Hiccup Leads to “Uneventful Event” – Without Planning and Effective Management, the Result Could Have Been a Catastrophe
Recently, our flight center experienced what, in aviation lingo, is called an “incident.” A student and a flight instructor took off for an instrument training session. As they climbed into the ceiling at about 800 feet, they were handed over from the airport control tower to air traffic control. Air traffic control asked them to alter their heading necessitating a turn as they climbed toward their cruising altitude. In executing this maneuver, the engine began to sputter. Let me make a long story short--the pilot and the instructor followed standard procedures, recovered a smooth running engine, made the prudent decision to declare an "emergency," and were guided back to the runway from which they took off by air traffic control and the airport tower. Soon after they landed, I became involved as the chief of my aviation operations called me to inform me of the "incident." He proceeded to debrief the flight crew, and I notified university administration. About half-way through our tasks, the situation became more complicated when a reporter arrived at the flight center aware of the incident and asking for an interview. We were able to connect with our VP of communications who briefed the operations chief on what to expect in the reporter's interview. The interview went smoothly and the headline in the morning paper was ."Engine hiccup leads to 'uneventful event' for aviation student"...
The next day, I was flying to Atlanta for a meeting with administrators of university aviation programs and the airlines. A VP from one of the regional airlines happened to be on the same flight. After exchanging pleasantries, I began to give him the details of the "incident." Being a 20+ year veteran of the airlines, he was able to give me a great deal of insight about what I had experienced. As we discussed the “incident,” a number of implications became apparent to me. First, I was amazed in retrospect at how calm and methodical every conversation that I had with the chief were. My first knowledge of the incident came in a text message that was simple and to the point--a flight had experienced engine trouble and the instructor and student had safely landed back at our flight center. Our subsequent conversations were methodical as he described the standard process for investigating an incident providing details as they related to this particular incident. When the reporter arrived at the flight center, his call started with the simple statement "Things just got a bit more complicated." Second, I realized that our discussions paralleled my experience on other occasions when flight operations were well prepared for an extraordinary event. You hear professional athletes talk about such situations noting that the game seems to slow down allowing them almost to play in slow motion. Many years ago, I worked for a provost who, while being a generally poor manager, had the amazing ability to get the deans’ council "over prepared" for biannual President's Cabinet retreats. These retreats were grueling affairs where the president picked apart even the most talented administrators who were not perfectly prepared. Typically, the provost met with us at least twice before these meetings playing the role of the president and making sure that our presentations were flawless, that we were prepared for every question, and that we had anticipated every consequence of every proposal that we would make. While, participants from other divisions were often skewered at these retreats, we never experienced such a fate. Our preparatory meetings were always more grueling than the actual retreats.
The record of the US airline industry is pretty amazing--just about the safest place that you'll ever be is in the cabin of an airplane. This isn't luck. “Incidents” happen daily at every airline and flight training program in the country--little problems occur, a standard procedure is executed to deal with the problem, lessons are learned from analysis of the problem, and new procedures are implemented to make sure the problem does not reoccur. Lest the process become routine and sloppy, we periodically practice our ERP's (emergency response plans) in simulated exercises. We already had one planned for later this month.
What are the implications for general management? First, as I’m sure is evident, it makes a difference to have thought about things before they happen and to have a plan for how to deal with these things. Scenario exercises are one way of developing such plans, but the process should be ubiquitous. If we as managers develop a methodical, thoughtful process for approaching problems, we can “slow down the game” in the same way that a professional athlete does. If you develop such a management style that is comfortable with thinking before making a decision, you will be rewarded with better decisions and greater support from your subordinates.
That leads to the second implication--actively engage your subordinates in this planned decision making process. Participation in this planning process sends powerful messages to your subordinates. Subordinates need to know that bad outcomes need to be discussed as often as good outcomes are. They need to believe that bringing bad news to the boss will not be punished but rather rewarded. You need to create an organizational dynamic that emphasizes that decisions need to be made thoughtfully on the basis of sound evidence and reasoning and not as “gut reactions” to a situation.
Hiccups happen. If you and your management system are prepared, they need not lead to catastrophes.