The plane that was flown by 500 pilots


Didier Marlier

February 28, 2010

From Disruption to Engagement

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This week, we will cover the second feature of “Intelligent/Organic enterprises”, after last week’s “Strong and shared sense of Purpose”.

A permanent feedback loop: Staying with the human body metaphor: the only way to compensate for the lack of a centralized governing body (is it the heart, brain, nervous system???) is for all the components, aligned on the shared Purpose, to receive permanent feedback, indicating whether or not they are deviating from the line. Ginger Graham explains[1] how she installed simple and effective feedback processes when she became CEO at Guidant, by “assigning non executive coaches to senior managers to drum up grassroots feedback”.

In the clip below, also borrowed from Ernst & Young’s “Embracing Complexity”, we see Kevin Kelly (one of the “gurus” of the now old “New Economy”) inviting a room of 500 people to pilot a plane on a simulator. 250 persons command through their individual joystick the lateral movement of the plane (all joysticks are linked to a computer, which will “average” the orders given by the pilots) and the other 250 control the vertical movements. They are supposed to fly through four targets… fasten your seatbelts (with renewed apologies for poor picture)…

So what can we notice?

There is a clear and shared Purpose: Fly this plane trough four targets.

The feedback is permanent (they see themselves fly and the immediate results of their collective actions) and directly related to the purpose (going through the targets). The feedback is meaningful, as people know how to interpretate it and immediately act on it (they do not need further instructions nor permission from Kevin in order to take corrective action)

Finally, you may have noticed the style and tone of intervention of Kevin Kelly: he controls his own anxiety rather than transmit it to the audience. With light touches of humour, a relaxed and sometimes firm tone, he directs his 500 pilots team towards success. My partners and I have sometimes used a comparable simulator in various organizations. We were almost always capable of guessing whether or not the flight would be successful, based on the capacity to let go of control needs of the leader in charge of the maneuver. Each time a “control freak” was I charge, the flight was rather bumpy, as he was seeking to control the feedback mechanism, showing little trust and respect to his troops (we suspect in some cases, some of the pilots to voluntarily play the kamikaze as this was probably their way of giving feedback to their anxious and autocratic leader…). Each time, we discretely had to jump in support of the exhausted leader and bring the plane and crew safely home On the contrary, when the leaders had taken some time to build a compelling and engaging reason for succeeding in the exercise (rather than order the people to fly through four targets), had ensured the pilots understood the feedback loop and how they could act on its results and used a “Kelly like” style and language, the mission was accomplished.

In more general terms, designing a permanent feedback loop process that will enable the organism to become intelligent and self-adaptive means:

  • Identifying a few Purpose related indicators and ensure they are widely and regularly understood/updated/communicated
  • Developing our people so that they understand what could impact positively and negatively the organism and its purpose. If our people understand this, they will live, breathe and “be” the Purpose of the firm. They will act and behave as early warning systems and propose new ways, ideas and initiatives that support the company’s Purpose
  • The language of the leaders should reflect the Purpose and indicators in a way to permanently reinforce its existence and message.

Very grateful for the discussions I had in São-Paulo with fourteen forward looking CEO’s and bankers at Banco Santander Brasil already amazingly preparing themselves for the “Open Economy”. On my way to Zürich and Germany for reflecting on engaging leadership…

Have a great week all Didier

[1] G.L. Graham “If you want honesty break some rules” H.B.R. April 2002

1 Comment

  1. Leen de Waal

    Hi DIdier,

    again: intersting line of thought! Combining 500 Pilots, with an open economy gets you towards the organisation you’ll see in this video: , please look at the video, and what happens as of two minutes into the video. What you’ll see is truly amazing, and must inspire you for the combination both topics.

    The idea is the way these starlings fly, is seemingly pointless…. However, as the voice-over explains, the birds have a very clear goal and sense of purpose! But what’s more important they apparently are able to organise themselves perfectly according to local rules (bottom-up as we probably would say. The starlings never collide, and keep similar distances, as you can tell by the clear cut edges of the figures they form. There is no leader ‘directing’ them, though they are able to form perfect organisations…. what does this tell us? Apparently each single bird does as it is supposed to do according to its own/local rules, and though they cannot predict where the neighbor will fly, the never collide….. Extremely interesting!

    Should you want to read more on this topic: Richard Dawkins, The greatest show on Earth (esp. ch 8), Dawkins tries to prove evolution must be true; and no matter what your own opinion is, definitely worthwile reading material, and I’m currently figuring out what this stuff means for people in organisations.

    Leen de Waal



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