Leading Agile Organizations: Lessons from the Flight Deck

Have you ever been part of an organization where the product owner, manager, or CEO failed to accept input from a junior or rookie team member and the project or initiative failed? Imagine being part of a team where either failing to share information or not acting on critical information is found to be the root cause behind flying an actual project, an aircraft, into the ground.

In the cockpits of today’s commercial airliners and military aircraft, open communication and the ability to respectfully question authority(perceived or explicit) are essential cognitive and interpersonal skills every crew member must learn so as a team, make that a high-performing team, they can mitigate the unforgiving risks inherent in their complex environment. However, thirty years ago cockpit culture was the poster child for management 1.0 (control) — the very problem impeding agile transformations around the globe.

In the 1970s a rash of commercial airline accidents led NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate how to fix the complex aviation system. The tipping point in commercial aviation came on December 28, 1978 when United Airlines Flight 173 (UA-173) crashed in a Portland suburb, killing 10 passengers.

UA-173, a DC-8 with 181 passengers on board, circled near the Portland, Oregon airport for an hour as the crew tried to troubleshoot a landing gear problem. The flight engineer, the crew member responsible for monitoring the aircraft systems, unsuccessfully warned the captain (the flying pilot) of the rapidly diminishing fuel supply. The captain—later described by one investigator as “an arrogant S.O.B.” –waited too long to begin his final approach and as a result UA-173 ran out of fuel and crashed.

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Following the UA-173 investigation, NASA discovered that 60-80% of airline accidents were caused by human error. Digging deeper, and not just settling on human error as a singular cause, NASA identified failures in alignment, leadership, interpersonal communication, and decisiveness as root causes behind several commercial airline disasters including UA-173.

The hierarchical, command and control culture commonly found in the front office (flight decks) of 1970s era commercial airliners including that of UA-173 were no different than those cultures found in many of today’s legacy companies. Following the crash of UA-173, the aviation industry with the help of NASA realized through deep retrospection that the top-down predict-and-control paradigm of managing in complex environments needed to change.

The hierarchical “chain of command” system in place at the time of the accident [UA-173] did not always provide for effective flight crew resource management. Additional training was identified as being needed to ensure the flight crews recognized the value and merits of flight crews breaking down the more formal hierarchical structure. This approach leads to a more participative and collaborative process to ensure that all members of the flight crew feel free to speak up and provide the captain with all relevant information relating to the safety of the aircraft [1].

This change came in the form of Crew Resource Management (CRM), a leadership training system that “encompasses a wide range of knowledge, skills and attitudes including communications, situation awareness, problem solving, decision making, and teamwork,” according to CrewResourceManagement.net. CRM liberated the cockpit environment so every member, regardless of rank, position, skills set, age, time with the company, etc., was empowered to truly collaborate around a shared objective or explicit purpose.

In today’s turbulent markets business leaders are desperately trying to become more “Agile” yet most fail because traditional company cultures—hierarchical, command and control bureaucracies—do not provide knowledge workers the support needed to innovate, adapt, and ultimately delight customers with valued, rapid product releases. Applying aviation lessons learned to Agile transformational challenges is not new; for those of you who have read my posts you are aware that commercial and military aviation have profoundly influenced Agile, Scrum, The Lean Start Up, and elements of design thinking.

Adding leadership patterns from CRM to your Agile toolbox will help transform managers into Agile leaders and coaches–rather than the perceived or actual impediments to organizational agility. In part 2 of this post, I will share more CRM information and provide ideas on how it can help remove the “S.O.B” from your cockpit before a project or your company crashes into the ground.

Warning: You may be the S.O.B.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering Naval Aviator and current Enterprise Agile Coach and Executive Consultant based in Seattle, WA.

[1] FAA Website http://lessonslearned.faa.gov/ll_main.cfm?TabID=1&LLID=42&LLTypeID=7

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