The Big Picture – Direction, Clarity, Energy

I had the pleasure and privilege a few weeks back of sitting in on a flight test in an Airbus 320 simulator and flying an approach to landing myself.  Because it was a flight test, and was conducted in a simulator, the crew had flown us through take-offs and approaches in every kind of bad weather and technical situation to test their limits.  I was in such a happy place watching them comply with everything that was thrown at them, that I completely forgot I was supposed to be at the bank for an appointment mid-way through that slot!!  As soon as my cousin had said “airplane” the day before, everything else had paled.
Sitting in the debrief afterwards, I became aware of how “on” all my senses were.  How present and exhilarating the experience and atmosphere had been, how demanding and yet energising.  It reminded me how activated we are as pilots, when maintaining The Big Picture is imperative.
In aviation, “The Big Picture” refers specifically to being able to maintain full perspective on everything that’s happening around us.  We’re trained “from birth” to maintain it by constantly seeking information through every single sense from the many onion-layers around us and adding it all together to keep track of how that Big Picture is shaping and how certain details may affect other outcomes.  We constantly scan our instrument panel in a pre-designed way to collect visual information on the speed, attitude, altitude and direction of our aircraft.  We make minute corrections if necessary.  We scan the sky outside for other traffic.  We monitor weather and take account of it.  We review charts for the airways we fly down and the approaches and landings we make.  We line up radio and navigation frequencies so the next one we need is always programmed into the box when it’s called for.  Our ears listen to the dynamics of the engines and the sounds of the cockpit.  We almost subconsciously take in the radio transmissions of the Air Traffic Control and other traffic and layer it over what we expect to be happening and where we expect other aircraft to be.  Our sense of smell is alert, as is our body’s ability to feel every little movement under us.  We’re constantly keeping our factoring “ahead of the aircraft” to make sure we’ve accounted for what needs to happen next.  Being “behind the aircraft” is a very dangerous place to be.
In May, I will embark on a similar experience with one of my corporate clients.  They have reclarified their goals for their business for 2019.  This is effectively mapping out their desired destination and drawing a line from where they are now to where they need to be by a certain time – the same way we draw up the route our aircraft will fly.  Next, every one of their departmental heads will present their processes, overlaps, needs and part in achieving these annual goals to the other departmental heads.  They form the crew of this organisation and laying out this information will allow each of them to build awareness on how each department needs to work to accomplish The Big Picture. 
During these presentations, we’ll all be doing some version of what I’ve described in the second paragraph above.  Piecing together the information we receive to understand how it all fits and overlaps, how it adds or subtracts from The Big Picture and how it needs to work.  We’ll also look and feel for what doesn’t work.  What doesn’t feel good and what threatens the desired outcomes.  What’s inefficient, and where we can streamline and help each other more.  By the end of these sessions, all “crew members” should have a good idea of The Big Picture and their part in it and should be able to “see” each other clearly. 
It’s our responsibility as team members to stay alert with our senses peeled to take in all available information and factor it in to our plans.  We must sift through it, discard what’s not relevant, and factor in what is.  We must make allowances ahead of time for deviations and things that may otherwise push us off course.
However, we cannot have any illusion that our teams will use these skills or generate this energy without leadership factoring in some vital information in the first place and then continuing to monitor, guide, reward and refresh the energy levels.
Leadership must set the direction and ensure everyone agrees on the destination.  There must be clearly defined deliverables that give everyone something to aim for and allow us to know when we’ve arrived.  Each team member must know with clarity what’s expected of them as individuals and have/be provided with the skills and tools to accomplish their mission.  Each team member must understand The Big Picture and how their part in it affects the other crew members.  Emphasis must be kept on The Big Picture rather than the individual roles involved in maintaining it.  In the cockpit, fixating on what’s happening inside the aircraft is dangerously limiting.  Remembering to look up and take in the whole world around you is what keeps us balanced and safe.
Once The Big Picture has been pulled apart, examined and put back together by the team, the course must be constantly checked and accounted for.  Without this attention and energetic input, the energy required for this mission cannot be maintained and will dissipate, leaving the team to wander alone and unguarded into whatever crisis rears its head next, becoming fixated rather than remembering to look up.
The energy required to reach our destination time and time again in an aircraft, having maintained The Big Picture with every sense “on” comes from a number of places.  It comes from the love of what we do – airplanes.  It comes from the instant and tangible reward for our precision, constant monitoring and correction of every move, and the safe and accurate arrival of each flight.  High intensity action is linked to relatively quick outcomes.  We’re also assured of something called FDP.  Flight Duty Periods.  These are carefully calculated periods of time that form the legal baseline for how long we can be on duty and how much rest we must have to recharge.  You’d want to know your pilots are on the ball, right?
In business, it’s not so simple.  Like aviation, The Big Picture is constantly shifting.  New information that affects your outcomes is constantly streaming in and being accounted for.  Occasionally, the destination shifts, and you must recalculate.  The problem with business is that the reward and outcome is not as tangible and short term as it is for us in aviation.  The measure of your success, and whether you’re even still on track is harder to keep a feel for.  You’re “on duty” for much longer periods of time without stringent regulations to tell you when to rest and recharge.  Often, our expectation of ourselves and our teams is that they’ll just keep going and pull it from somewhere.
As leaders, we must ensure the following factors are accounted for if we want to maintain an energised team:  Clear direction that is constantly assessed for movement and the need for recalculation.  A clearly plotted route with waypoints for assessment, reward and recharge.  We must guard our crew members from fatigue, burnout, uncertainty and boredom.  It’s easy to feel important and to understand your role in a cockpit.  Our part is clear and specific.  Often, our team members fade away in confusion or because they can’t feel their importance to the team as a whole.  As leaders, we are responsible for maintaining direction, clarity and energy.
When was the last time you reviewed your desired destination and the timeline for getting there?  Have you involved your whole team in that discussion so that they all have sight of it?  When was the last time you clarified everyone’s roles and responsibilities in achieving that outcome?  Have you plotted check points along the way to monitor progress, energy levels, required skills and deviations?  What methods for reward and recharge have you locked in to make sure your crew don’t run out of energy?  Can every member feel their importance in the grand scheme so that they’re plugged in to the journey and outcome?  What will you achieve when you reach your destination and how will it benefit you all?  How can you support your team to maintain The Big Picture on your way there?

by Christen Killick

April 15th, 2019

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