Project Management and Flying: learnings from the flight deck

Some 50 years since the inception of project management, more than 50% of IT projects still fail because they run out of time, resources, funds, etcetera. If pilots flew aircraft like we run projects, no one would ever fly. However, every day millions of people fly for work or pleasure and flights arrive on time almost 90 percent of the time, delayed mainly by weather. Airline travel is also the safest form of long-distance travel with a fatal accident rate of .022 per 100,000 hours flown. We have been flying for just over 100 years, but project management has been around since the building of the pyramids and the Great Wall. Are there any learnings we can take from flying? I think we can.

Aviation has always fascinated me. I’m on a plane almost every week and there isn’t a take-off or landing that bores me. When wheels go up, a slight panic ensues as any morsel of control vanishes completely. I am always thankful for the days  when the only major task performed is to safely fly the airplane, and the biggest decision is whether to have the chicken or the steak. Those days – like a real project – rarely occur.  As both a pilot and project manager, I believe lessons from thousands of pilots can be applied to project management as well. If we’ve learned anything from years of leading projects, it’s that great leadership is an essential skill to being a good project manager. Our leadership role means we lead and manage teams;  setting the vision, motivating the team, serving them, coaching them and inspiring others. As project managers, we lead from both a strategic and operational perspective – we communicate the vision and get team (and organizational) buy-in, we resolve conflict, set goals, and evaluate performance and make sure team members have the tools, money, space etc. that they need to get things done.


One of the essential skills for project management is the ability to communicate well – understanding and being understood. Great communication is the crux of any relationship and so the effectiveness of a project manager’s communication has an impact not only on the project team but the client and stakeholders too. ‘I wish my project manager would stop giving me so many project updates.’ – said no client, ever. The more touch points you have with your client, the more solid the relationship will be, and the more likely the project will be a success. Good communication gets you continually realigned, and if you’re doing it frequently enough you’ll ensure you are successful as you’ll never deviate far from where the project needs to be to be a success.

One of the principles of safe flight 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.

This order has saved many lives as it keeps the focus on the right things. What good does a may-day call (communicate) do if you do not have the plane under control (aviate)? These principles can also be applied to managing projects. When a project exception occurs (often defined as an event that will likely cause budget and/or time tolerances to be exceeded), the standard approach is to create an exception plan and report. But sometimes you will encounter disruptive events that were not foreseen and that have a major impact on your project (in terms of time and budget). As this has an impact on all involved, management usually demands a report right away. But don’t start to focus your energy towards this exception report immediately. Your team needs your guidance now more than ever – you need to ensure that the team members will be working on meaningful tasks while you draft your exception plan. In other words: keep running your project! Only after that has been ensured, should you start drafting the exception plan to addresses the event(s). So the aviate, navigate, communicate approach can be applied to your project exceptions:

  • Keep running the project – ensure all team members are working on meaningful tasks (Aviate).
  • Create an exception plan that will bring your project out of trouble (Navigate).
  • Inform the stakeholders about the possible actions (Communicate).


Project scheduling is a core project management skill, but one that surprisingly, many managers do not pay much attention to,. But really, what is a project manager without a plan? Our ability to organize tasks in the right order, to hit the right outcome at the right time is a major part of our jobs as project manager, isn’t it? It is absolutely critical that as project managers, we give scheduling the serious attention it deserves, and along with it, monitoring progress as the project moves forward and making tweaks to ensure that everything stays on track. Proper planning means everything from meta to micro. There’s the large scale obvious planning we need to get right to  create great meeting plans, statements of work, estimates, timelines, resource plans and briefs, to the more mundane – planning out your day, who you’re going to talk to first, and how you are going to make time to keep your status documents up to date. Planning is all about finding ways to do all that you need to do as efficiently as possible.

A few weeks ago I shot an instruments approach with low ceiling and low visibility. I am perfectly trained to fly in the clouds and bad weather and the plane has great instruments so weather isn’t really a problem. I was entirely prepared to go around and execute the published missed approach. I planned for it and reviewed in my head a few times what I had to do: at my instruments minimum if I don’t see the runway I go “pitch up, maximum take off power, flaps to approach, positive rate of climb gear up, flaps up, navigation missed approach, autopilot on, announce going missed on radio”. That’s a lot to remember but if you’re well trained, fly enough and repeat it a few times as you approach, it’s going to be a piece of cake. I ended up landing at the planned airport as I saw the runway way before reaching my minimums, but I was ready for the alternate airport.


Project managers are always an easy target when projects don’t go to plan. Regardless of the circumstances, everyone wonders whether the project manager could have foreseen and prevented the risk before it became an issue. Project sponsors hate surprises and good risk management is one way of avoiding surprises, especially the nasty ones. Risks are often not urgent which means many project managers fail to consider risks as seriously as they should. You can stay on top of your project by controlling risk, and actively mitigating against it as far as you can. If we’ve learned anything from years of leading projects, it’s that great leadership is an essential skill to being a good project manager. Our leadership role means we lead and manage teams;  setting the vision, motivating the team, serving them, coaching them and inspiring others.

Don’t assume you always know best:  the “know-it-all” pilots can get themselves and their passengers killed. Consider the pilot who argues with air traffic control or ignores weather forecasts… or even ignores indications that the airplane is not performing optimally.  Business leaders make the same mistakes based on the premise that “I already know everything there is to know and the directive conflicts with my already established knowledge.'” The problem, of course, is that nobody really knows it all. There is always more to learn and there are always people who know more than we do,” Glenner notes. So when someone gives you a piece of advice, or tells you to follow a rule, at least take the time to consider that person may know something you don’t.

Don’t react to problems too quickly. When a flight goes wrong, it’s natural to feel compelled to do something immediately to fix the situation. But an overly fast reaction can do more harm than good. For example let’s say the pilot has discovered that his plane is losing altitude. An impulsive reaction might be to pull back on the yoke. The problem with this is that pulling back (without doing anything else) decreases airplane speed and may in fact cause a stall/spin reaction. There are many situations, in flight and in business, when something goes wrong and a quick response is needed. But it should always be a well-thought-out response. The remedy for impulsive behavior is the realization that there is time to think and then implement appropriately.  A pilot needs to check all his instruments (quickly) to identify what the real cause is. It could be that power was cut inadvertently, or weather may be causing the unexpected descent. Once the pilot has determined the cause of the problem, he or she can take appropriate action without risking making things even worse.

Don’t believe you’re invulnerable. It’s human nature to think that because nothing has gone wrong so far, nothing ever will, but that’s the kind of thinking that causes planes crashes. There are three sides of a rectangle that a pilot must fly to land properly on a runway. Each corner requires the correct turn and altitude, but these can be thrown off by weather and other conditions. Many pilots believe this can’t happen to them. Over time they fail to be as diligent or continue to educate themselves on the potential dangers. This complacency has caused many an accident, often with tragic results. In the business world the same kind of thinking can lead companies to either dismiss a risk, or have only vague plans for dealing with it. That creates a greater risk: the risk that something can derail a project without a set plan to remedy it. Instead a formal risk assessment discussion, resulting in a written plan for dealing with adverse contingencies. While you won’t be able to anticipate every problem, you can give yourself the best chance to come out all right if a problem does occur.

Don’t go it alone. Some pilots–and some entrepreneurs–develop a macho, I-can-do-it attitude that leads to trouble when they try to take on more than they can handle. For example: Consider a pilot who only had three hours of sleep the night before a flight. For commercial pilots, this would likely be a no-go factor. For private pilots, it should also be a no-go factor, except some pilots believe they can make the flight, lack of sleep notwithstanding. The dangers of this behavior in an airplane are obvious, but it’s dangerous in business too. If you are struggling with too much responsibility, too many hours of work, or tasks that you don’t have the know-how to do–get help.