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Andrew Telling

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Terry Wogan, a Korean Air Disaster and the Art of Management

Posted: 13/09/11 19:05

Terry Wogan was right. Nobody knows anything in our business. Of course, he was referring to the radio industry and, having worked in it for many years, I would absolutely concur. But I think that observation can be applied further afield.

I find management a curious thing. Humans are endemically fallible and so a situation where an individual is given complete autonomy is both perplexing and dangerous. This is not unfounded speculation because I'm 'against the system,' or 'hate authority'; on the contrary, somebody has to take a basic level of responsibility otherwise nothing would ever be achieved. This belief has evolved over the years as a result of my own observations and those witnessed vicariously through others.

I suspect you've seen it before. At the Company X staff meeting, Manager Y tells you that it absolutely and categorically has to be done a specific way. He or she is certain that Competitor Z is doing it wrong and all the research supports the fact that doing it any other way would lead to certain failure. But then Manager Y is offered more power and remuneration so leaves to join the Competitor Z, who he or she openly berated, while Manager W is hired to run Company X and immediately undermines everything Manager Y has said revealing that the other way is, in fact, far better. And in the meantime, employees have to go along with it, despite days earlier being told it would lead to abject ruination.

And this is an endemic problem. The world of management is rife with contradiction as these senior individuals steer the ship towards a vision of their own making oblivious to the fact that they are human and are therefore riddled with error. I mean, think about it. One person with all of the answers all of the time? Surely incredibly rare if plausible at all.

What, then, is a simple, workable solution to this problem?

In 1997, Korean Air Flight 801 crashed on Nimitz Hill in Asan on approach to Won Pat International Airport. Of the 254 people on board, only 26 survived. The reason for the disaster was both fascinating and profound. The aeroplane ran in to a problem as a result of pilot error and despite the co-pilot observing this error, it would have been seen as a mark of disrespect to challenge his superior. So the aircraft crashed unnecessarily.

Following the tragedy, the culture at Korean Air changed completely. The hierarchy of pilot and co-pilot remained, but cultural deference was eradicated from the cockpit allowing freedom to challenge decisions if they are deemed inappropriate or in contrast to the safety of the flight. In fact, this is now a situation replicated among all airlines.

Modern day dynamics of an aircraft cockpit, therefore, serve as a logical and sensible template for modern day management. It would be refreshing to have a situation where management was not seen as the be-all and end-all decision making machine, pushing the business and employees in to a maze of ill founded and contradictory avenues. It would be refreshing to remove the certainty of human fallibility by allowing other minds freedom to voice their concerns; many subordinates have predicted the demise of a business idea long before their superiors.

Naturally, this will make many managers feel uncomfortable. It's hard for them to invite feedback or embrace wisdom from the office junior; ego and all sorts of other insecurities will be prevalent in those situations. But it's a manager's job to ensure things are done well and allowing others a space to contribute, suggest and challenge is all part doing things well. And if they really care about the company, the wisdom of Terry Wogan coupled with the lessons from a Korean air disaster will resonate with every key decision being made.

 

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