The ability to consistently make good decisions with beneficial outcomes is a hallmark of a successful professional guide. Yet, decision-making remains one of the most challenging aspects of the job, and so we spend plenty of time thinking about our thinking during training programs. Most of those lessons are highly applicable to everyday outdoor recreators.
As outdoor recreators, we make decisions all the time. Some decisions are minor and reasonably inconsequential (when to take a rest break, where to set up your tent in camp), while other decisions are complex and consequential (whether to continue to the summit in uncertain weather conditions, whether to ski down a steep backcountry slope on a powder day.) Making good decisions is key to everyone’s safety, success, and enjoyment—the three goals of outdoor recreation for the purposes of this discussion.
Decision-making might appear easy at first glance. After all, you just need to make sure you’re achieving your intended goals. Yet, it is surprisingly complex in the real world. The three goals often conflict, notably as it pertains to balancing risk and reward. Decision-making quickly becomes convoluted as tradeoffs are weighed. Moreover, we often don’t take the time to make considered decisions, especially when things are seemingly going well.
Making good decisions is challenging, but you can develop good decision-making habits that will help you to make better decisions in the outdoors. Below are a few habits that arise from the professional guiding world. While this list is by no means exhaustive (decision-making is a complex topic), these habits will set you on the path to better decisions during your own outdoor exploits.
Habit #1: Stop and Think
It probably seems obvious here in writing, but stopping to think is one of the most overlooked aspects of decision-making out in the field. In the field you may feel excited and overly goal-oriented, physically or emotionally fatigued, or face time pressure whereby a decision needs to be made quickly. Creating time to make considered decisions in those circumstances may not even occur to you. Scheduling time to stop and think helps to overcome these challenges. Make a point to stop and think at every natural transition point, rest stop and meal break, and at staging locations. You can also use contextual cues as triggers for stopping, such as a change in conditions (e.g weather moving in or a change snow conditions.) What to think about? First and foremost, look around and see what you can learn. What is the weather doing? Can you identify your intended route? Do you recognize any terrain hazards or difficulties? How are your team members doing? Are you on schedule? Professionals refer to this process as maintaining ‘situational awareness.’ SA is important because it provides information and clues that can be used to make better decisions. After all, if you are not aware of all the variables that could affect the outcome of a decision, then your decision-making is inherently flawed.
Habit #2: Recognize Normalcy versus Novelty
A state of normalcy is a familiar situation under familiar and expected conditions. It is routine and regularly encountered by you. A state of novelty is an unfamiliar situation or a familiar one under an unusual set of conditions. It is non-typical for you. For instance, a state of normalcy might be climbing in the summertime at a location you know well. A state of novelty might be climbing in that same location in early winter when it is cold, snowy, and icy.
Recognizing states of normalcy versus novelty is essential for determining how you will approach a decision. When you are making decisions in a state of normalcy, better decisions are more readily identified thanks to your prior experience. Regular, repeated behaviors typically suffice as reasonable courses of action. When you are making decisions in a state of novelty, unfamiliar variables exist. Since these situations are new to you, you have no prior history of successful behaviors. You must consider yourself inexperienced when facing novel situations and you’ll need to rely more heavily on information gathering and reasoning to guide you to a good decision.
Be honest with yourself; hasty decisions based on the idea of one’s “experience” are often problematic. Sometimes, extra caution is warranted even though certain aspects of a decision feel familiar. Determine if extra time and analysis are required to make a good decision in the situation and circumstances that you are presently in.
Habit #3: Involve Others
Brainstorming as a team on major decisions is a proven method of strengthening decisions. The ideas and opinions that others have about a situation may differ from your own thinking and leads to creative discourse. It’s also often easier to recognize other people’s errors in judgment than your own (often stemming from flawed reasoning thanks to our emotions, like enthusiasm). By involving other people in the decision-making process, you will all be pressed to defend your ideas with sensible reasoning. Involving others also prevents a common trap in group recreation – relying solely on the judgment of the most experienced person in the group (known as the ‘expert halo’ effect). Just because someone is experienced does not mean they make good decisions or decisions with the entire group’s interest in mind. Other group members will help to overcome errors in judgment as the group collectively shares information and opinions related to the decision.
During group discourse, it is important for everyone to be willing to have their ideas challenged. Hear each other out and adapt ideas so better outcomes can be reached. Furthermore, the types of questions you ask yourselves is critical. For instance, “will this solution work?” or “should we continue?” are poor questions to ask. The answers will simply be yes. Specific open-ended questions that require more thought are better choices, such as “how can our plan fail”, or “can an alternative course of action also achieve the intended objectives?”, or “can we modify the idea to strengthen some of the weaknesses.
Colby Brokvist is a professional guide who leads worldwide expeditions for some of the most acclaimed companies in adventure travel. When not working in far-flung destinations, he designs and facilitates guide training programs and is the Chair of the Polar Tourism Guides Association. His upcoming book “The Handbook for Professional Guides” is due out in winter/spring of 2022.