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Are We Losing Sight?

We’ve all seen the headlines.



Times are Tough Unemployment Rises Again


The US economy is clearly in terrible shape

Distracted Congress Loses Focus on Credit Freeze


And we’re all feeling the effects, whether directly or indirectly. If we have a job, we’re working harder to do more with less. If we don’t have a job, we’re frustrated at the limited opportunities and the slow hiring process. And many are suffering financially as a result. If we are a business leader, we are shifting priorities and, in many cases, “waiting” to see which direction this tornado is going. Many are in a “freeze frame” not sure which steps to take next. This is new territory.



Last year I had the opportunity to attend the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) Leadership Conference. The keynote was delivered by Afterburner, Inc., a company founded by James D. Murphy who wrote “Flawless Execution”. The book teaches us how to use the techniques and systems of America’s Fighter Pilots to succeed in business, no matter what the conditions. Murphy talks about how the better the individual executes, the better the company performs. Yet, he points out, the individual rarely acts alone. Individuals are part of a team. Teams require leadership; individuals on the team require missions and tasks. A team benefits from the individual execution of each of its members. So the goal of each individual is to flawlessly execute.



It’s possible that your team is experiencing one of the biggest stumbling blocks to flawless execution that Murphy discusses in his book – task saturation, which is too much to do with not enough time, not enough tools and not enough resources to get the mission accomplished. There are three coping mechanisms for task saturation: quitting, compartmentalizing, or channelizing. Quitters shut down. They don’t say much or do much. They come in late and leave early. They are generally easy to spot. Compartmentalizers act busy but do little. This can be dangerous as we don’t notice the weak link until it’s too late. The most common coping mechanism is channelizing (or target fixation). With multiple problems at hand, the channelizer picks one and focuses on it, to the detriment of any of the other problems. And, who knows, the channelizer may have picked the wrong problem to focus on.



The example that Murphy uses to demonstrate task saturation is the story of Flight 401. On December 29, 1972, this flight was inbound to Miami International Airport. There were three pilots to fly the plane. It was wintertime, a clear night – weather was not a factor. On the ten mile final approach, the first officer says to the captain: “Let’s put the landing gear down.” The captain looked at the copilot and says, “Roger”; he reaches up and grabs the gear handle and puts it in the down position. Only two of the three lights to illuminate the forward instrument panel go on. The nose wheel light does not go on. They pull out the emergency procedure and read it. The captain tells the copilot to check the lights. They are at 2,000 feet. The captain tells the copilot to put the plane on autopilot.



The copilot and the rest of the flight crew did not use their resources well. They were all so focused on fixing the light no one noticed that someone bumped the wheel and disengaged the autopilot! The jet had been in a slow descent. No one noticed – they had a light bulb to worry about. The sky was black. The water and everglades below were also black. No reference to a horizon. The light is finally fixed. At this moment the pilot expects to be at 2,000 feet. Instead he is at 100 feet! He has twelve seconds to react – but he’s so task saturated, as are his two other crew members, that his pilot instincts are gone and in twelve seconds he and ninety-nine people die when the plane slams into the everglades.


Here is the 1st of four videos on YouTube that re-enact Eastern Airlines Flight 401:


(1/4) Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 (YouTube)



So, in today’s business climate, what can we learn from the lessons of Flight 401? First of all, assess yourself – are you in task saturation? If you are, it’s time to re-focus. Are you using your resources well? Pull your team together to re-assess the mission for your company or department. What shifts do you need to make to adapt in the current environment? Rather than pulling back, where can you invest time, money or resources towards objectives that move the organization forward? Managing a stable business is a lot easier than leading through a crisis. As leaders, we need to be courageous. The biggest risk of all is to do nothing. This economy WILL turn around. What investments are you making in yourself and in your employees to be ready?

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