Remember the Air France flight 447 crash in 2009? In early July of this year, BEA--the French government's official investigators--released its final report on the incident. I followed the news closely not only because I'm interested in aviation, but also because the outcome struck me as particularly relevant to business.

The tragic accident killed 216 passengers and 12 crew members when it crashed on its way from Brazil to France. The investigators discovered that two things happened: a technology failure and pilot error. There is still a debate over what ultimately caused the crash. But I see a bigger problem: a culture in which pilots were so accustomed to relying on technology and automation that when something went wrong, they didn't know how to fall back on basic training and common sense.

It's a problem that afflicts entrepreneurs, too: Sometimes technology won't get you out of a crisis. What you really need are basic survival skills.

Simpler Times

GPS didn't exist back in college when I learned to fly outside of Washington, DC. You learned "dead reckoning"--a skill that was taught as an important part of learning how to navigate. Because my father was a highly experienced private pilot, I came to flying already with a good sense of stick-and-rudder control--the hand/eye/body coordination that pilots come to gain overtime.

Even in a crisis, there is a simplicity to flying that can be distilled to a few key instruments and concepts that help a pilot maintain control of an aircraft: airspeed, level flight, altitude, and ascent/descent. While GPS and high-tech auto-pilot systems can bring tremendous efficiencies to the process of flying, they also can give a false sense of security that encourages complacency. If something goes wrong, the auto-pilot will adjust and the computer will tell you where to go, won't it?

Here is where technology has the ability to distract pilots--and entrepreneurs--from asking themselves if they're both focused on and capable of solving the right problems.

Did Technology Trump Basic Management Skills? 

Airbus has been criticized for creating its A330 (the plane involved in the Air France crash) in a way that removes pilots from the basic nuts and bolts of flying and instead makes them focus on technology management. But this cultural shift is not just limited to aviation--it applies to almost any other industry.

Technology has the ability to create marvelously accurate and elegant systems. But all too often, the people using these systems start to view them as infallible and thus, they stop looking for potential pitfalls.

After reading about the moments leading up to the crash, it is clear that the pilots flying Air France flight 447, were confused and did not understand what was happening. They believed that the technology just couldn't be wrong--it wouldn't let the plane react in a dangerous way--and so they lost their ability to properly identify and manage the crisis.

Getting Back to Basic Business Survival Skills 

The bigger your business gets and the more technology you rely on, the more you need to be vigilant about not letting automation co-opt your decision-making process. You must be in control, not the machines. Here are some good reminders to help analyze how good your basic business survival skills would be if your systems went down:

  • Financial: Do you understand how you make money in your business? Can you reduce this to the most basic elements? What technology do you use to confirm this? Could you determine where you were if the technology was not there or failed?
  • Financial: Do you understand the basic structure of accounting? If your accounting system or your accountant were gone, would you know what your business is doing? Would you know how to get to a place where you could rebuild this?
  • Financial: Can you recreate your billings to your clients if necessary?
  • Production/Operations: Do you know how your service or product is made or delivered? If your people disappeared overnight could you recreate your programs? Do you have documentation of processes?
  • Sales: When was the last time you sold your product? Can you still give the elevator pitch and value proposition?
  • Disaster Plan: Have you written a back up/disaster plan? What happens when the lights go out? Can you keep your business going?

What other technology aided categories or functions do you rely on everyday? Do you know how to manage without them? What are your back-up plans?