Old Mutual

the person flying this plane has a few business lessons to teach you

Recently on a British Airways flight from Joburg to Durbs to attend The Wedding Expo at Sibaya SunPark (our 42nd expo!), I picked up their inflight magazine High Life. The truth is, more often than not I flick through the magazines without engaging too much. This time was different. I found several very interesting articles to read and one in particular caught my eye and I thought it would be the perfect piece to share with the industry this week. Let me know what you think.


Chances are that by the time you read this, the captain will have engaged the autopilot. That’s not to say that they are sat up there playing on their phones. Having handed off the cognitive load of steering, they still have a lot to do. Steering the plane is easy: it’s the rest that requires the years of training. The thing you think they do most of the time, isn’t, and it’s certainly not at all the hardest part of the job.

That’s not an unusual imbalance. Any job of sufficient complexity is fundamentally different from what it at first appears. Yours too. For fine crafts, engineering, surgery and other jobs that require years of learning psychomotor skills, that’s already true. But for knowledge workers also, the types of thinking, the forms of cognitive processes – alongside the interconnected considerations of your work that might only live inside your head – are getting all the more complicated. We could really do with some help.

Happily, there are a suite of tools and techniques that we can steal from pilots, and increasingly so for emergency medics, elite teams sports players, surgeons, high-stakes negotiating teams, and Special Forces operators, that go a long way to help us bridge the gap between the older, simpler, ways of working, and the ever-more involved that we have today. Not technology, like the autopilot, but a series of processes.

Checklists are the most famous. When the surgeon, Atul Gawande, took inspiration from the pilot’s checklist – whose job is to relieve the aircrew of the cognitive load of remembering lots of critical steps, thus ensuring that they all do actually get done – and brought it into hospitals, surgical infection rates dropped. Without checklists, as tasks get more complicated and are made of ever-more tiny steps, the chances of one of those steps being missed greatly increases. Even for non-life critical things, such as packing your bags this morning, creating a checklist of everything you need to do will always pay back. There’s at least one person sat near you right now who forgot their phone charger, but wouldn’t have with a checklist.


But the most life changing technique, I think, is something relatively new to normal business. It’s the deliberate debriefing. Not only does this work for teams, such as the flight crew up front who will go through today’s flight with each other after you land, but it also works on your own. You can, as an individual, use debriefing techniques to help you improve just about anything.

Here’s the thing. Every study of learning, of elite performance, of skills acquisition says that the route to mastery of anything is what’s called Deliberate Practice. First you have to practise the skill, performing it repeatedly, enough for it to bed in properly. But you also have to practise “deliberately”, which means a combination of things: being highly motivated, having your task well defined, having rigorous measurements of the thing you are doing, receiving informative feedback from someone who knows what they are doing, and having a way of monitoring the whole process, and evaluating everything regularly.

It is difficult to do all of this with knowledge work. Creating a marketing plan is not like running the 1,500 metres: there’s no measurement that compares with the track timer, no marketing coaches as rigorously skilled as athletic trainers, and so on. But you can take the spirit of the entire enterprise, and after completing a project, or finishing a meeting, or closing a task, debrief yourself about how it went, with a view to specifically improving.


How to do this? Three words: good, better, how.

Whenever I land a plane, finish a training run or leave a client meeting, I write a debriefing note to myself. The first part is the Good. What did I do that was good? The second, Better, is what could I have done better? And the third, is How. How do I do it better next time?

This process of deliberately analysing what I just did and setting myself up to improve on it next time takes the adaptive nature of deliberate practice and turns it into a specific plan. It creates a mini-checklist for the next time, too, so I don’t forget to do what I have discovered. These tiny, considered, purposeful course adjustments, once decided upon, can be left to the autopilot of your to do list. You just need to give yourself a few moments to debrief yourself and find out what they are.

Ben Hammersley
First published in British Airways’ inflight magazine, Business Life’


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