Companies & Industries

Are Your Change Leaders Managing Traffic?


Air traffic controllers in the control tower at the Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal.

Photograph by Patrick Doyle/Bloomberg

Air traffic controllers in the control tower at the Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal.

The opening scene of the 1999 movie Pushing Tin came to mind recently. The movie tells a fairly unremarkable story of a love triangle in a rather unusual setting—the world of the air traffic controller. In the opening scene, a manager approaches a controller to admonish him to step up his performance. He tells the controller, “Tower wants them out faster.” The controller responds in protest, “I’ve only got so much room; my airspace is finite.”

The scene came to mind as I was thinking about recent conversations with leaders from three different companies. Each conversation centered on the leader’s efforts to develop and execute more effective change management practices. And in each conversation I was struck by just how thoughtful each company’s approach to change management was—clearly they were all careful pupils of the methods outlined by change management gurus. Each leader described the work done to build the case for change, to assemble a team with the sufficient resources to get it done, to identify and celebrate early successes, and so on.

As they shared their stories with me, it became increasingly evident that the problem wasn’t in the approach to managing each individual change. Instead, what struck me was that the problem was analogous to the challenges associated with air traffic control.

The leaders I spoke with felt confident about their ability to get planes up in the air. In fact, companies often reward launching change efforts as “showing initiative.” But as the controller in Pushing Tin observed, air space is finite, and these leaders admitted they spend less time focusing on landing a complete initiative. They admitted that it was difficult to keep a change initiative at the gate until the system had space for it. In our conversations it became clear that change leaders received no guidance and consequently struggled to keep their efforts from running afoul of change efforts launched by other leaders. In an increasingly crowded sky, these change initiatives were wasting resources, just like jets circling an airfield burning fuel while waiting for their turn to land.

What’s missing from the change management process in these companies is air traffic control—a system to harmonize all the changes taking place. In aviation, the timing of takeoffs, the course of flight, the spacing of aircraft, and the order for landing are all—thankfully—carefully orchestrated by professionals operating in a system designed to do just that efficiently and safely. What if your company invested in someone who could function like an air traffic controller to harmonize change initiatives?

What makes the air traffic control system successful? The system succeeds when carefully designed and widely understood procedures about priorities, time, distance, and communication are followed. Do your employees have a deep understanding of the operating rules for change management “traffic” in your company?

What would a change traffic controller look like? Some fairly sensible ideas come from reading about the selection of the air traffic controller. It’s been said that job is one of the most stressful; that you are expected to be perfect on the first day and only get better after that. It is certainly a job where failure has serious consequences. The analogous position in your company likely won’t offer quite that same level of stress, but these keys to success in an air traffic position culled from a variety of sources do seem useful. Just imagine them in the context of all the change management that is taking place inside your company:

Spatial awareness—the ability to build, mentally, a three-dimensional picture of where each aircraft is relative to the others and to foresee any potential conflicts.

Simultaneous capacity—multitasking ranks in the top tier of characteristics that air traffic controllers must possess. Reading instruments, transmitting or receiving, and writing simultaneously are just part of the routine of controllers on duty.

Excellent memory—the task of controlling aircraft requires controllers to remember both distant and recent events. Multiplicity of air traffic control tasks competing for attention can easily interfere with one’s ability to remember.

Respect for the rules—they are the product of industry experience and conventional wisdom and as such are undoubtedly better than any single person’s judgment. Having respect for these will be a controller’s greatest asset.

Making decisions under pressure—air traffic controllers must think faster than an aircraft can fly. Every wasted minute brings conflicting aircraft dangerously close to one another.

Exercising effective personal authority—the word “control” can have meaning only if air traffic controllers exercise their authority effectively. Being resolute earns a controller respect and gives pilots confidence in his or her ability.

Paying attention to details—“never assume; determine” is a phrase that air traffic controllers have repeatedly heard and is synonymous with getting the details right.

Teamwork skills—air traffic controllers must work together like the proverbial chain to maintain the safe and orderly flow of traffic. One blunder in the order can replicate itself throughout the chain.

There are clearly similarities between the work done by leaders of change initiatives and air traffic controllers. In most companies, the importance of selecting the right change leader is well understood. Imagine the value that would be added to your company if there were someone with these characteristics in a position to harmonize efforts across myriad change initiatives. With such a person in place, traffic around change would be minimized, priorities met better, and resources more efficiently allocated.

Bennett is a Professor in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University.

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