When I passed the flight test and earned my private pilot’s license I was a safe and competent aviator, but not yet a good one. That would come a few years later. Piloting an aircraft is fun. It’s hard to describe the exhilaration that comes with being up in the sky and clouds. During flight training student pilots do everything by the books as they near the end of their private pilot training curriculum with their flight instructor. Checklists are methodically completed, which each item verbalized and confirmed. Intense focus is placed on objective standards such as maintaining the recommended climb speed with standards or holding altitude within limits such s flying straight and level. Once passed through this test the margin of error narrows when flying in an IFR flight plan, with Air Traffic Control (ATC) playing the role of the observer to ensure adequate traffic separation. Instrument pilots know their every move is being watched by both the controller and automated system: all aspects of the flight must be kept within standards
Aviate, Navigate, Communicate
From the earliest days of flight training, pilots are taught an important set of priorities that should follow them through their entire flying career is to “keep flying” the plane when unexpected things occur. That’s why all pilots learn to address emergencies in the following order:
- Aviate – fly the plane
- Navigate – know where you are and where you’re going
- Communicate – inform others about your situation
First things first. It’s true in many endeavors, and none more than aviation: when an emergency happens, always fly the airplane first, foremost and never stop flying it! You have to prioritize and know the most important areas to spend your time. Focus your attention on the most important thing in front of you – when piloting an aircraft, that means: keep cool, and keep flying the airplane. Whether you are flying airplanes or leading a project team there are specialist on your team that are trained to help you in these stressful situations to keep the plane flying. The trick here as a leader is to avoid task saturation or channelized attention. These can hinder the team in assessing the situation and defining the problem. Time matters in the business world just as much as it does in the cockpit. Don’t waste time trying to do it all yourself–rally the team to keep the plane flying!
The popularized story of Captain Sully who landed his plane on the Hudson River perfectly illustrated the point. The four and a half minutes between engine failure and safe landing on the river shows him reducing communication to only what is necessary to quickly weigh options. With no reasonable options to navigate, he takes the best among poor alternatives. From there, he ignores all else and the movie viewer sees him “standing up to others” to take the correct course. But “standing up to others” was not what he was doing. He was doing as he was trained to do: aviate to his best ability and nothing else.
The next step to navigate. Know where you are, know the terrain around and below you. It makes no sense to lose situational awareness and fly into the side of a mountain while working on a minor problem. This is the same in business. Make sure you are still staying on path, navigating a clear path forward through the business crisis, while navigating around other business risks that might present themselves. Make sure you have a clear picture of what your destination looks like when exiting your current crisis as well.
Communication during an emergency is vital. This is mainly due to the fact that everyone on the plane has equal input when dealing with emergencies. While the type of communication will vary with each group, it is important to be clear, concise and communicate all necessary details. Project team communication is very similar–everyone’s input is valid and matters as much as the most senior member or you’ll risk falling victim to a team member withdrawing and potentially withholding that nugget of advice that could get you going in the right direction. As a leader it is imperative you watch out for this pitfall early and set the expectation.
- FAA Aviation Safety (pdf) “Fly the Aircraft”
- Ray W. Stratton (pdf) “Everything I Needed to Know About Project Management I Learned in a Cockpit”
- Jaques Dunselman (pdf) “Inspiration from the world of Aviation for Project Managers”