The plane doesn’t know about the manual

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The title of this blog is a phrase I heard from my father-in-law over the weekend. As a pilot and check airman, he’s spent a large portion of his career teaching himself and others about flight. And how to operate some of the biggest planes in the American Airlines fleet.

The aforementioned phrase is something he uses as an instructor when people wonder aloud why he’s asked about a specific scenario or problem, that’s a little out of the norm for either verbal or written exams. And in many cases, the test takers have prepped for the exam by memorizing known questions to be asked or via rote memory of the plane’s manual. Such a phenomenon is prevalent in almost every educational system in the world where students often learn just for the test. My father-in-law’s point, which is of extreme importance in his field, is you need to understand the big picture. Not all of the answers are in the manual. During any given flight, the human portion, the hardware or technology components or even the weather can conspire to go outside the bounds presented in any manual. He needs his students to process what he’s asking, think through the problem, and attack the potential solutions using the tools and the knowledge at their disposal. This enables the pilots that are flying me and other passengers to Omaha, No Cal, etc. with a more a repeatable approach to seeking answers, rather than just reacting to the answer they recalled in the manual.

It’s very similar to strategy case interview or review board like situation. Although the presence of the interviewers adds to the stress (like being 30K in the air!), at its core, it’s a thinking exercise. The process leans heavily on taking the information presented, digesting it, and then applying your real world understanding of the big picture to create a suitable solution. Interviewers are trying to understand how you think. What details do you use and what do you discard to create a solution. A perfect answer would great, but a well though out analytical approach is even better. Because it’s repeatable.

In my consulting career, whether that has been in process, strategy or even technology development work, I encounter similar situations where I’m working with clients who are actually paralyzed by their own thinking. And possibly paralyzed in part by the very processes designed to help. Governance and SDLC processes are good examples of how the process itself can become an impediment to truly new thinking. When I ask the question, “Why?”, a typical response might be “because it’s always been done that way”. Or more tersely, “because”.  Such clients are stuck in a rut of only thinking through what’s in the manual. Their processes have become that manual. If it’s not in the manual, it’s not part of the solution.

And that’s the issue. For the most part, the most difficult situations require what’s learned for just the test COMBINED with creative and analytical thinking. There are rarely perfect answers, but often many workable solutions. But you have to be able to take a step back, consider the big picture and work through the situation methodically. It’s not an easy process for many companies, but those companies that  can go beyond strictly relying on the comfort of the manual for answers are the most likely to come up with big hairy audacious game changing products, services and/or processes.

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