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Crew coordination: a pilot's perspective on managing a team



Every one of us will experience this in our careers: some teams fall apart when a roadblock or a crisis comes up, while other teams adapt and still reach the goals. But what explains the difference? What do the successful teams do differently?

We can gain some answers by looking at what happens when the consequences of team failure aren’t financial or social, but life-threatening. This is what happens in the air. Flying is an activity where most people focus their attention on the pilot and miss the hundreds of interactions of teams behind the scenes. Being a pilot for many years now, I have seen firsthand how nothing happens without the team, and the plans and coordination with that team that make the flight or mission a success.

There is an old adage in aviation that states, “Don’t ever let an aircraft take you someplace where your brain hasn’t arrived at least a couple of minutes earlier.” Speaking plainly: always have a plan.

But a plan is useless without those able to enact it. On an aircraft and on the ground, teams keep us moving forward. As pilots, we have crews for maintenance, coordination, and other assistance. These are our version of product teams, with the product being the big metal machine everyone would like to see stay aloft and get to where it’s supposed to go. We have common goals and threads, and we can't function without each other. Every business has teams, be they of two people or a dozen, and each one needs to be managed in the same way a crew needs to be managed.

In aviation, we call our overall process of team management Crew Resource Management, or Crew Coordination, and it significantly cuts down on errors. It is broadly defined as ‘the interaction of crewmembers necessary for the safe, efficient, and effective performance of tasks.’ What that means in non-manual talk: Plan to succeed, and make sure your team knows the plan.

But how do you really put those intentions and comments into action? Here are some elements of Crew Resource Management that can and should be applied in any team endeavor:

Announce actions. There is nothing worse than hearing a loud thud in the aircraft and not knowing where it came from. To ensure effective and well-coordinated actions, everyone must announce any actions that affect how anyone else on the team does his or her job. Don’t just start pushing buttons or moving controls without letting everyone else know. We all need to be aware of expected movements and unexpected individual actions. That mysterious thud is no less dramatic coming from an aircraft as it is from a shop floor or as a metaphorical one in a meeting room. Initiative is great, but it is an uncomfortable surprise when you find out someone on the team changed the order of the presentation you had to give to the board chairman. Make sure the right hand knows what the left is doing at all times. Similarly, acknowledge actions that are announced. This includes supportive feedback to ensure everyone correctly understands what is being accomplished. The best way to do this is to paraphrase critical parts of a message to verify you have a grasp on what is going on. And if you have a question about something, this is your opportunity to ask it.

Ask for assistance. If you need help, ask, and be sure to do so sooner rather than later. When flying, the pilot may realize he is becoming task saturated and ask his co-pilot or crewmember to look up a frequency or make a fuel calculation. In business, we develop teams to avoid similar task saturation. All team members, including leaders, need to be able to use the team to complete a task.

Offer assistance. If you see someone that needs help, offer it. As discussed, the success of the product depends on the whole team. This goes for an aircraft crew, which relies on maintenance and ground direction as much as (and sometimes more than) the pilot. The same holds true for development, engineering, and marketing working in tandem. We can’t afford silos and turf wars during a flight. No component is more important than the other, so if help is needed and you can provide it, work towards the common goal.

Be explicit. There is a famous aviation crash where the pilots confused meanings on what “full power” meant to what system, and it was a critical mistake. We can never assume. If I don’t tell you exactly what I want or need, then I’m leaving a large part of how the task is completed to chance. We should use clear terms and phrases and positively acknowledge vital information. Avoid using terms that have multiple meanings, and using “that thing,” “over there,” and other vague expressions. People work together best when they reinforce another. But in pressure situations, we must be as brief as possible to convey the message and then perform the necessary actions. Time is of the essence, especially in a crisis. Don’t waste it looking for the right words; a clear message should be enough to keep offense out of the equation.

Inconvenience the team now, not later. This one is at first a little tricky to take off the aircraft, where we would say “provide aircraft control and obstacle advisories”. But it still applies. Hazard identification is everyone’s responsibility. If there is something wrong, even in another department, you should speak up. A minor inconvenience now could save total system failure later.

Coordinate action sequence and timing. The proper sequencing, timing, and interaction of project pieces, crew, and the environment helps ensure that the actions of one team member mesh with the actions of the others. Timing isn’t everything, but it tends to make everything easier! This is the purpose of product and process management systems, and these are no less critical as your plans move forward. Tracking progress and movement can identify stopgaps and bottlenecks, and allow for better coordination between elements to make the process move smoothly.

Use authority, but wisely. Crew coordination and team management also remind us to always remember that the team leader sets the tone for the crew and maintains the working environment. Authority is there to make the final decision and keep the decision process moving, but not without everyone else chiming in so they feel involved. You’re a team of professionals: talk freely, value each other’s expertise and judgment, and handle conflicts in a professional manner. The listener should focus on the message and the task and not assume ill will or intent.

Crew management provides some very clear resources that can be taken off the aircraft and into the office. After all, chances are you are working in a team on some level. The better the team, the more successful the mission. Get your brain there first. Without clear, concise communication and planning, it is difficult to know where you will end up. Without being a valuable member of a good team, most people don’t even want to bother trying to make the trip.

Chris Thunder is a military public affairs specialist turned helicopter pilot with varied military and civilian experience. A writer for many years, he is now a freelance contributor to Present Tense LLC for sales and internal writing.

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