Maintaining The Big Picture

(You’ll need your metaphor thinking caps on for this one!)

As a pilot, maintaining The Big Picture means simultaneously taking in many different layers of information about your surroundings, evaluating the possible meaning of that information and then using that information to judge future actions.  Otherwise known as Situational Awareness, maintaining The Big Picture is a key factor in whether today is a good day on the job or not.  And “not a good day” for us, can have massive and far reaching consequences.
We need to remain in control of our aircraft, and monitoring our environment and the effects on it allows us to do that.  Allowing the environment or the aircraft to get ahead of you in terms of your thinking is a dangerous, uncontrolled and unpredictable place to be where you’re always 2 moves behind and things are happening TO you instead of you making strategic decisions ahead of time.  We train hard not to let that happen.  Ideally, we’re always 5 minutes ahead of our aircraft mentally, and we know what the next 3 moves need to be.  We’ve probably also thought of a few alternative options for each of those moves.
So how can this help us as leaders of teams and businesses?  How can it help us in our own every day thinking?  Let’s examine what The Big Picture consists of, how to tell if we may have lost it, and the one fundamental that holds it all together.

The Big Picture consists of multiple layers of understanding:


1. Perception

We need to correctly perceive all the elements that make up our current situation.  For me, that may be the system and flight data information coming from various dials and readings within my cockpit (speed, fuel levels and consumption, engine settings), the weather and its effect on my flight and passengers (headwinds, turbulence), the other traffic in the vicinity, their speed, altitude and direction, any upcoming waypoints, changes in direction, radio frequency or altitude.  I must make sure I maintain watch over all the puzzle pieces – a constant scan making sure I forget none of the elements.
What are the elements that surround your current situation?  Have you considered all of them?  Are they weaving together in your mind to form a larger, living picture?  What have you forgotten about or not accounted for?


2. Comprehension

Comprehension is based on a synthesis of all these elements, making sure I understand the significance of each and its possible effects on my goals.  I must mesh all these elements together to form a larger picture that is constantly living, breathing, moving.  Nothing is static.  I must look at the patterns and form a holistic picture of the environment so that I have a mental picture of the current situation.  For example, there’s an aircraft to my right moving in the opposite direction, I’ve used more fuel than expected at this point, and the turbulence we’re experiencing is uncomfortable for my passengers.
How do the elements you’ve considered fit together and affect each other?  Do you have a full mental picture of the current situation?


3. Projection

The knowledge and comprehension of the status and dynamics of the elements that make up my environment allow me to anticipate what will happen next and use that expectation to make decisions, at least in the short term.  For example, if I climb to a higher level I may positively affect both my fuel consumption and the turbulence, although I may have to wait for the traffic to pass before I can request to do so.

What are the adjustments and plans you need to make to keep you on track, having considered all the current elements?

Have you lost The Big Picture?

Here are a few tell-tale warning signs that you may need to re-establish your Big Picture:


Too much “Heads Down” time.
Have you allowed yourself to get consumed by examination of the current elements?  Has everyone had their head down inside the cockpit for too long without looking up and out to monitor conflicting traffic or developing weather?


Ambiguous Information and Confusion.
Do you have information from two or more sources that don’t agree?  Are you uneasy or uncertain about the situation?


Primary Duties Absorption.
Is everyone focussed on their primary duties to the detriment of the Bigger Picture?  This is particularly possible under stress as it’s easy to default to what we know for sure.  Are those primary duties letting other elements go unrealised?


Compliance and Standard Practise.
Is your management of the situation taking away from compliance with performance limitations, or standard operating procedures?  They’re there for a reason.  ESPECIALLY to catch you (support you) when you’re under pressure.


Fixation and Navigation.
Are you fixated on one task to the exclusion of others?  Have you missed any vital checkpoints on your route?


Is communication breaking down?  Have you heard or made any vague or incomplete statements?  Are the desired results being reached?

If any of these apply to you, you may need to regain your Big Picture.  Re-familiarise yourself with systems and actively gather information; keep up a good scan of all the relevant elements; plan ahead when you have a low workload, and fly to that plan until it changes; try not to assume what’s going to happen; be aware of all services available to you; monitor and critically evaluate your own performance; if you observe obvious signs of a breakdown of situational awareness, SPEAK UP!


The FUNDAMENTAL Element that holds it all together:

We mentioned it briefly under “Comprehension”.  The one fundamental that holds this all together is that YOU MUST BE CLEAR ON WHAT YOUR GOALS ARE!  (“Surviving” is not a goal.)  We take for granted in an aircraft that we know exactly where we’re going and we’ve planned our route accordingly.  It would be ridiculous for us to get airborne without knowing this.  And yet, many times, we don’t plan strategic and specific goals for our business.  When we do, we don’t always communicate them clearly to our team.  And when the weather changes or the wind picks up, we don’t reassess and adjust our flight path towards reaching those goals.

In order to navigate all the different elements that will throw themselves at you, you must be clear about the destination you’re aiming at.  You must aim for that destination no matter how many times you need to readjust your path and reassess the elements affecting you.  Without this fundamental in place, you’re likely to fly round in big circles and eventually run out of fuel.

by Christen Killick

November 4th, 2018

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