Thinking like a Pilot Creates a Better Organizational Culture

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If you fire people for making mistakes, no one will ever admit to their mistakes. This is just a fact of life. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator. It’s why people are reluctant to expose their mistakes, especially within an organizational culture that rejects so-called weakness. In most organizations, this element of human nature is compounded by the fact that most managerial routines do not designate any time for learning or provide tools for sharing knowledge. It is easy to understand why errors recur regularly.

We are living in an intensive world where far more of our time is spent in the “performance zone,” as learning expert Eduardo Briceño describes it, than the scant time we spend in the “learning zone.” Time spent learning is often seen as a luxury in the face of daily tasks. Quite simply, most organizations don’t provide the opportunity to talk about mistakes, share them, and thus learn from them. 

As a jet fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, you learn quickly that mistakes are an important currency for self-improvement and team building. The field of flight is based on a culture of learning which relies on self debriefing, a fact that has helped make the IAF one of the best outfits in the world. By adopting the self-debriefing method, it is able to train its pilots to the highest standards much faster than most other air forces, and over time has seen a significant reduction in accidents. With continual improvement built into its mission statement, the Israeli Air Force delivers what should be every CEO’s dream — quality, safety, and training integrated in one culture.

Thinking like a pilot makes it possible for an organization to achieve continuous improvement in a starved time environment and create a culture of excellence, accountability and transparency. You can quickly change an organization’s culture, often in little as a few weeks, by turning mistakes into learning opportunities and success. To get there, it requires a multi-step process that includes: 

Step 1: Organize your debriefing teams around their daily “flights” 

It’s essential that teams share one central mission that provides the opportunity to learn from one another. Sharing revolves around whatever specific daily task constitutes the team’s core activity, whether it be sales meetings, customer service calls, or surgical procedures. This is the “flight” to be debriefed by each team member, regardless of its quality or outcome. 

Step 2: Keep debriefings short, simple, and routine 

The process begins with self debriefings, personal reports written in five minutes or less by individual team members immediately after their “flights.” These reports are sent as soon as possible to the whole team, and become the basis of team debriefings, brief meetings that allow colleagues to ask for elaboration and offer feedback. Team managers may also share their professional opinions and experiences to broaden the team’s learning. Note that it is crucial to teach teams in advance how to give positive feedback, so debriefings won’t turn into platforms for complaints and discord. 

Step 3: Take personal responsibility for your learning

Each debriefer may speak only about their own performance and responsibility for the event being debriefed—never anyone or anything else. This means that individuals can’t bring up  their managers, subordinates, and peers, nor even the weather, traffic jams, and airline delays. 

Step 4: Focus on the key factors to learn from 

Each “flight” should not only be limited to the event at hand, but also zero in on just one or two key elements of the event, defined briefly, with no long background stories. The debriefing should clearly answer the one most important question: “What happened?” For example, that answer might be “we didn’t close the deal,” or “we delivered the order one month late.” 

Step 5: Determine exactly what you’ll do differently next time

“I’ll do it better next time” is not an effective conclusion. A vague conclusions like “I need to make my presentation shorter” is unlikely to ensure improvement. Instead, conclusions should outline applicable and measurable actions, such as “I’ll delete slides #2 through #6, condense slides #10 through #15,  delete slides #18 and #20, and combine slides #21 through #27.”   

Step 6: Lose your fear of the term “error”

In addition to the practical process of debriefing, a new mindset is required. Teams must accept that there is something to learn from everything they do, whether it’s completely successful or falls short of the mark. In this context, the term “error” is most emphatically not a matter of blame or accusation, but instead a valuable tool for learning. Once this approach is adopted, it becomes much easier—and more productive—to talk about disappointing outcomes.

Results of the team learning model

When individual team members share their perceptions with the entire team, knowledge flows more easily from one person to another, elevating the overall level of team communication and collaboration. Significantly increased openness results in a newfound ability to learn from mistakes, which in turn generates an outcome-oriented discourse on ways to achieve measurable improvement in your “flight.” 

Greater transparency and accountability enable teams to draw conclusions much more quickly, and subsequently implement changes that will improve their processes much sooner, whether their goal is greater customer satisfaction, for instance, or higher sales quotas. As a result, the entire effort to improve processes becomes shorter and more efficient, and the rate of error repetition decreases.

And, as a byproduct, managers often benefit from the large amount of information they obtain through this model, providing them with the knowledge and opportunity to improve their team’s work. But most of all, managers attest to getting a “new team” and “a new culture,” one in which people learn from their mistakes and share them with colleagues as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The more we acknowledge and share errors, the more we’ll be able to avoid them in the future.

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