In my previous post I discussed the implications of “scan” and why it was important to scan effectively to spot those nasty conflictors that are going to ruin the day. I shared an anecdote about how as a trainee Air Trafficker I nearly lost separation on the simulated aircraft that I was controlling and how poor scan allowed the problem to “sneak” up on me.
I described how I was just looking after one aircraft, but obviously, as a fully-fledged Air Traffic Controller, it isn’t always possible just to look after one plane at a time… If this was the case, we would probably have a country full of Air Traffic Control Officers because as a conservative estimate there are “a hell of a lot” of aeroplanes in the skies above us (try searching online for an answer to “How Many?” and see if you can do better than me I failed at actually nailing down a specific number!)
So, due to the “hell of a lot” scenario, it is a necessity that the Air Traffic Controller should control more than one aeroplane at a time. The actual number of aircraft handled does depend on a lot of factors such as type of airspace, type of radar service, weather etc. etc., but generally if you work by a rule of thumb that intensity does not necessarily equal complexity and vice versa it is fair to say that the Air Trafficker will find themselves working more than one aircraft!
But it isn’t only the actual controlling of the aircraft that the Air Traffic Controller needs to focus on. There are a multitude of other things going on, such as answering landline communications from other control agencies, making sure that the flight-strip is updated (the log that shows what is happening) and liaising with colleagues to co-ordinate flightpaths… to name but a few of the activities.
So the second core skill I am going to discuss is that of “Division of Attention” ie making sure that you are keeping everything safe and paying equal attention to all the things that you are responsible for.
If we return to the scenario of controlling the one aeroplane, it probably will be of no great surprise to learn that aside from the landline communications you can devote your time to your only aircraft and things should be pretty straightforward. However, add in the second, the third and fourth and life suddenly gets much more complex.
One would expect that increasing the number of aircraft by one wouldn’t increase the workload dramatically. Actually you are increasing the number of aircraft by 100%, but the workload will increase by much more. Add a third aircraft into the scenario and you are all of a sudden pretty damn busy. This is of course dependent on types of service, scenario etc. etc. As mentioned earlier intensity does not always equal complexity and vice versa.
As an Air Trafficker you are taught to divide your attention sequentially, ensuring that each of the aircraft under your control are safe. This actually becomes fairly natural, but at the beginning it is easy to get suckered in to concentrating on two and missing what is going on with the third. That is why simulation for trainees is vital, in order to hone these skills.
So what has all this to do with the Business Leader?
In an organisation there are a multitude of business operations. These can be selling and developing products, managing clients, maintaining the workforce, financial considerations etc. etc. The Business Leader needs to be able to divide their attention amongst all of the operations, failure to do so can be dangerous for the organisation.
For example, imagine that the organisation’s prime business interest is hosting software solutions and during a period of growth they gain several new client accounts. There is often a flurry of activity when onboarding a new client, they get lots of attention, may get visits on-site and are made to feel special, they get high levels of customer service and are happy. However, when more new clients are gained the focus may shift to onboarding them, the existing clients may feel that they have been left to get on with it. The existing client may get limited support and even less personal contact. What could happen with the existing client? Simple, they take their business elsewhere!
A real-life example of this are the vast amount of “deals” for new customers in the Banking, TV and Broadband marketplaces. New customers are attracted by discounts and fantastic packages. Existing customers get very little in the way of incentives and personal interaction (unless you count marketing emails and telephone calls trying to get you to part with even more cash – which I don’t!) It can feel like a lack of real attention and definitely no reward for loyalty to the brand. No wonder people swap suppliers… they aren’t just out for a good deal!
Dividing attention amongst all of the operations in an organisation can be difficult to achieve. Applying a systematic approach to dividing attention is crucial to make sure the Business Leader stays ahead of the game in all areas. There is no hard and fast rule about how to do this, but there are ways of staying ahead. In the simplest form for instance, if you had 20 clients, put a note in the diary to check in with them at intervals throughout the year, make that visit or call. Just because you haven’t heard from the client, doesn’t necessarily mean they are happy!!
By checking in on your product, the customers and your own teams, you are increasing your scan. Dividing your attention and applying scan (short, medium and long-term) to each of the areas ensures that you are always aware of what is going on and there is less likelihood of “dropping a ball” whilst you juggle the various business demands.
I’ll use an Air Traffic anecdote to demonstrate this. Back in the ATC simulators at ATC School my colleague, also a trainee, was having a “good” simulator session. He was on Zone, where you control transit aircraft from one place to another. He was pretty busy, but nevertheless was holding his own. The simulation finished and he sat back waiting for the debrief. The instructor pointed to the student’s flight strips and asked him to explain the flight profiles of each of the aircraft controlled during the session.
After describing the various tracks my trainee colleague noticed a problem. His heart sank, one strip remained unaccounted for and the aircraft was nowhere to be seen! The instructor widened the range of the radar screen and there was the student’s aircraft a good 20 miles south of the bottom of the radar tube. The aircraft hadn’t called and he hadn’t noticed the aeroplane track off the screen as his attention had been taken to resolve a complex situation with two other aircraft he was controlling in the north. Classic division of attention error… and lesson learned. Luckily, in a simulator and no harm done!
In the real world, when things are busy the Air Traffic Controller will have a Supervisor, may have an assistant and will have colleagues around to help. Not only that, but traffic levels are monitored to prevent individual controllers becoming overloaded.
A Business Leader may not have all of these aids to hand, therefore the systematic approach to dividing attention is vital to prevent things happening such as a client “going off the radar”. Another tool for the Business Leader is the art of delegation – not trying to do everything yourself!
Delegating responsibilities is uncomfortable for some people, but in order to divide attention correctly, especially in larger organisations, it is vital. Being able to divide attention amongst the people that have responsibility for each separate operation is easier to manage than being totally “hands-on” with everything.
Trusting those that are delegated to is equally as important. Very few people like to be micro-managed and in fact micro-management can actually drive underperformance, as those delegated to feel the need to double-check all of their actions – or even feel the need to cover one’s own posterior! The fine-line between being there to support and being too hands on may be difficult to achieve, but this is where a systematic approach to dividing attention and maintaining a good scan really comes into its own.
Communicating with those that have responsibilities delegated to them can be seriously neglected. Although the need to communicate may seem obvious, it is amazing how many times it can be weeks or months before business critical information reaches leaders. Dividing attention equally amongst those that have been delegated to is of paramount importance.
I have seen many organisations where regular one-to-one meetings are scheduled in between leaders and those that have responsibilities delegated to them. Unfortunately, it is too often the case that for various reasons these meetings get cancelled, moved, shortened or focus on everything but the relevant subjects.
The net result is that scan is not as effective as it should be and without the leadership having oversight of all of the various business components there is an increased opportunity for neglecting a product, customer, staff member or system and potentially losing that component forever.
Also, going back to the trust point, it is equally important that those with duties delegated to them take responsibility for ensuring that they report what is going on, understanding what to raise as an issue and when. So if you are in the position where your one-to-one meetings keep getting bumped for other “important” things, make sure that you re-book it and check-in. A small change such as this makes everyone equally responsible for dividing their own attention and using scan effectively and correctly.
At the end of the day business, like Air Traffic Control, is a team game… more about teams in a later piece.
In the next posts I will build on “scan” and “division of attention” even further and introduce the core skills of planning, priorities and workrate.
Disclaimer: 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. Graphics by www.flaticon.com