In my introduction to this series I wrote about how the core skills of the Air Traffic Controller could potentially be adapted and embedded into business. In this part I will introduce some of the fundamentals of what these core skills are and how they may relate to you and the world you work in. If you haven’t seen the introduction you can access it here
It would be easy to write these posts if each of these skills are exclusive and that if you don’t use one you would be OK. The fact is that each of the core skills is reliant on the other, so I would suggest giving these posts a read and a re-read to fully appreciate how they link together. The first core skill I’m going to talk about is “scan.”
Whilst writing this piece I can still hear my Air Traffic instructor’s voice on my first Radar simulation session. One of the scariest words a trainee Air Trafficker may hear from an Instructor is “Scan” … Normally a sign that they have seen something and you haven’t!
I recall my instructors broad Yorkshire accent resonating in my ears as I hear the word “Scan!” Now at this point being a complete newbie I’m only controlling one simulated blip on the screen and he was prompting me to look around… to look around the whole radar tube… look to the east, the west, the north, the south… I was being given a BIG hint… look for the conflicting blip that was going to erode separation with my aircraft and make the situation unsafe.
“Scan Lad!” comes the Yorkshire accented voice again… a cold, yet sweaty feeling grows in the palms of my hands… The second time that word is said to you, you know for definite there is a big threat to your aircraft… eyes now on stalks you look around and around, face getting closer and closer to the radar tube (like that really helps?) Then, in a slightly more agitated tone I hear the word “SCAN!!!” again… For what only seemed like nanoseconds (but was probably nearer to five) I search around the screen again and then I spot it!
Oh “@£$#!!” goes through my head as I issue a rather frantic “AVOIDING ACTION” transmission to my simulated blip... The blip (under the control of a simulator “blip-driver” at the end of the “radio”) initiates the 90 degree turn as requested and I just get away with the 5 miles’ horizontal separation that is required as the conflicting simulated aircraft that “sneaked” up on mine from behind passes safely.
In reality this aircraft that “sneaked” up hadn’t actually been “sneaking” at all. It had been there since the start of the simulator session, gradually tracking up the screen and closing in on my aeroplane. Despite the helpful hints provided by my instructor I had simply failed to spot it… Obvious to the experienced controller, but not to me at the time.
My “aircraft” of course is now heading in completely the wrong direction and I’ve actually created a whole host of new issues for myself, not to mention delaying my “aeroplane” by sticking in a right-angled dog-leg and giving it a tour of the simulated airspace over the “Vale of York!” Why? Simple really, poor scan and a healthy lesson learned in a safe simulated environment.
But what has this delightful (and slightly painful from a personal point of view) anecdote got to do with a Business Leader?
Scan is fundamental to safety. Yes, in the case of aircraft this is so very important so as not to end in a catastrophe, but it is important to an organisation too. Scanning effectively can be applied to a number of areas in the business world both inside the organisation and externally. Just knowing how far to scan is also a skill and very much dependent on the pace that you are moving at, the pace of the business and the pace of your competitors.
Applying scan to your business means looking at what is going on around you now (short range scan), what can affect in a few weeks or months (medium range scan) and what is coming in the future (long range scan.) That means, looking at it from a 360-degree perspective and also maybe from three dimensions!
Pace alters how you scan. It is fair to say that in the digital age there are new innovations coming on to the market daily and operating in a global landscape that alters 24/7 is challenging, even to the corporate giants. However, adjusting your scan range to your own circumstances or market is very important and ideally being able to manage your scan effectively between short, medium and long-term will undoubtedly produce the best results.
What do I mean by this? Well, for example if you are operating in an IT product arena, it could be that you are having to innovate at a rapid rate. With changes in the digital landscape, competitors will also be travelling at a fast pace. Reacting quickly to new product innovations is probably essential and scanning the fast movers all around (including those that you thought were behind you!) will keep you a few steps ahead.
So how does safety fit in? Without effective scan and adjusting your business course according to the “conflictors” that may be out there, could result with your own business catastrophe. There are many cases where a business has kept with the same tried and tested product or model failing to look at what is happening in the medium and long term and they have reacted too late, resulting with catastrophic business failure.
For example, a well-known wet-film photographic services company that failed to recognise the impact that digital photography would have on their market found themselves playing catch-up, and there was an equally well-known high street video renting retailer that failed to see the onset of on-demand or film streaming services and suffered hugely. Admittedly, there were other factors that led to these companies having such difficulties, but failure to scan effectively was almost certainly a contributing factor.
Short range scan is equally important. In Air Traffic terms the conflictor that appeared from nowhere and was conflicting with your aircraft was known as “pop-up” traffic (all to do with the levels that radar can see down to which increases with distance… but I won’t go into the theory of primary radar limitations here!)
In business terms, there may be “pop-up” threats that just seem to appear from nowhere, a company that starts offering the same product, a new innovation that suddenly makes your product less attractive, one of your key suppliers going bust, a critical systems failure in the office. All of these sort of scenarios need immediate action.
In the example of the simulated blip, a good “avoiding action” turn managed to save the day… but at what cost?
In business, a 90-degree turn to the left or the right (ie change of strategic or operational direction) when the business problem appears may just be a little too late to be fully effective. That isn’t to say that the business wouldn’t get away with it, but the risks increase as does the potential impact.
To use another aviation analogy, imagine you are sat on your Jumbo Jet, on your way to somewhere exotic, G&T in hand and not a care in the world… If the pilot put in a tight 90-degree turn, it wouldn’t feel nice, you may even spill your G&T! Now imagine you are sat there and the pilot does a gentle 10-degree turn, you probably wouldn’t even notice!
A huge business change is unsettling, like a 90-degree sharp turn for an aeroplane, the change in direction for the business is uncomfortable, anything unforeseen causes unease for all those involved and it may leave your customers and staff feeling slightly bemused… not to mention, a lack of confidence in the organisations ability to spot a problem earlier!
Having an effective scan, helps to minimize that risk. Sure, in the case of a supplier going bust for example, immediate action would be required. But this is also linked with planning and division of attention (see later posts on those topics!)
It is worth adding that in the Air Traffic “avoiding action” instruction, the direction was given followed immediately afterwards by “…traffic was [position, height]” This is important and worth taking into the business world. It is all about good communication ie the pilot was given the reason for the change and understands the importance!
So often in businesses there are major changes of strategic or operational direction and the reasons for the changes are not communicated to those affected. Communicating the reason for a change is embedded in every change theory that you can read, yet organisations still fail to communicate effectively. I will leave the subject of good communication to a later post as there is far too much to cover on the subject here.
Of course a much better solution to reduce the number of hard turns is to employ good scan continuously. Spotting the problem early could mean only having to do a minor course change, which later down the line reaps greater benefits and positions you or your organisation well away from the problem. A minor change of direction should still be communicated but is likely to be less disruptive and gives you more time to plan the next step… Not to mention preventing G&T spillage!
There is much more to add to scan and in the next post I introduce another of the core skills “Division of Attention” and build on what I’ve discussed in this post.
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The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the UK Government. Examples given are from personal experience and should be viewed as only examples.Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any UK government entity.