, and there’s no clear right answer. Our guest, Dr. Ruth Middleton House, describes how the shift from the emotional brain to the rational brain in making crisis decisions is absolutely critical.

Ruth is on the Core Faculty of Organizational Development and Leadership at Fielding Graduate University and is President of Middleton-House & Company. Ruth specializes in troubleshooting high-risk, high-conflict, and high-visibility projects. The author of several books including, The Human Side of Project Management, Ruth was named one of the Top 100 Influential Women in Georgia by Engineering Georgia Magazine in 2019.

When disaster strikes on a project, learn how to size up the situation, evaluate your options, and take appropriate action.

Learn More About Ruth's InSite Course "Six Things to Remember When Your Client Changes Direction"

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“That ability to deal with the emotional brain, to recognize it, acknowledge it, and then shift to the rational brain to make decisions is absolutely critical.”

- Ruth Middelton-House

“Seeking comfort is a pretty sure sign that that person is experiencing stress, even when you don’t see any other signals.”

- Ruth Middelton-House

“…if other people are involved, there needs to be a point at which you have enough information to let them know how to take care of themselves.”

- Ruth Middelton-House

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The Podcast for Project Managers by Project Managers. How to deal with the emotional brain, to recognize it, acknowledge it, and then shift to the rational brain in crisis decision-making.

Table of Contents

01:02 … Meet Ruth
01:43 … Competing Risks Scenario
04:31 … Consider the Options
06:59 … Scenario Solution
09:06 … Emotional and Rational Brain
10:09 … Responding to Disasters
13:37 … Balancing Emotional vs. Rational Brain
15:01 … 4 Questions to Ask in Crisis Decision-Making
16:06 … Suffering with Resistance
17:49 … What are the Facts?
19:02 … What Does it Mean?
20:33 … What Do We Want to Happen?
22:15 … How Do We Make the Least Bad Option Happen?
24:11 … Coordinating with Other people
27:59 … Crisis project – Fukushima Disaster
31:45 … Get in Touch with Ruth

RUTH HOUSE:  That ability to deal with the emotional brain, to recognize it, acknowledge it, and then shift to the rational brain to make decisions is absolutely critical.

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  Every couple of weeks we get together to talk about what might be on your mind as a professional project manager.  We’re always on the lookout for better ways to advise and challenge you, and so we’re always on the lookout for guests who can convey that with real stories from their own experience.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me is the guy with more experience than one man should be allowed to have, Bill Yates. And Bill, today we’re talking about making decisions in crisis situations and also learning how we can improve our skills at decision-making in those emergencies.

BILL YATES:  Project managers all face crisis moments, unfortunately, it happens too frequently, so I’m excited about having Ruth here today to help us think through better ways to handle those moments.

Meet Ruth

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, we’ve got a guest who’s been with us before. So Dr Ruth Middleton House is on the core faculty of Organizational Development and Leadership at Fielding Graduate  University and is president of Middleton-House and Company.  Ruth specializes in troubleshooting high-risk, high-conflict, high-visibility projects.  She’s also written several books, including “The Human Side of Project Management,” and is a frequent contributor to the Georgia Engineer.  In 2019 Ruth was named one of the Top 100 Influential Women in Georgia by Engineering Georgia magazine.  Dr. Middleton House, it is great to have you back with us here on Manage This.

RUTH HOUSE:  I’m just delighted to be here.  Thank you, Nick.  Bill, good to see you again.

BILL YATES:  Good to see you.

Competing Risks Scenario

NICK WALKER:  Now, the process of making decisions in the midst of conflict and urgency, as we mentioned, is quite common among project managers, but also by human resource professionals, healthcare workers, first responders, and many others.  For all these professions, it seems that it’s especially difficult when we’re facing competing risks, and there’s no clear right answer.

RUTH HOUSE:  That’s right.  I’d actually like to get started with a kind of cross between a video game and a game show and then ask you, Bill and Nick, to tell me what you would do under these circumstances.

NICK WALKER:  Uh-oh.  Okay.

BILL YATES:  Are you ready for this?

NICK WALKER:  So we’re the contestants on the game show.

RUTH HOUSE:  You’re the contestants, and the game show is “Are You Smarter Than a 100,000 Year Old?”

BILL YATES:  Okay.  That’s a lot of experience that one’s going to have.  Hmm.

RUTH HOUSE:  That’s right.  Here we are.  So you’re looking out on an African plain, you’re trying to make sense of a collage of colors and shapes that you see in front of you.  Winding towards you is a river full of hungry-looking crocodiles.

RUTH HOUSE:  To your left is a herd of elephants; on your near right, lionesses that look hungry and restless.


RUTH HOUSE:  And then on your far right, a herd of about 2,000 zebras.  Behind this array of animal threats is a non-animal threat, an active volcano that is now spewing ash. The wind is blowing toward you, so you have those toxic fumes to deal with. What are you going to do now?  Run?  Climb a tree?  Stay where you are?  Homo erectus faced this decision every day, so it’s not surprising that homo erectus is no longer with us. And there’s no helicopter to medevac you, either.

BILL YATES:  Can I call Lyft or an Uber?  I mean, will my app work?  Man.  So 100,000 years ago, what are you thinking, Nick?  Which way are you going to go?

NICK WALKER:  I would probably turn and run, or if there’s a ditch and someplace I can hide myself, I would get underneath that then just try to hide out and hope that I survive it all coming at me.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, and so one thing that worries me is, if I start running away from the ash, I think all the animals are going to be doing that, too.  I don’t like crocodiles, so I’m not going to get in the water,  I would rather die from fumes than from being eaten by a crocodile.

RUTH HOUSE:  On that cheery note then, let’s talk about what’s likely to be going on in your head at a time like this.

NICK WALKER:  I’m dead.


RUTH HOUSE:  Well, not yet.


Considering the Options

RUTH HOUSE: So let’s consider the options.  Now, in circumstances like this where there are competing threats, and they all have severe consequences, then your emotions run high, what you do matters.  So a small difference in your behavior can make the difference between life and death.  But you’ve got to decide what to do, no decision is actually a decision. 

Under circumstances like this, when you have competing risks, any of which could be life threatening, you have a quick decision to make. So you don’t know what’s going to happen next, what do you choose, and how do you make that decision?  When you’re at this point, your brain is like a fire alarm.  The emotional part of your brain is saying “Danger, danger, danger.  Fire, fire, fire.”  But that fire alarm does not tell us if there’s a hamburger burning on the grill or if the house is on fire, and we need to evacuate immediately.

So if things go right, your emotional brain sends a signal to your rational brain, your rational brain is like a watchtower. From the vantage point of the watchtower you can see if there’s a hamburger burning on the grill.  You can see if the house is on fire.  You can think through your options and so you can execute, and you can get through that situation.

NICK WALKER:  I’d like to think that I’d go to the watchtower first, but in reality, maybe my emotions would take over.

BILL YATES:  Oh, yeah.  I think of the classic Daniel Goleman wrote, “Emotional Intelligence,” that book, and in that he talks about the amygdala, so that’s that emotional brain.  And he says in times of crisis the amygdala, the emotional brain, overrides everything else, so it can override the frontal cortex. It can override the rational brain, and then we blurt out something or make a quick decision that we regret later.  You know, so he talks – that’s kind of setting up his conversation about emotional intelligence and how do we begin to become self-aware and then self-manage.

But those types, like the crisis that you presented, I get a little bit of a cold sweat thinking about, okay, what would I do?  And so if I know my life depends on the decision that I make, man that really puts the pressure on.  It makes that alarm so loud I can hardly think straight.

The Scenario Solution

RUTH HOUSE:  Exactly.  And we’ll talk about what happens when that alarm is so loud in just a second, I’ll share with you the answer now. This is from psychologist Bessel van der Kolk, he says that under those circumstances, if things go just right, you go to the watchtower. You run at right angles to the wind.  By this time the zebras are getting restless. The lions are getting restless.  The elephants are getting restless.  So the crocodiles are not worried, they’re thinking about their next dinner, possibly you.

But under the pressure of all of these competing risks, so van der Kolk says, if under these circumstances everything goes just right, your emotional brain gets the message to the watchtower. Then you size up the situation, you evaluate your options, and you take appropriate action. In this case the appropriate action would be to run at right angles to the wind so that you are possibly going to get out of range of the toxic chemicals in that wind.  Hopefully you will avoid the animal threats because by now the lionesses are paying attention, and they’re starting to get nervous and head in your direction.  So are the elephants, and their excitement is likely to cause the zebras to run straight towards you, as well.

BILL YATES:  But hopefully the lions are going to be so consumed with getting out of danger they won’t be hungry for me.

RUTH HOUSE:  That’s right.  So they’re less likely to be looking for their dinner and more likely to be escaping the volcano.  By now, ash is starting to land, and the wind’s blowing it into flames but the crocodiles are still not worried. But if you run on the same side of the river, but directly at right angles to the wind, hopefully you can dodge the wind, dodge the animals, get out of their range, then turn and go back beyond the volcano, where the wind will be blowing the ash and the flames away from you.

BILL YATES:  See, Nick, I think that’s what I said, but I’m almost positive that was my answer.

Emotional and Rational Brain.

NICK WALKER: This really takes some quick and thorough analysis, though, and are humans really capable of that on a short notice?

RUTH HOUSE:  Humans are capable of just amazing things, if we can get that message from the emotional brain to the rational brain. And back to the issues that Bill mentioned earlier, under these circumstances, that emotional brain is likely to react with panic, with denial, with delay, in many cases the urge to seek something that gives us comfort instead of seeking safety.

BILL YATES:  And delay is such a natural, I mean, I think of project managers when they get that news that is almost – it’s like a worst-case scenario. This could not possibly be happening, I’m just going to wait.  I must be dreaming this.  It can’t be real.  I’m going to wait and make sure that other people recognize the same thing that I think I’m seeing.  So let’s give this some time, this cannot be happening, it’s kind of a denial and delay mixed together.

Responding to Disasters

RUTH HOUSE:  So that happens in a lot of circumstances and there’s an amazing book out by Amanda Ripley, who’s an investigative reporter, on how people respond to disasters. And that’s one thing that she mentions, and its life threatening, it can be project threatening, certainly.  But it’s also in some circumstances life threatening.  There was an elderly man, Meaher Patrick Turner, in the Katrina disaster.  He had survived Camille, so he thought he could ride out Katrina, he did not pay attention to the warnings. His children tried to get him to evacuate.  He wouldn’t do it.  He died in his own attic.  So that delay, there’s a tendency for people to seek some distraction from what they’re doing.

A woman named Elia Zedeño was in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and she knew something really bad was happening, but she went back to her desk.  She looked for a novel she’d been reading.  She looked for some letters she was working on.  A co-worker saved her life by shouting to her and saying, “You need to get out of here now.”  But there’s a tendency to delay taking action. I kind of have a hunch we tell ourselves, oh, I don’t want to be seen as overreacting, I want to be a grownup in this situation, and grownups aren’t afraid.

Another reaction is to seek comfort, you may have noticed this around a conference table.  One clue that people are tense is that they might put their finger on the wedding ring and move their fingers back and forth.  Many women will reach for a necklace that is special to them. 

BILL YATES:  Isn’t that interesting, so looking at body language to pick up on how someone’s being impacted by the situation.

RUTH HOUSE:  Yeah.  That’s, particularly if you’re an HR professional, you want to notice what other people are dealing with, but it’s true in a project management situation, too.  Seeking comfort is a pretty sure sign that that person is experiencing stress, even when you don’t see any other signals.

NICK WALKER:  This reminds me of another book that I read years ago called “The Gift of Fear,” where it basically says that, when you have that feeling of fear, you need to examine, okay, there’s probably something wrong.  But what a lot of people do is they kind of push that down and say, I don’t want to act as if something’s wrong when it really might not be.  But this book encourages you to kind of listen to your inner self and pick up on those clues.

RUTH HOUSE:  Exactly.  It’s critically important.  We can say all we want to say about the danger of the emotional brain overriding, but the reality is, if we don’t have it and pay attention to it, we’re dead in the water no matter what.


RUTH HOUSE:  So it’s very important to listen to that, and also at the same time maintain situation awareness, awareness of the situation that you’re dealing with, and that’s a real risk. Then if you stop with only that emotional brain, you can lose your focus on the cues in the environment around you. That ability to deal with the emotional brain, to recognize it, acknowledge it, and then shift to the rational brain in crisis decision-making is absolutely critical.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, it is.  

Balancing Emotional vs. Rational Brain

BILL YATES:  So that emotional brain, the amygdala, there’s great power in that, we need to rely on it.  But then how do we balance it or harness it with the rational brain?

RUTH HOUSE:  And so let’s talk about a mechanism for doing this. And also I will say, in the situations I’m going to use for illustrations, the people who pulled off what look like miracles to us knew what they were doing. They were practiced.  They were trained. And they were skilled.  And that’s so important in project management, too, being smart, being able to stay calm in an emergency, those things are not enough. You also need to know the skills, the knowledge that will back up your crisis decision-making in this process. And so that’s a way that we can all prepare all of the time for being in a future crisis situation like this.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.

NICK WALKER:  So you’re talking about being proactive rather than reactive?

RUTH HOUSE:  Absolutely.  Well, even in dealing with the situation, what you want to do in this situation is respond to the situation, not react just from that emotional part of your brain. And so a beautiful example of this that we’re all familiar with is the amazing landing of the flight in the Hudson River a couple years back by Chesley Sullenberger.

BILL YATES:  What was his – Captain Sully, was that it?

NICK WALKER:  Sully, yeah, yeah.

4 Questions to Ask in Crisis Decision-Making

RUTH HOUSE:  Yeah, he’s, so yeah, the movie was “Sully.” In this particular instance, if we look at what the Logos Institute tells us about getting the message from that emotional brain to the rational brain, the situation with Sully Sullenberger is just priceless information.  There are four questions we want to ask ourselves when we hear “fire, fire,” “danger, danger,”  “smoke, smoke.”  We want to ask ourselves, what do we really have here?


RUTH HOUSE:  Secondly, what does it mean?  Third, what do we want to happen in this situation?  And, fourth, how can we make the least bad outcome happen?  Because sometimes the wonderful outcome is not…

BILL YATES:  It’s not even possible.

NICK WALKER:  Yes, yes.

RUTH HOUSE:  It’s not even possible.  You’re hoping to minimize risk, first to human life, second to property, third to other things, but there’s sometimes not the perfect outcome.  Sometimes it’s not possible.

NICK WALKER:  Well, that’s hard to accept sometimes, that the ideal isn’t going to happen.


Suffering with Resistance

RUTH HOUSE:  That’s so right, well, there’s a friend of mine she’s a psychologist, and she deals primarily with cancer patients or other people who have ongoing illness. A comment she made to me really stood out for me, so here it is.  This is Dr. Jennifer Kilkus said that her formula for looking at suffering was that suffering equals pain times resistance.  So that resistance to what is can actually increase the amount of suffering we experience going through a crisis.

BILL YATES:  Very interesting.

RUTH HOUSE:  Isn’t that interesting?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

RUTH HOUSE:  And so one form of resistance is I should have, I could have, I would have. Or also saying this is not right, this shouldn’t have happened, this shouldn’t be me, I did everything right. I didn’t do this, da da da.  Thus all of those things are forms of resistance that actually increase the amount of suffering we experience.


BILL YATES:  Ruth, I had an experience this week where that formula played out for me.  So somebody reacted to something in a way that I did not expect, and it was a tense moment.  It wasn’t a life or death moment, but it was an awkward, tense moment.  And you are absolutely right on the money.  Part of the reason it was more intense for me was because I was trying to justify my side, and I was really resisting their opinion and their reaction to something because that piece, that factor was way up high for me. I was very defensive to start with, and so it took a moment for me to go, okay, wait a minute, listen to their side. Listen to their perspective, and then things started to go down.  Then I could actually communicate.

What are the Facts?

RUTH HOUSE:  Exactly.  And so that’s what Sully Sullenberger did in that aircraft incident, he put the emotional part of his brain on hold long enough to answer that question with the facts. He put his emotion on hold and realized he was in a plane at an altitude of 3,000 feet with no engine power.  He’s directly over a heavily populated area.  There are 155 people onboard.  And so he stuck with the facts, he did not make the worst out of a bad situation by catastrophizing, which is what we tend to do.  Oh, no, if this happens, then we’re dead.


RUTH HOUSE:  My career is ruined.  I’ll never get another good project again.  Stick with the facts at this point.  Size up the situation.  What is the data telling you?  And the data can be what you sense yourself.  It can be what your instrumentation is telling you.  And in project management, the instrumentation would be all of that data that we need to look at that’s sometimes not that fun to look at, but it’s important to look at it.

BILL YATES:  Looking at the cold hard facts.

RUTH HOUSE:  That’s right.

What Does it Mean?

NICK WALKER:  And then your next question says, what does it mean?  So what does that question mean?

RUTH HOUSE:  Okay.  What that question means is, at this point, you want to size up the implications of the facts and start thinking through options.  Now, this is where all of that knowledge that you’re getting through Velociteach and other sources is so critically important.  Sully knew what he was doing.  And what information he was getting was telling him he could not get back safely to LaGuardia.  Furthermore, he could not get back safely to Teterboro, he was over a heavily populated area.  The least populated landing space happened to be in the middle of the Hudson River.

But he had confidence because of his training, because of his experience.  He had confidence in the judgment that he was making to the point that, when the tower and LaGuardia told him to turn around, his reaction was, “Unable.  We may be landing in the Hudson.”  And then he got that command a second time and said again, “Unable.”  In less than four minutes after the ingestion of geese into the engine, Sully was safely landed into the Hudson with no human fatalities on the plane or on the ground.  And so that gets to this third question:  What do we want to happen?

What do we want to happen?

NICK WALKER:  And it seems like what we want, as you mentioned before, may not always happen.  What we really want may not even be possible.

RUTH HOUSE:  Exactly.

BILL YATES:  Right.  So there’s a big reality check with this question.

RUTH HOUSE:  There were so many opportunities for something to go wrong in that situation.  People could have frozen in the water.  It took a collaboration of a lot of people going through the same process Sully was going through in order to get this kind of result, and notice how he defined what he wanted to happen.  He didn’t define that as getting back to LaGuardia.  He defined it as 155 people safe on the ground with no fatalities on the ground.

And sometimes, you know, project managers, I’ve been in a project that lasted about three years.  And I was brought in to push back on the person that I reported to, so I did.  But I will tell you, I was the most chewed-out person in that organization.  And there were times when this little voice in my head would say, all right, what I want here is to get Herb off my case. But getting Herb off my case was not the goal, he stayed on my case, I dealt with it.  We had a successful outcome. But it’s tempting in a project management, I think especially if you feel insulted by something that’s happened, then that amygdala goes nuts.

BILL YATES:  Yes.  Right, right.

RUTH HOUSE:  And there were times in this situation where I had to remind myself, but that’s not what this is about.  It’s about turning this other situation around.

How do We Make the Least Bad Option Happen? 

RUTH HOUSE:  And then the fourth question is how do we make the least bad option happen?  Now, in Sully’s case, everything that could go right went right, after the ingestion of the geese, that is, in other cases that doesn’t happen.  Southwest Flight 1380, for example, amazing performance by the pilot and crew,  There was still one fatality, but there was only one, and that’s thanks to their going through this (Crisis Decision-Making) process quickly, efficiently, skillfully, and getting that plane back on the ground.

BILL YATES:  So project managers sometimes have to – they have to look the facts, the cold hard facts, they have to look straightaway at them and make a decision and go, okay, we are going to be over budget, or we are going to be behind. We’re not going to hit our milestone, or the quality’s not going to be what we were hoping to hit, but we’ve got to land this plane.  We’ve got to launch this product or provide this service.  We have to get it done.

RUTH HOUSE:  Exactly.

BILL YATES:  This bad thing has happened, so we’ve got to make the best of what we can.

RUTH HOUSE:  In a later interview, Captain Tammie Jo Shults, the captain of the Southwest Flight 1380, made the comment, “Well, after that, it was just up to flying:  aviate, communicate, navigate.”  So your first job is to keep the project, the plane, the relationship afloat, or in the air. “Afloat” was a mixed metaphor.  Keep the aircraft in the air.  Keep the necessary things in the project going, then you communicate to get help.  Then, when you get that help, you’re in a better position to mindfully go through a systematic decision-making process, see what the possibilities are, and salvage what is salvageable at that point.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.

Coordinating with Other People

NICK WALKER:  So Ruth, I’ve got to interject here, and maybe I’m throwing a monkey wrench into things here. But often, you know, I am not going to be the only one involved in this (crisis decision-making) process, there’s going to be other people along with me.  Maybe I’m the rational one, and they’re being too emotional, or vice versa.  Maybe they’re being rational, and I’m being too emotional.  We’re dealing with other decision-makers than just ourselves.  How do we sort of coordinate, and everybody get on the same page?

RUTH HOUSE:  Several things are going on here at once, which is part of the original problem; right?  But I’ll use as an example here a colleague of mine, Dr Gregory Woo, Greg is a – he has his Ph.D. in Human Factors in Aviation. He’s a pilot.  He trains pilots.  A few weeks ago in a simulation he crashed the plane, and that’s what was happening with him. So Greg is accustomed to a smaller aircraft where, if something goes wrong, he’s the only person in the air to deal with it.


RUTH HOUSE:  In this case, he was in a larger plane.  He had a first officer, but when in this simulation an engine caught on fire as he was taking off, Greg panicked.  After 12 seconds of his trying to do everything himself, the instructor stopped the simulation.  And his advice to Greg was kind of a primer on how to reach out to other resources under those circumstances.  If you go back to what do we have here, the instructor said, first of all, an airplane engine on fire is not much hotter than an airplane engine that’s just working right.

BILL YATES:  That’s a good point.

RUTH HOUSE:  You didn’t have altitude at this point to glide in safely, but you had time to climb safely with the engine on fire to a height that would have bought you 20 minutes to go through the procedural checklist and make a decision.  So you should have looked first to your first officer, told him to radio the tower and declare an emergency, looked at your instrumentation, that gets back to all those project management numbers and made a decision.

When the officer has notified the control tower, he next notifies the flight attendants so that they can tell the passengers what they need to do now.  So there’s a shift here in the order in which we present data to other people. Notice in the cockpit they’re dealing with the raw facts, the decision-making, that process, but in the cabin, every individual in that airplane needs to know what they’re supposed to do next, and that’s what they need to know first.  So the flight attendants are not going to say, well, it looks like an engine’s on fire, we’re not really sure what happened.  We’re looking at the instrumentation.  We’ve called.  The flight attendant is going to say, “The oxygen masks have dropped.  Place them over your mouth and nose.”

And also in the case of Flight 1380, many panicked passengers put the air mask only over their mouths, that’s not sufficient.  You will only live for a matter of seconds that way without oxygen coming in through your nose.  The flight attendants walked through the cabin and reminded people to put the oxygen mask over their nose as well as their mouth. But a person can survive only a matter of seconds without that oxygen mask over both.  So they saved additional lives by going through the cabin and being sure that people properly placed those oxygen masks.

Crisis Project – Fukushima Disaster

Crisis Decision-Making:

BILL YATES:  So many of these, the four big questions that you’ve walked us through, those are so relatable to me, and such good advice, and I was looking back at our conversation we’d had with Dr. Chuck Casto in an earlier podcast.  He was called in to do a – he had a crisis project, and so much of the advice that you’re laying out is what Chuck had to do.  He worked on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, 2011-2012.

So March 2011 there was the nuclear event, the incident that took place in Japan, and Dr Casto was the head of that team that went out to tackle that on behalf of the United States government at the request of the Japanese government. And it’s really interesting, Ruth, the very first issue they had to deal with was information.  It was this crisis, the alarm bells are sounding like no other alarm bells, so we have a potential nuclear meltdown. What’s going on here?

So for their project they had to gather that information first and figure out, you know, you talked about best case and worst case, he called those “goal posts.”  He said, let’s establish goal posts as to best case and worst case, knowing that none of these outcomes are really good, you know? We know there’s been a 45-foot tsunami wave has taken this unit out of service, and we don’t know what kind of radioactive release we’ve got, so there is no really good case.  But we have, you know, let’s get the information and establish a best case and a worst case.

I think for many project managers that’s one of the first things we do is try to establish how bad could it be and what’s the potential good in this, or upside.  And so it’s just interesting to see that that was one of the first things they did. And then his advice, too, and I’m curious, he said, you know, one of the things they learned was try to get as close to the event as you can. You know, you give a lot of aviation examples, trying to recover that black box, trying to interview people that were a part of it and figure out what was the impact, how did this come about, so trying to get as close to it as you can was I thought really good advice.

RUTH HOUSE:  That’s excellent advice.  Yeah, the thing is, going into it, having done that with other situations is critically important.  Tammie Jo Shults was asked by an interviewer later what experience did you have with an engine explosion in your previous training or actual experience on the job? And so Shults didn’t hesitate, she said, “I have no experience with this particular type of situation.”


RUTH HOUSE:  But I have a lot of experience with difficult situations, and all of that came into play in this circumstance.  So sometimes getting close to previous situations, understanding what under similar circumstances has happened in the past, how did people pull out of it, what are the positives that we learned from that is very important.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, one of Chuck’s quotes that resonated with me was “The less information you have, the more chaos there is.”  And I think that’s been like a theme for me in this conversation is when my amygdala, when my emotional brain is sounding off, all I have are just red lines and loud alarms, and it’s hard for me to gather information.  I have a lot of chaos, and so I need to calm that down and then be able to get the right information and make a best choice to move forward.

RUTH HOUSE:  Right.  There’s one caveat I’d add to that, and that is, if other people are involved, there needs to be a point at which you have enough information to let them know how to take care of themselves.


RUTH HOUSE:  And that comes before you get all of the other information.

BILL YATES:  Absolutely.

Get in Touch with Ruth

NICK WALKER:  Dr. Ruth Middleton House, thank you so much for taking this time to share your expertise with us. So is there a way that our listeners can get in touch with you to find out more about you and your company?

RUTH HOUSE:  I’d love for that to happen, Nick.  One quick way is to look me up on LinkedIn as Ruth Middleton House.  The other way is to email me at  <ruth.house@middleton-house.com>.  What a pleasure it’s been to be here.

NICK WALKER:  And we have a gift for you.  We know you’ve been with us before, so you already have one of our Manage This mugs.  But we have a Velociteach travel mug to give you, so you can just add that to your collection.

RUTH HOUSE:  I travel a lot, so that is just perfect.  I’ll give it good use soon.  Thank you.

NICK WALKER:  Also, if there’s one thing that I got out of this, I’m going to go back and watch the movie “Sully” with new eyes and try to see how his brain worked.

RUTH HOUSE:  It would be instructive and very valuable, I think.

NICK WALKER:  And maybe even the movie “Airplane,” too.

RUTH HOUSE:  I’m not sure about that.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I think it’s very instructional, absolutely.  Project managers learn a lot from “Airplane.”

RUTH HOUSE:  There you go.

NICK WALKER:  I picked the wrong day to stop drinking coffee.


NICK WALKER:  Thanks again, Ruth.

RUTH HOUSE:  A pleasure, thank you.


NICK WALKER:  So we want our listeners to know that we here at Manage This welcome suggestions or comments about our podcasts.  Do feel free to email us at  <manage_this@velociteach.com>.  We would love to know what kinds of guests you’d like to see on the program.

And a reminder that you just earned some PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward renewing your project management certifications.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, then click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.

That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on July 2nd for our next podcast.  In the meantime, we’d love to have you visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us, and tweet us at @manage_this if you have any questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications.

That’s all for this episode.  Thanks for joining us, until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

  edigitaltranscription.com  •  05/21/2019  •  edigitaltranscription.mobi    

2 responses to “Episode 83 – Crisis Decision-Making: Climb a Tree, Run, or Stand Still”

  1. In the aviation world, we pilots say ” Aviate / Navigate / Communicate”. There is a reason for such a sequence. Aviate first to keep the plane in the air so that you can live. Then navigate to see where you going or which field you will land, then communicate and tell people what your intentions are.

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