Magazine article New Zealand Management

Communicating in a Crisis

Magazine article New Zealand Management

Communicating in a Crisis

Article excerpt

You might think the highly intelligent, highly educated denizens of the new knowledge economy are a 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 a 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 a 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 a 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 a situation to generate an effective solution--whether it's to bring a jumbo down safely, launch an ag-bio innovation in the international market, or sort out a machine breakdown on a 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 a team interacts. Do we value genuine collaboration or a 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. …

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