Big Thoughts in Thin Air

 This one’s from my first formal flying lesson.  After performing the preflight check, the instructor let me start the engine, taxi out to the runway and take off.  (Note: takeoff is real easy, landing is a little harder.)  Anyway, we’re puttering over the plains of north Texas at about 4000 feet when the instructor says “I bet you’re wondering what would happen if the engine died right now” and he shuts the engine off.  Well, I just looked at him waiting for the next piece of the lesson, and he was clearly disappointed that I wasn’t freaking out.

“Ok, smart-ass, so you’ve flown before.”  Yes, my dad had me in Piper Cubs as soon as a lap belt would keep me from sliding off the seat. “Look around and find a place to land”, he says.  So, with the altimeter spinning down from 4000ft toward ‘crash’, I look around and point to a big open field with a little row of shrubs at one end.  “There”, I say.  He has me restart the engine, with a bit of altitude to spare, and take the plane down to a few hundred feet off the ground.  Things looked a wee bit different here. The field was actually what I can only describe as “elephant grass”.  The stuff was thick and very tall.  And those tiny shrubs turned out to be small trees hiding a shallow ravine with a creek running through it.  The landing would not have been smooth.  The plane would probably have been totaled, with serious personal injuries to all on board.  The flying lesson of the day was “always try to land on a road”.

The management lesson

The management lesson of the day was “things always look a lot smoother from up high”.  A lot of times the big thoughts in the PowerPoint look really straightforward and easy to execute.  It’s fun and exciting to think up possibilities or concisely craft a general solution to a vexing problem.  It seems so easy.  “Why didn’t we think of this before.”  “We should have these meetings more often.”  The situation on the ground is always a bit more, shall we say, nuanced.

The Devil’s in the details

Often stated, yet oft treated lightly.  As easy as it seemed to draft the plan in the conference room, there’s not enough time or energy in that forum to flesh out the details.  The danger is in jumping ahead and delegating the implementation. What’s missing is the feedback loop from the implementers as to what challenges were inadvertently overlooked or minimized.  Most often, the main issue is counting on full participation of resources already fully committed.  Another frequent oversight is not  accounting for ‘dead time’ in handoffs, process transitions, or review/approval loops.  Then there there are the frictional losses of implementing a plan that hasn’t been sold to the organization, or includes contributors who aren’t committed or perhaps not even capable.

Why didn’t you say something?

You can’t always rely on the staff to automatically be the sanity check either.  Everyone wants to please the boss.  No one want’s to be seen as “Dr. No” for outlining all the possible contingencies with worst case implications.  Especially when the leadership expresses great excitement (read: emotional ownership) for the idea on the table.  Shooting the messenger is such a time honored tradition that it is a perceived threat even if it’s not a real threat.  The management team needs to reach out to the front line and not just ask for feedback, but explicitly state that “bad news is OK”.  And be on alert for body language or other behaviors that contradict that message. You rarely get a second chance at credibility.

Just add some pad and call it a day

On the other hand a blanket fudge factor without supporting analysis never really gets internalized or affects expectations.  Just throwing in a general “pad” to the cost/schedule formula doesn’t make it real.  (Although, I’m continually surprised at how often “twice the money and three times the time” works out forensically).  Somehow, even though we can latch onto a stated goal with insufficient backup, we are equally adept at discarding counterpoints based on the same level of supporting information.

Some meat on the bone

One way to flesh out the subsurface hazards is to poll the team on percentage likelihood of obtaining each milestone at the projected cost/schedule.  You can play around with the responses (e.g. average all entries for a given milestone, or drop the high and low if you have a large enough sample).  Then combine the probabilities and apply that to the planned goal.  The result will be illuminating, if not disconcerting, which may motivate all to dig a little deeper into the details. All the better to understand the realities of implementation. The pilot can usually change altitude to achieve a smoother flight, but the ground is not so easily modified.


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