Why Business Leaders Should Think More Like Airplane Pilots

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If you fire people for making mistakes, no one will ever admit to their mistakes. This is just a fact of life.

Self-preservation is a powerful motivator. It’s why people are reluctant to expose their mistakes, especially within organizational cultures that reject so-called “weakness.” In most organizations, this element of human nature is compounded by the fact that most managerial routines do not designate any time for learning or provide tools for sharing knowledge. It is easy to understand why errors recur regularly.

We live in an intense world where far more of our time is spent in the “performance zone,” as learning expert Eduardo Briceño describes it, than is spent in the “learning zone.” Time spent learning is often seen as a luxury, and most organizations simply don’t provide employees with the opportunity to talk about mistakes, share them, and learn from them.

In contrast, jet fighter pilots in the Israeli Air Force (IAF) learn quickly that mistakes are an important currency for self-improvement and team-building. The field of flight is steeped in a culture of learning by way of self-debriefing, a fact that has helped make the IAF one of the best outfits in the world. By adopting the self-debriefing method, the IAF can train its pilots to the highest standards much faster than most other air forces, and over time it has seen a significant reduction in accidents. With continual improvement built into its mission statement, the IAF delivers what should be every CEO’s dream: quality, safety, and training integrated in one culture.

Thinking like a pilot makes it possible for organizational leaders to achieve continuous improvement in a business environment starved of time while creating cultures of excellence, accountability, and transparency. You can quickly change an organization’s culture, often in as little as a few weeks, by turning mistakes into learning opportunities. To get there, just follow this multistep process:

Step 1: Organize Your Debriefing Teams Around Their Daily ‘Flights’

It is essential that each team follows one central mission that provides the opportunity for team members to learn from one another. This mission should revolve around whatever specific daily task constitutes the team’s core activity, whether it be sales meetings, customer service calls, or surgical procedures. This task is the “flight” to be debriefed by each team member regardless of its quality or outcome.

Step 2: Keep Debriefings Short, Simple, and Routine

The debriefing process begins with self-debriefings, personal reports written in five minutes or less by individual team members immediately after their “flights.” These reports are sent as soon as possible to the whole team, and together they become the basis of team debriefings, brief meetings that allow colleagues to ask for elaboration and offer feedback. During team debriefings, team managers may also share their professional opinions and experiences to broaden the team’s learning. Note that it is crucial to teach teams in advance how to give positive feedback to ensure debriefings don’t turn into platforms for complaints and discord.

Step 3: Take Personal Responsibility for Your Learning

Each debriefer may speak only about their own performance and responsibility for the event being debriefed — never anyone else’s performance. This means individuals can’t bring up their managers, subordinates, and peers — nor even the weather, traffic jams, and airline delays.

Step 4: Focus on the Key Factors to Learn From

Each “flight” should be limited to the event at hand, and further than that, it should zero in on just one or two key elements of the event, defined briefly, with no long background stories. The debriefing should clearly answer the one most important question: “What happened?” For example, that answer might be, “We didn’t close the deal” or “We delivered the order one month late.”

Step 5: Determine Exactly What You’ll Do Differently Next Time

“I’ll do it better next time” is not an effective conclusion. Similarly, a vague conclusion like “I need to make my presentation shorter” is unlikely to ensure improvement. Instead, conclusions should outline concrete, measurable actions, such as, “I’ll delete slides 2-6, condense slides 10-15, delete slides 18 and 20, and combine slides 21-27.”

Step 6: Lose Your Fear of the Term ‘Error’

In addition to the practical process of debriefing, a new mindset is required. Teams must accept there is something to learn from everything they do, whether it is completely successful or falls short of the mark. In this context, the term “error” is most emphatically not a matter of blame or accusation, but instead a valuable tool for learning. Once this approach is adopted, it becomes much easier — and more productive — to talk about disappointing outcomes.

Results of the Team-Learning Model

When individual team members share their perceptions with the entire team, knowledge flows more easily from one person to another, elevating the overall level of team communication and collaboration. Significantly increased openness results in a newfound ability to learn from mistakes, which in turn generates an outcome-oriented discourse on ways to achieve measurable improvement in your “flight.”

Greater transparency and accountability enable teams to draw conclusions much more quickly and subsequently implement changes that will improve their processes. As a result, the entire effort to improve processes becomes shorter and more efficient, and the rate of error repetition decreases.

As a byproduct, managers often benefit from the large amount of information they obtain through this model, providing them with the knowledge and opportunity to improve their teams’ work. Most of all, managers attest to getting a “new team” and “a new culture,” one in which people learn from their mistakes and share them with colleagues as if doing so were the most natural thing in the world. The more we acknowledge and share errors, the more we’ll be able to avoid them in the future.

Ofir Paldi is the CEO and founder of Shamaym.

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