Scott’s share of this article reminds me of one more way in which my training as a Commercial Pilot and Flight Instructor influences my business consulting practices.
In aviation, we don’t think of an aborted landing as merely a landing that we “failed.” The aborted landing is actually a maneuver with procedures and performance standards. We train for it like any maneuver.
Sometimes a landing shouldn’t happen. The entire flight path to the runway was fraught, so those final 100 feet to wheels-down are going to be messy. Another aircraft is on the runway you were just cleared to land on. You got distracted and got “behind the airplane” (you aren’t thinking ahead, and have become more of a passenger than a pilot.) The landing was going great, but the wind gusts are worse right now than they were sixty seconds ago… and as you fight the gusts, you are running out of runway.
As a student pilot, I had my share of unpleasant landings, including one which came close to scraping the tail of the aircraft on the runway tarmac.
My instructor — after examining the tail of the aircraft and breathing a sigh of relief to find it unharmed — informed me that any of these is a totally valid reason to skip the landing and go around. In fact, I should plan every landing as if it were going to be a go-around.
“Get back up safe in the sky, re-plan, and come around and try again. Landings don’t cause crashes; pilots forcing themselves into bad landings cause crashes.”
This was eye-opening advice. How cool: as Pilot-In-Command, I have choices! I’m NOT doomed to follow my plan down into a fiery impact with the ground!
But how often, in business, do we “force ourselves into bad landings?” The article lists six factors for why pilots do so, and they should ring a bell for us in business.
I’ve taken the liberty of translating the article’s six factors into typical sound-bites that represent the thinking behind these factors:
- Plan Continuation Error — “We need to stick to the plan. Why else did we make one?”
- Sunk Cost Effect — “We’ve invested a lot of time/money in this course of action, we need to see some return.”
- Cognitive Dissonance — “The alternative you suggest sounds too complicated. Our current course of action is simplest.”
- Complacency — “We’ve done dozens of deployments like this, I don’t see why you’re so pessimistic.”
- Hindsight Bias — “Those warning signs you talk about aren’t warning signs; they are they only thing that could have happened. Stop worrying about what DID happen and focus on what SHOULD happen.”
- Bounded Rationality/’Satisficing’ — “I’m not rationalizing risk away; I just don’t think a few annoyed theoretical customers is as risky as delaying our product release by a month.”
How often have you heard statements like these, prior to the business equivalent of a crash into the ground?
Crashes in business can take longer than in aviation, but both are awful to watch. I once saw one go on for 4 months. There were dozens of “passengers” (senior employees) involved in this particular venture, but despite all evidence, the “pilot” (C-level leader) continued to make statements that sounded a lot like those above.
Right up until the point that the company’s core business and customers were threatened.
It was the business equivalent of feeling the aircraft tail scrape the runway.
Plan the Go-Around — Detect When to Execute
I’m not trying to paralyze you with crash stories and accident reports. I’m hoping to show you that you have options besides “do or die.”
But only if you plan to have options. If there are warning signs, don’t simply hope that everything will be okay. Don’t shove the responsibility for a successful landing off onto your people. Question. Test your assumptions.
Here are some antidotes to the above risky soundbites:
- Plan for Alternatives — What “go-around” procedures do we have if a risk manifests? Are we ready to execute them?
- Think Incremental ROI — We’ve invested a lot of time/money; how do we ensure that we get at least partial ROI no matter what?
- Be Skeptical — We’ve done dozens of successful deployments like this. But what’s different about this one?
- View Risks as Discovered Work — I hear some concerns. Sounds like we’ve discovered some new risks. What work do we have to do to minimize these risks? Is this work in the new plan?
- Set Triggering Conditions — Looking ahead, under what circumstances might we need to change our plans? How can we tell if those conditions occur?
- Be Open to Peer Review — I don’t think the risk of failure is as great as the risk of delay. But maybe I’m biased. So I’ve asked people outside my department for their assessment.
In aviation, we say:
“Plan every landing as a go-around, plan every [instrument weather] approach as a missed approach.”
In business, this means that while yes, we should “think positive” and “plan to ship it,” successfully delivering means that we also detect when that plan is no longer feasible, and then re-plan using newly discovered information.
Agile Development methods bake this re-planning into their process. Unfortunately too often the surrounding business processes do not. Too often, the people leading those processes view re-planning as a sign of failure.
So watch out for those warning sound bites. And stop thinking of deviation from the plan as failure. Start thinking of it as a procedure to be practiced and performed just like delivery.
As we say about go-arounds in aviation:
“Better to explain why you DID it, than for others to find out after the crash why you DIDN’T.”