Emergency Landing – Leading through Crisis

“Ladies and Gentlemen, with the loss of our right engine we are still able to fly safely, please do not worry, but we will be making an emergency landing…immediately.”  These words were calmly uttered by the Captain of my flight a few weeks ago coming home from a business trip in Panama City, Florida. No matter how seasoned a traveler I thought I had become, hearing a tremendous BANG and feeling the plane roll slightly right and then left, are not things I want to experience anytime soon.  The nervous energy from me and my fellow passengers could be cut with a knife, yet the plane was eerily quiet until we touched down safely and the plane erupted in applause!

Although the experience was stressful, it offered me the opportunity to reflect on a number of areas in my life, including, how I respond to crises. My reactions in this case were deep breaths, and abiding faith that the Captain and First Officer were completely in control of the situation.  I also recalled a lecture in graduate school by Captain Al Haynes on crisis management.  In 1989, Captain Haynes was piloting United Flight 232, a full flight with over 300 passengers, when the engine exploded and shrapnel cut all hydraulic fuel lines used to control the aircraft. Although this was a catastrophic failure, Captain Haynes managed to remain calm at the helm, speak plainly and directly to the passengers about the magnitude of the problem, and crash-land the plane in Sioux City, Iowa. His efforts that day are credited with saving the lives of 185 passengers.  I will never forget Captain Haynes telling his story and teaching us how to lead through any crisis.

The interesting point is that the same principles can be applied in any situation where the unexpected occurs. As a facilitator, the response is not typically a matter of life or death, but it can feel that way. We have all been in the situation where something occurs that no one expected and you are called to lead through it. Captain Haynes is a remarkable man and I want to share some of the lessons I learned from him on responding to any crises.

1. Fly the plane – In the face of emergency, the first thing to do is to take control of the yoke.  Statistics over the years have accounted a number of tragedies that are the result of pilots focusing only on solving the emergency and losing perspective that even though an emergency has occurred, the plane needs to be flown. The problem is that if the focus is only on the emergency and someone has not taken over the yoke, the plane will spiral out of control and crash. When emergency strikes, remember to fly the plane.

As a facilitator, if something completely unexpected occurs while you are leading a session, remember that if you only focus on the problem you may lose sight of the larger perspective. For example, a participant launches into a tirade.  Focusing only on the words of the tirade and becoming personally offended will get you no where.  As the facilitator, participants are always expecting you to land them safely regardless of what happens.  Address the situation that presents itself but do not get so caught up in the problem that you lose perspective on your ultimate goals

2. Stay calm – When you listen to the flight recording of Captain Haynes and the control power that day, it is eerie how calm he sounds even though he is confronted with a scenario that was considered virtually impossible. At that time, airlines had no mitigation plan for dealing with the type of situation where all hydraulic fuel lines are unusable. Captain Haynes told us that he knew the situation was dire, but he refused to panic because this would only make the situation worse.  How often have we heard the advice to stay calm and do not panic when faced with an emergency?  It’s good advice – when one allows their nerves to control them in crises they may become disoriented, unclear in their thinking, and may even act out of fear instead of reason.

Apply the same principle as a facilitator to remain calm regardless of the situation. When we are calm, we are able to think more clearly and provide direction based on our knowledge, understanding, and skills. As a leader, displaying calm can also help to soothe and settle those who are anxious around you.

3. Be direct with people – Captain Haynes is heard on the cabin intercom telling the passengers, “I’m not going to kid you…We have a serious situation.”  Captain Haynes was direct and honest with the people on the airplane.  When the Captain is straightforward, people are able to respond accordingly. Knowing the impact of the plane hitting the ground was going to be rough, he told them to brace for a landing that would be harder than anything they’d ever experienced.  This allowed the people to prepare. Survivors also said that hearing the Captain’s calm voice allowed them to be reassured that he would do everything in his power to land the plane safely.

As a facilitator, be direct with people. In the example of the tirade by an angry participant, ignoring the problem will not make it go away.  There are a whole bunch of reasons why a participant may be acting out, but addressing the person or their concerns directly is a best practice; otherwise, the problem may only become worse.

4. Prepare, prepare, prepare –  Captain Haynes was prepared for addressing any emergency in flight. He practiced, trained, and studied the variety of scenarios that could occur in flight.  Although this situation was unique, Captain Haynes continually adjusted and responded to the changing conditions of the situation using all of the resources at his disposal. At one point, an airline flight instructor sitting in first class (Dennis Fitch) offered his assistance which Captain Haynes gladly accepted.

Preparation is a key ingredient for success.  If you think through, anticipate, and plan for the unexpected, you are better able to respond to any crises. Good preparation involves practicing your actions and responses, so when situations arise, you have already gone through the experience, even if only in your mind.

What are some methods you employ to deal with stressful situations?

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Brainstorming: A Complete Waste of Time?

So you walk into a meeting and he or she (meaning your boss, a consultant, facilitator, whomever…) asks you to participate in a quick brainstorm session.  They introduce the topic and tell you to think up as many ideas as you can as quickly as possible.  No idea is a bad idea, they announce, and there will be no criticizing others’ ideas. Ready, begin!  After all, this is the best way to get the creative juices flowing and introduce more and better ideas.  Right?brainstorm word cloud

Well, maybe not.

Just today, several of my long-held assumptions about the power of the classic brainstorm were put on trial by an article sent over to me from a client and friend, Andrew McKee.  In that article, Jonah Lehrer writes that even though brainstorming has become “the most widely used creativity technique in the world… there is a problem with [it].  It doesn’t work.”  He says that the underlying assumptions about brainstorming – that to defer criticism will breed creativity and open people up, for example – just don’t hold water.  Experience doesn’t back it up.

Can this possibly be true?  Professionally I facilitate brainstorm sessions all the time.  And even on a personal level (like when I don’t want my wife to tell me that my brilliant idea won’t actually work in the real world), I’ll preface my comments with “I’m just brainstorming here…”

So, according to Lehrer, is the problem with how the brainstorm session is set up, or with group collaboration altogether?

Lehrer goes on to describe the best template for creativity.   He endorses group collaboration, but suggests (through studies and examples) that open criticism and debate actually infuse creativity, leading to more and better solutions.  He adds that the composition of the group matters – “enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways” – and cites numerous examples to back it up.

Frankly, I’m not sure I buy all of this. I have seen many valuable brainstorm sessions – ones that truly unleash the creative power of bright minds. And I believe there are many who are empowered to speak up when they know their ideas won’t be criticized.  Still, I completely agree with the diversity of perspective, the need to foster debate, and the value of encouraging informal connections.

Where do you stand? Does a no-criticism brainstorm session lead to a false feeling of productivity, with no real value?  Maybe there’s a different approach altogether. I’m interested to know how we can reap the benefits of a dynamic brainstorm while improving the quality of the ideas.