On April 15, 2018 Southwest flight 1380 had a plan. The majority of those involved in it would have described it like this: fly from Dallas to New York. But for those in charge, there were two other plans that day, one purposeful and one tactical. The pilots' ability to distinguish between the two and to know when to prioritize one over the other was the difference between a disastrous outcome and what became a heroic lesson in how to succeed in an unpredictable world. The lesson is this: What makes a plan work is the ability to think outside the plan.
The Argument for a Plan
Any good leader has a plan. You might think that last statement unnecessary, but you'd be wrong. Too many too often allow other things to substitute for having a plan, the primary culprits being a good idea and a pressing problem. Chances are you can recall a time when someone thought their idea was so brilliant, so self-evident, that they took it as a free pass to be a little bit light on the details of how they planned to bring the idea to life. As familiar is the panicked battle cry, "We must solve this problem!" that never seems to allow room to break the problem down and articulate a clear path towards resolution. In short, the absence of a plan is not an option for any leader who wants to realize success and not just dream about it.
But Wait, There's More!
The task, however, does not begin or end with having a plan. But we're ahead of ourselves... What exactly is a plan? Fly from Love Field to La Guardia isn't a plan. It's really more of a directive. It means little if it doesn't fit into a greater purpose and isn't coupled with good detail about how to accomplish it.
When most of us think of a plan, we think that details part. In the airline business they call those tactics the flight plan. But there's a reality we know yet often overlook. Even if you have an immediate goal (fly to New York) and a detailed set of instructions for achieving it (the flight plan), there's still something far more important you must both have and be conscious of: purpose. Thankfully, Southwest pilot Tammie Jo Shults and First Officer Darren Ellisor not only had a keen understanding of all the components that make up a plan with a chance of actually succeeding, on April 15 they had their ultimate purpose clearly in mind: Fly the plane and its passengers safely from one destination to another... regardless of what happens that threatens your plan.
Here's the Plan: Count on the Unpredictable
The flying conditions were good and a flight plan was in place when 1380 left Dallas. And then at 32,000 feet an engine blew. The pilots describe a very large bang and a severe banking of the plane more than 40 degrees to the left, as well as tremendous vibration in the remaining engine. It's a frightening and uncommon scenario, but theoretically manageable... unless, say for example, there's a big hole in the side of the plane causing the cabin to decompress and creating a vacuum threatening to pull passengers out. That's exactly what happened next. More, the combined events created the added chaos of noise so loud that the pilots had to communicate by hand signals. While righting and flying the plane, mind you.
At that point a flight plan is pretty much worthless, and getting to New York diminishes as a priority, even as a possibility. So what do you do? For the 149 people on board, it's a good thing that wasn't the extent of Shults and Ellisor's plan.
Some weeks after the incident, long after Shults and Ellisor had safely landed the plane in Philadelphia with a sad yet stunning single death (caused by the window being blown out) and only 7 injured, they were asked this question: "Was there ever a moment when you feared you weren't going to make it?" Without hesitation, Shults said no. "As long as you have enough altitude and ideas your okay," she confidently explained.
More than a measure of height, altitude is a metaphor for perspective. The more altitude you can give yourself when things don't go according to plan, the more likely you are to see a way forward. And in that moment, the clearer you are about what you're really after, the greater your chances of finding new ways to get there. Shults and Ellisor didn't reach New York, this time anyway. But they were successful. They gave themselves and those on board a chance for another bite at the apple, literal and figurative. And they imparted a valuable lesson that as important as a plan is, it's the ability to think outside it that inevitably defines its success.