FlyingLeadership: Are you flying?

I’m told that it’s essential to understand what the numbers tell you when flying and that without reading what your instruments are telling that you can easily deceive yourself as to your whereabouts.   However flying also requires being attuned to what one’s senses are telling you. I believe that workplace leadership is similar. For example, when Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed his stricken aircraft on the Hudson River, he will no doubt have looked as his instruments but he was also attuned to what was necessary to make the necessary decisions.


Gerd Gigerenzer’s “Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions” makes interesting reference to this incident. He also draws attention to the need to not only understand what numbers are telling you but what they won’t necessarily tell you or what you could have reasonably deduced from using your senses not only in emergencies but also over time.   Gerd even illustrates how poor understanding of figures and insufficient attention to good judgment, can even create curious and potentially dangerous illusions, as can – not paying attention to numbers. Read what he says about the “turkey illusion!” Yes numbers are important but what are the numbers in front of you (and how you are reading them) not telling you?

OK, so your business might not be heading for a dramatic crash, but how many of your employees or customers are equivalent to being airsick, cramped, stressed or at risk of leaving the journey you are taking them on? Despite this, it seems that many workplace decisions resolve around simplistic figures derived from capital cost savings and not value derived from those doing the work in the place that they have been provided with.


Could you be creating an illusion for yourself? For example, capital costs tend to be easier to calculate than revenue value – especially value derived from wellbeing. Nevertheless, common sense tells us that even a moderate long term improvements have the potential for paying for themselves and not just in direct and easily quantifiable terms.   Despite this, how many times has one paid attention to short term savings – rather than what one’s senses are saying? Next time perhaps when someone offers to “value engineer” a project for you, you might consider whether what they may actually be doing is removing value and actually only engineering cost?

You might say, “ah but Steve, our business is flying with the current trends of workplace strategy.” You might even, make reference to trendy workplace terms such as “lean”, “agile”, “smart” or “activity based” workplace strategies that your advisors have told you about.   However, is what you are getting still an illusion? Are you in reality following a predetermined course set by others?

Using Your Senses?

How about stepping back from these trendy terms for a moment and paying attention to what your senses (and the senses of those about you) are telling you? I’m not advocating that you ignore figures – indeed they are very important, but again – what is the particular set of figures in front of you not telling you?

Apparently one particular aircraft was designed with a performance range that equated with the straight line distance to a particular destination, but that it was not effective in service. This was because its range did not take account of operational circumstances that would prevent straight line flight to its destination. Measures of effectiveness (informed by what one’s senses are telling you) whilst requiring more thought than simplistic and limited performance measurements will usually yield important and more profound business insights.

Understanding Your Senses?

What could your hearing, sight, touch, smell and even taste be telling you about your work environment? Did you know that we also have sensory functions to do with time, position and balance as well? You might imagine that most of these senses are important to flying aircraft, but have you stopped to think about their impact on work? Did you also know that much of that which takes place as a consequence of our senses is not in the realm of our sensory organs but in how our brains function whilst processing and integrating sensory information?

How effectively do our brains function then if our senses are struggling with the environment that we are working with? I would suggest that it’s worth reading “Living Sensationally: Understanding Your Senses,” by Winnie Dunn to understand more of this subject.

Understanding Others?

Might I suggest that you take the opportunity to step off of your “flight deck” and spend time in the workplaces your employees or customers are using? You may already be one of those captains of industry / organisation who work amongst your staff. Is the sensory experience, that you and those around you are exposed to, conducive to you doing effective work? Maybe, you can cope, at least for a time… but how about others? Are you all the same? What about the diversity of staff?

How about those who tirelessly work on thankless tasks requiring great concentration, but our stressed out by the environment they are working in? Chances are you’ll find out a lot by just talking to colleagues. You might find it a struggle for a start, because you may have taken your senses for granted – since you may have managed them subconsciously without stopping to think what is actually happening.   As such, it might even help if you take on board individuals with accentuated experiences… and not just sensory but physical ones too.

Gaining Insight?

Take my Research Director at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, Michael Clinton for example, who has used a wheelchair from childhood; oh – and by the way – happens to be an aeronautically trained engineer and held a pilot’s licence! If you were being honest about stereotypes, you might have easily assumed otherwise!? Even so, I too could also shed some light on challenges that I have faced, even though these experiences wouldn’t be immediately evident to you by just looking at me – only by getting to know me.

Because of these experiences, Michael and I have taken one of his aeronautical discipline’s terms – that describes a set of criteria expected of an aircraft to keep it in the sky – the “Envelope of Performance.”   We have come up with what we might describe as the Clinton-Maslin “Envelope of Need.”

You might have heard of the Maslow “Hierarchy of Need,” however the Clinton-Maslin “Envelope of Need” is different if not similar sounding, in that it’s about refereeing to the people’s accentuated and acute experiences and applying it to the design of built environments and services to the benefit of all. What is more, in the workplace context identifying an “Envelope of Need” is also likely to identify insights into effectiveness and not just performance.

Economics as if People Matter?

Still not convinced that taking notice of what your senses are telling you have anything with the economics of your business? Did you see the “Credit Crunch” coming?   Were you aware that E.F. Schumacher, the economist and author of ”Small is Beautiful, a study of economics as if people mattered” identified the unsustainable activities that would ultimately to lead to the “Credit Crunch”, decades ago? What did his book advocate? Essentially it was this: to take on economic activity “as if people mattered”… I rest my case.

Where now?

So what can you do about this? Well, I my Research Director and others within the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems network include attention to the “People Matter” part of work life. Our network includes those specialising in facilities management, human resources, organisation, design, communication, occupational psychology, sustainability etc.

Ultimately we can tailor what we do around you and your organisation to work on that which has impact on real value and how you brand sits within the market place.

For example, I undertake stakeholder engagement, property/service design reviews and can advise you on project briefs and designs from the perspective of the users. I can also arrange for sensory awareness training to help you and your staff better understand how senses affect how you, your employees and customers function.

Others in are network are able: to devise controlled experiments; risk assess human factors; advise you on organisation and sustainability; or take change and design forward.

Over to you: what do you want to do and how might we be of help..?


Steve Maslin RIBA, NRAC Consultant, FSI


The Workplace Blog category compilation can be found here