OPINION LEADERS Communicating in a Crisis

You might think the highly intelligent, highly educated denizens of the new knowledge economy are world apart from the highly stratified, highly trained flight crews of the airline industry. But the research I do on organisational communication shows that both groups have the same end goal: they have to collaborate to come up with creative and effective solutions. And in some cases they need to do that very quickly indeed.
In 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 survived catastrophic in-flight engine explosion thanks to the crew’s ability to communicate while under crisis conditions. It’s one of the most famous examples of creativity in crisis: after one of the engines exploded, destroying the jumbo jet’s hydraulic systems, the crew plus an off-duty pilot on the flight managed to fly the plane on its remaining two engines, using thrust alone to steer. The subsequent crash landing saved 184 of the 296 passengers and crew from what should have been non-survivable situation.
The stakes might not be so high for R&D teams, senior management teams, or strategic planners, but the principles of collaboration and adaptivity are the same. Teams have to be able to adapt quickly to situation to generate an effective solution – whether it’s to bring jumbo down safely, launch an ag-bio innovation in the international market, or sort out machine breakdown on production line. To do this, teams need to be able to step out of routine patterned behaviour and switch into creative mode.
So what can we learn from the Flight 232 aircrew? Three former US aircraft pilots and I put our heads together to analyse how the flight team communicated during this crisis. We found several key elements common to the success of teams that operate like airline flight crews: short duration teams whose members are highly trained and intelligent, but who have little familiarity with each other. These teams we called “swift-starting action teams”.
First, team members, and particularly the leaders, must honestly value collaboration. We don’t normally think about communication in terms of values, but we can think of it like setting the ground rules for the way team interacts. Do we value genuine collaboration or hierarchical command structure? On Flight 232, the team’s interaction showed that from the outset the captain personally valued candid input from the rest of the flight crew.
He also displayed reciprocity – by this I mean he walked the talk. He not only signalled that he wanted the other crew members to contribute ideas, he also responded to their suggestions in an open, genuine manner that showed he valued the success of the collaboration.
This is all very touchy-feely and some might be thinking that somebody has to be in charge, to take responsibility for the situation. But remember the kind of people we’re dealing with: these are highly skilled, highly trained individuals, and they need certain kinds of conditions in order to come up with creative solutions. You’ll find creativity doesn’t easily emerge in hierarchical environment. In fact, establishing an environment of openness and trust (we’re back to values again) is crucial to creative thinking.
So how can an organisation go about establishing these patterns of communication so that in the event of crisis it’s well positioned to come up with creative solutions? In the airline industry, pilots are given specific training on things like inviting responses from subordinates and accepting criticism. This shows that you can practise and learn these skills, and that you can learn the value of the intangible, touchy-feely stuff.
It’s also important to incorporate these intangible aspects into the way we assess outcomes. We’re so used to seeing outcomes in terms of profits or productivity, it can be hard to identify the more intangible outcomes such as success in accessing intellectual capital. People’s ability to interact is also form of creating value, and it’s the key to creating adaptive capacity within an organisation.
I’m now working on extending this thinking into new areas, such as the fusion of technology and moving technology into new markets through enhancing intangible productivity and assets. The question I’m asking is: What are the kinds of values upon which such groups will build systems of interaction and communication? This goes beyond the traditional bottom line, but as Flight 232 shows, it’s the key to unleashing people’s creativity. And it’s in new thinking, new ideas, new solutions to new problems that, ultimately, will be where the greatest value to business lies.

James Barker is the new professor of organisational theory and strategy at Waikato Management School. He comes to New Zealand via the US Air Force Academy and Marquette University in the United States.

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