A flight instructor once told me that “Flying is nothing more than a series of mistakes and corrections”. The sentiment is true, but no one really plans to make mistakes. A better but less snappy version of the saying might be “Flying is a series of the best inputs we can make followed by corrections when we get more data.” Long before you climb into the plane there is a lot of planning to do. Routes, weather, aircraft performance and loading, and much more all need to be planned. Contingency planning is built in as well in the form of potential airports to divert to, weather that may need to be flown around, etc. All of this planning is based on the best information available at the time and the smart pilot knows that flying the plan exactly is not likely and adapting will be necessary to stay safe. Sticking to the plan no matter what is a path to disaster. Sticking to principles of good flying however is a must. So, the good pilot plans very thoroughly with the knowledge that deviations are likely and are also planned for. That’s the big picture of planning and adapting in aviation. At the micro level, each maneuver requires control inputs followed by a feel for how the aircraft responded to the input. Then may follow more or less input. Even flying straight and level (your first lesson in the left seat) is a bit harder than you think it should be. The tendency of most student pilots is to over control. Too much input one direction is followed by too much the other leading to a pendulum like effect. One eventually learns to provide gentle inputs and correction to the point a passenger doesn’t even notice them.
Learning to land during my training provides an excellent (if embarrassing) illustration of this principle as well as the one above about head knowledge and application. Landing is an energy management exercise in that the aircraft at cruise speed and altitude contains a given amount of energy. Landing requires the precise loss of that energy over time and space so that the plane has just the right energy to softly touch down. In addition, there is the directional element. Having the right energy is not enough. You need to be precisely aligned to the runway! Managing the energy loss and directional control is made more challenging by the wind. A headwind changes how fast you decelerate, and a crosswind makes lining up on the runway centerline more difficult. These two interact to add to the fun. Correcting for wind effects changes your energy a little bit. Correcting for energy may change your direction. To me as a student this all made sense and the books and videos I learned from made this seem pretty easy. Application of that head knowledge was not as easy because even when I planned for a given wind direction and speed the airplane somehow didn’t do what I expected. But since I had planned it that way, I flew it that way… with poor results. I often was not over the runway or was too high or too slow or too something to make a good landing. I didn’t understand because I had all the settings “correct”. My instructor endured this for a while, and then one day when I was frustrated again I asked him if I had set the power wrong on final approach. He asked if I really thought I could set up the plane on final and then it would essentially land itself. I foolishly said yes. That’s when I learned that, as soon as I provided an input to the plane, I needed to be prepared to correct it. Landing was not setting all the inputs correctly a mile from the end of the runway and then sitting back and watching. This is what I had been doing. Once I learned it was necessary to keep making small inputs all the way to the hangar landings got a lot better. I also learned to anticipate challenges so as to be ready to correct things. It’s not uncommon that right before the end of the runway the airplane will get upset by a mysterious gust of wind. That’s the last place you want that to happen since you are low on energy (by design) then and very near the ground. As wind blows across objects such as trees or buildings close to the surface it gets disrupted and may blow from a direction you weren’t planning for. So even on what felt like a “good” final approach, things went bad right at the end. Expecting that and knowing the kind of inputs it needed was very helpful in reducing stress on my instructor.
At the big picture flight planning level or the micro picture maneuvering level, it is important to plan thoroughly but plan to change with conditions. Knowing what change may come your way and how to respond to it reduces stress and makes you safer and more confident. Applying these ideas to leadership is pretty straightforward. The big picture (flight planning) is strategy. Your strategy is really just your flight plan to reach your destination within a set of boundary conditions. The paths available to you are limited to what is within your limits (dollars, time, human resources, etc.) just as the pilot’s are by weather, fuel, aircraft limits, etc. But within those, adaptations will still have to be made to reach your destination as the conditions you planned for change. Have you ever had your budget “adjusted” during a project? Have you had a key skill position leave the team unexpectedly? Just as in flying try to anticipate as many of those as possible and have your “diversion” plan ready to go. Sometimes you will have to think on the fly but not that often if you really plan well. As a leader you owe it to your stakeholders to do so. You are the pilot in command for your project.
At the micro planning level, you’ll need to learn how to make adjustments that the “passengers” won’t notice. When maneuvering with your team it’s best to make control inputs gently and avoid see-sawing them. Passengers get airsick and lose confidence in the pilot when that happens. Team members might do the same if you are not skillful in making small corrections. This is really the tactical part of your leadership. Strategic changes are likely to be not too frequent but very noticeable by everyone. They should be. Tactical changes are more frequent and may be more effective if they aren’t too noticeable. Your skill as a leader in macro and micro planning and adapting is not a trait one is born with. Just like proper flight planning it is a learned skill that requires the use of a lot of resources, thoughtfulness and time. Shortcuts which are violations of principles lead to bad outcomes. As a leader, or pilot in command, put in the time to sharpen these skills and invest time in planning for the outcome you want as well as for a few that you do not. Change your plans but not your principles.
Frank Burroughs is an experienced leader with a passion for helping others achieve more as leaders. He currently leads Clear on Purpose, LLC, a leadership and talent consulting company. Frank would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Plan, Then Adapt