Flight crews don't decide where to fly

February 11, 2018 · 3 min read

Airbus A320 - Photo from Wikimedia
Airbus A320 - Photo from Wikimedia

When an Airbus A320 takes off, there are typically 10 people who are operating it. Between the pilots and cabin crew, their responsibilities include:

On most flights, this crew is working together for the first time. A given flight’s crew usually didn’t train together. Often, they don’t see the exact plane they need to operate until they step aboard.

In 2017, there were 37,000,000 commercial flights. That year, there were only 151 safety incidents, none of them fatal. That’s a 99.9996% percent safety record.

How does a group of people who have never met fly 100 people in a 600-metric-ton metal tube across the world so safely?

My best guess:

  1. Every Pilot/Co-Pilot/Crew member has the same responsibilities flight-to-flight
  2. Every Airbus A320 is the same
  3. Nobody has to decide where to fly

What if crews had to decide where to go?

The pilot has called a meeting of the crew. The crew discusses various possible destinations. Sure, all the passengers bought tickets to Cleveland, but wouldn’t we make more money if we flew a shorter route instead? The lead crew member has hung a poster in the crew room that says “Move Fast and Break Things,” so they also discuss flying at supersonic speed to Mars. The co-pilot has conducted a survey that says, on average, their passengers would prefer to fly to Fiji. Being equitable, the Pilot puts it to a vote, and Mars wins. Since the plane can’t actually fly to Mars, they agree to research spaceplanes in Q2 instead of flying anywhere.

The crew has made a bold bet on the future of aviation, but has failed to actually fly the plane. The moral?

Work on teams like crews fly planes

When you work on a team, whether it’s Agile or Scrum, in a Holocracy or Teal Org, or none of the above, your responsibilities include:

To work productively, make sure you don’t have to decide where to go. Work with stakeholders to set missions, KPIs, OKRs, milestones, or just plain old goals before the team steps foot onto the proverbial plane. In-flight, try to avoid re-evaluating the goal. Land the plane safely with a solid report-out and retrospective, before asking where to go next. Try to make switching teams between projects seamless.

The above advice works for big initiatives, 2-week sprints, and 30-minute meetings — especially 30-minute meetings.

This idea was brought up by my friends Derrick and Dara in a recent conversation on teamwork. Thanks, friends, for the inspiration.