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How Not to Crash & Burn in Business

Running a business is like flying a plane: Lots of decisions to make and zero time to analyze them. Improve your gut instincts with these tips.
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Reading entrepreneurial success stories can only help you so much. Want a better perspective on the inevitable challenges you'll face? Study the failures.

Just ask my dad. As a commercial-rated pilot, nuclear engineer, business teacher, and ex-Navy submariner, he likes to study National Transportation Safety Board reports of accidents. His entire professional life has been about managing efficient operational systems, so when systems fail he finds it illuminating.

And studying flight mistakes is a good place to start--the same kinds of decisions that can lead a plane to crash can also cause your business to take a nosedive. Here are five flight lessons I learned from my dad that are just as relevant to business:

Get There-itis

When I was 8 years old, my grandfather became very ill. My dad rushed us to the airport and flew us in his small plane from Philadelphia to New Orleans. Somewhere over West Virginia we started picking up ice on the wings--a dangerous situation that can cause a plane to crash. I remember my dad, the glow of the red instrument panel reflecting off his deeply furrowed brow as he shined his pen light out on the wing every minute or two while asking the controllers for higher or lower altitudes. He was able to guide us down safely and make an unscheduled landing in Charleston where we spent the night.  Only later did I realize how relieved he was that we were on the ground. "Most accidents are caused at some level by human error," he told me later. "I was stressed about my dad. I felt that we had to get to New Orleans that night.  I had 'Get There-itis.'"

When you are in a charged emotional state and anxiety prompts you to move faster, you need to send up a red flag and check yourself to make sure that your focus on hurrying up isn't putting you in a dangerous situation. Often we need to make decisions quickly, but your first priority should be to act when you have a clear head and move fast for the right reasons. Ask yourself: Do I have Get There-itis?

Don't dismiss the little indicators

My dad has a theory that big catastrophic failures are really the result of lots of little mistakes--a multiple mistake chain. Three Mile Island, the Titanic--as kids we grew up hearing lots of dinner table stories about how smart people didn't pay attention to little indicators that led to future disasters.

The smallest decisions and details of your business can be key to the success of the entire organization. It's more than just saying that you are only as strong as your weakest link--you must recognize when the strength of the links change in your business and make adjustments accordingly. Never be afraid to sound the alarm if you see a weakness in your system, even in advance of a crisis, that could sink the ship.

Just fly the plane

Long before I was tall enough to ride Space Mountain at Disney World, my father taught me how to read his airplane's instrument panel, hold altitude, coordinate a turn, and change heading. His most important lesson was this:  If all else fails, remember to just fly the airplane. Are you straight and level and moving fast enough to stay in the air? If so, then work on getting safely to the ground. Don't panic. Many of us get distracted by the bells and whistles in our businesses especially in times of crisis and forget to come back to the core of "flying the airplane" (or business). If all things go to hell, how will you get back to basics and land safely?

Heed the circumstances

Before storm scopes, I used to sit in my dad's plane and tune the ADF radio receiver in different directions to try and listen for the location of lightning, which sounded like crackles of static. One afternoon we flew into a huge thunderhead. It was the largest anvil-shaped storm cloud I had ever seen. The plane bounced around violently. Instead of pushing on, my dad turned around and flew right back out, changing course. "Sometimes there are just circumstances you try to avoid," he reminded me.

While crisis situations are often hard to predict, it is important to cultivate an active imagination about worst-case scenarios so that you can try to avoid them in advance of their precipitation. Don't let your imagination terrify you into paralysis, of course, but allow it to inform and prepare you for what may come.

Incompetence rules

My father keeps an old black and white photo in his office. The shot is of a wide field with one tree standing in the middle. Teetering in the tree is the wreck of an old airplane. The quote underneath reads: "Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect." Nearby, my dad also hung his own summary of this in a framed statement: "The World is Incompetent."

The lesson: Assume that you and others have the capacity for carelessness and incompetence and it will keep you on your toes. Question and double-check systems to confirm that your most basic assumptions are right. Create checklists and tell-tale indicators so that you can avoid those human failings that can have catastrophic repercussions.

Last updated: Apr 4, 2012

CHRIS MITTELSTAEDT | Columnist | Founder & CEO, The FruitGuys

Chris Mittelstaedt is the Founder and CEO of The FruitGuys, the industry leader in delivering farm-fresh fruit and vegetables to the American workplace, homes, and schools nationwide.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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