Rebels Are Like Pilots // Reading for Rebels

outliersWe've all read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers by now, right? (Or it's sitting in that big pile of books you're meaning to read.) After I read it, it got me thinking about how one of the lessons relates to our business and I wanted to share it. It’s in the details... Most plane crashes are not the result of massive mechanical failures, nor gross incompetence or inexperience on the part of the pilot and crew. They generally happen because of a number of small mistakes in communication that add up to cause catastrophe.

Same could be said for our projects. They succeed, or fail — in general not based on how much experience you have or whether some huge part went right or wrong, but instead based on how well you communicate with the rest of the team and how quickly and appropriately you respond to small details that may not go according to plan.

It’s about the team... Nobody flies a commercial jet alone. Why? Not because one experienced pilot can’t handle an airliner. Those things just about fly themselves. But if something goes wrong and there’s nobody there to catch it, the consequences are deadly. So they break the job into several parts, and each team member gets a part of it. They work together, and support each other, just in case the pilot, or anyone else on the crew, happens to be human.

Likewise, your ability to succeed as a Rebel will often depend more on your ability to work as part of a team — which includes selecting the right people for the job, and keeping them engaged, motivated, and directed — than on your proficiency in the particulars of whatever the job happens to be.

That word again: Communication Gladwell points out that different cultures have different attitudes towards language and communication. Not that one is better than the other, but one is definitely better than the other for flying planes... and for being Rebels.

You cannot let things like politeness, politics, or hierarchy stand in your way of communicating effectively. That is, if you want to be successful. (On a separate note, you are expected to treat everyone with respect, but part of being a Rebel is being firm, direct, and respectful all at once.) If you see your boss or client making a mistake, it’s your responsibility to communicate that, and be proactive about offering solutions.

  • Pay attention to your speech: Are you “mitigating”? How might that affect the way someone interprets your meaning?
  • Whose responsibility is it to ensure clear communication — the speaker or the receiver? Hint: it’s both.

What’s your backup for your backup? Nobody ever flies a plane without a plan for landing it safely. That would be suicide. But in the air, as in life, things don’t always go according to plan. Weather, traffic, mechanical issues, and passengers often cause the conditions for landing to be different than originally expected. So every commercial flight has a contingency defined for what the crew will do in case of environmental changes to bring the plane in safely.

We have to do the same thing. Always. Our ability to tolerate ambiguity and stick to the end goal while adjusting the plan to compensate for things outside our control is essential to our own success.