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Plane Crashes and Business Failures

Plane crashes and business failures - image by Onder Ortel on Unsplash

There are invaluable lessons about business success and failure to be learned by by studying airplane crashes, according to an entrepreneur, CEO, business owner, veteran of several successful company exits and one of the best business mentors I’ve been fortunate enough to have had.

He’d read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which studies a series of disasters, and the cultural and human influences that contributed to them. Things like cultural hierarchy that was so powerful that subordinate co-pilots couldn’t clearly say “you’re flying too low”, or “we don’t have enough fuel for that”, even though they knew what was about to happen.

It’s something that’s stuck, and sparked an interest of my own. As somebody whose happy place is most definitely the airport — any airport — I’m mindful that when you’re defying the law of gravity, in a heavy projectile filled with flammable liquid, the outcome could be less than ideal.

And yet, only the tiniest number of flights end in anything that even raises an eyebrow, let alone your adrenaline.

There are three reasons for that.

1 — In all except the rarest of circumstances, it takes so many different and compounding factors to bring a plane down that the smart people flying it have enough time to mitigate enough of them, to land safely.

2 — There are so many human checks and balances, implemented through learned experience, that the factors that could compound to bring a plane down are generally identified and fixed well before they could be a problem.

3 — The plane itself is smart enough to know when it’s flying outside of a “safe” situation. Even if the pilots are blinded, or disoriented, or miss every other warning, a “Terrain, terrain — pull up!” warning generally gets a snappy reaction. If not, it gets written up in a crash report.

Successful flight is the sum total of millions of tiny interactions, all relying on good decisions and attention to detail at every step.

From the design and manufacture of every physical component of the plane, to its assembly, testing, maintenance, the fuel that’s used, flight planning, the way it’s flown, external forces, the way the flight crew works together, willingness of passengers and flight attendants to speak out, if they notice something off… every single little thing matters.

Navigating business challenges is not dissimilar. It’s seldom one thing that causes a business to succeed or fail. Along the way, there are multiple opportunities to recognize and react to things that could become problems, if they go unnoticed.

As a CEO, you can’t personally be across every tiny detail. Neither can the captain of an Airbus. There are far too many details for one person to oversee.

But, those details need oversight. You need the processes, the checklists and the involvement of all of your people, committed to doing their jobs well, to ensure everything runs as expected. You need them to check and confirm to you that they’ve done everything that every process requires.

Anything less introduces significant risk into your business.

The reason we know so much about plane crashes is their catastrophic nature causes so much loss of human life that they are heavily investigated. Each piece of a downed plane that can be found is minutely examined, witnesses are extensively interviewed, cockpit recordings are pored over and conclusions are drawn about what brought the plane down.

Then, recommendations are made and implemented to stack the odds against it happening again.

Airlines with poor safety records stand out, and the practices that lead to that poor record are identified and pointed out.

When it comes to business, we’re often far less precise.

However, applying the learnings and the principles of airline safety to any business can only be helpful.

The fewer things going wrong at any one time, the better your position will be. The key is to correct small things before they grow, and compound to create a potentially disastrous situation that you struggle to recover from.

It’s all in the detail

Identify the critical elements for flight — every single one of them. Realize that you’re most at risk during your version of takeoff and landing. Create, follow, and train people on procedural checklists to ensure that no detail goes unseen. Create procedures for critical scenarios, so everyone knows how to respond when things go wrong.

Check the amount of fuel you need for your distance and weight, plus contingency. Cross-check it, and verify it again.

Don't waste fuel on unnecessary detours. Use it to get to where you need to go, flying the shortest distance you can, while avoiding dangerous turbulence.

Make certain you have enough people with the right knowledge to build your product or service to a high standard, and maintain it to a higher standard.

Create a process through which anyone can feed information back into the business, and be certain it’s been heard. The closer your people are to your customers, the more likely they are to realize that something’s off — make sure they have the ability to say so.

Recognize what good looks like, what satisfied and happy customers look like, and shape your processes to consistently achieve that outcome.

Stay across the detail. You can’t just wing it. You can’t assume everything’s under control.

You have to know what’s going on, whether it’s healthy, and whether it's working for you. The only way to do that, is to be absolutely certain that your team is paying attention to the detail, and reporting it back to you.

Fly the plane

When something goes wrong — and it will — concentrate on flying the plane.

In a crisis, your options have been narrowed for you. Do just one thing: fly the plane. 

Stay alive.

Keep the plane in the air until you can bring it down as safely as possible. Once you've done that, you have more options, and you can assess them, as long as you're still alive.

The more critical the situation, the more elemental your response needs to be. If you're out of fuel (money), stop spending money. Immediately. 

If a project is about to fail, stop it. Right now. Don't let it take another step.

Stay alive. Then, decide your next move.