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9 Mental Blocks That Keep You from Solving Problems

When learning about something it helps to see it in it’s most extreme form. The most extreme form of problem solving situations I can think of are inflight emergencies. Pilots who must deal with such problems have to be at their best under highly stressful conditions and time constraints. Also, emergencies show up when you least expect them, and the element of surprise adds anxiety.

How well do pilots solve problems in the air. Let me share 2 examples: One poor one and one good one.

The first is the unfortunate crash of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean. This aircraft was traveling from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to Paris, France. Around 4 hours after take-off, the plane was on auto-pilot and the human pilots were relaxing. Suddenly, the auto-pilot disconnected and the plane started rolling. The pilot held on to the stick to control the aircraft. He kept pulling back, which makes the plane fly upwards. He didn’t realize what he was doing until the plane started slowing down. Eventually, the plane slowed down so much that it stalled and started falling, while still pointing upwards.

At this point, the pilot should have looked at the data on the screen and assessed what he should do. He should have pointed the nose down to gain speed. Instead, he kept pulling back at the stick. Instead, he was startled. He tried many things frantically but nothing worked. The plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 218 passengers and crew instantly. Unbelievably tragic! This is an example of a problem that was not solved properly and had devastating consequences.

The human mind is an excellent problem solving machine. That’s why we trust pilots, managers and government officials to make rational decisions. Usually they do! However, their mind must be able to do its job without being blocked by surprise, emotion and habit.

What blocks our ability to solve a problem? Here is a list of the 9 mental blocks:

  1. Failing to fully understand the problem before looking for a solution

  2. Seeing what you want to see, rather than what is actually there

  3. Not understanding or appreciating the full context

  4. Getting distracted by the environment

  5. Not being able to isolate the real problem from less significant issues

  6. Being afraid of taking risks

  7. Judging ideas too quickly and not letting them grow

  8. Criticizing rather than generating ideas

  9. Seeking quick solutions rather than searching systematically for optimal solutions

Just like we train out muscles in exercise, we have to train out minds to overcome these blocks. I gave you one example of a pilot who couldn’t. Now, let’s see another example of a pilot who did. He made the right decision in extremely difficult circumstances and saved himself and his passengers from disaster.

Captain Uzair Khan was flying a PIA Fokker aircraft (Flight 544) from Gwadar to Karachi on 25 May, 1998 with 33 passengers and 5 crew members on board. Soon after take off, 3 terrorists entered the cockpit with weapons. They asked the pilot to take the aircraft to New Delhi, India. Captain Khan kept his cool and explained that the aircraft did not have enough fuel for the trip to New Delhi. The terrorists them demanded that he take the aircraft to the nearest Indian airport in Bhuj. The pilot had to ensure the safety of his passengers but he couldn't comply with their demands. He had to solve this problem, quickly.

Captain Khan decided that he needed to:

  • Inform the authorities that his aircraft had been hijacked

  • Convince the terrorists that he was indeed flying to Bhuj

  • Land somewhere safe as soon as possible.

With this plan, he changed his direction towards Hyderabad, Pakistan. As the plan veered off the planned flight path, PAF jets were scrambled to intercept it. In the meanwhile, the pilot contacted the Air Traffic Control at Hyderabad. He pretended to address the ATC in Bhuj, India. The controller at Hyderabad understood the circumstances and responded as if he was the the Air Traffic Controller at Bhuj Airport. He also relayed this information to the authorities. He then allowed the flight to land at (the fake) Bhuj Airport.

Down on the ground, it was getting dark. Hyderabad airport was evacuated and all markings showing Hyderabad were removed to give the terrorists the impression that it was Bhuj airport.

The pilot landed the aircraft safely. What he knew and the terrorists did not know was that the armed forces had surrounded the aircraft and 2 Sindh police officials would pretend to be Indian airport officials for entering the plane. It took a few hours to negotiate the release of women and children, all the while with the terrorists thinking they were in India. With the women and children gone, commandos stormed the aircraft and took the terrorists into custody. There were no human casualties!

This dramatic escape from disaster was possible because the pilot kept a clear head and solved the problem at hand in a rational manner.

So which of these 9 mental blocks bothers you the most?