What an Aircraft Carrier Can Teach Corporate Leaders

What an Aircraft Carrier Can Teach Corporate Leaders

The modern U.S. Navy aircraft carrier is both an engineering marvel and a triumph of human organization. Its 3,000-member crew—plus up to a few thousand more staff personnel and aviators when fully outfitted—run a massive, nuclear-powered machine that simultaneously functions as a busy airport for fighter jets and a floating city. 

It can seem like a maze of passageways and a blur of activity, but

Read More

Accidents at Sea and Human Behavior

Accidents at Sea and Human Behavior

When I heard about the collision involving USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) on June 17, 2017, my heart sank. For me and other Navy veterans who have served aboard ships like Fitzgerald, the feeling is rather personal—we’ve driven ships, we’ve been in situations that are tough to navigate, and we can imagine fairly closely the moments before and after a collision. 

Then, only about two months after Fitzgerald, came the news that USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) collided with a vessel on Aug. 21 near the Strait of Malacca. Because it connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it’s a high-traffic area, one that puts many large ships within relatively close proximity of each other. Of the many tough waters in the world to traverse, this one is somewhere near the top of the list.

My heart—and, I’m sure, the hearts of many others—sank again. 

First, of course, I think of those killed and injured. My thoughts and prayers are with them and their families. 

Second, I wonder:

Why?

What happened? 

Myriad explanations abound, and

Read More

Can Leadership Prevent Mistakes?

Can Leadership Prevent Mistakes?

"While I was in the middle of the room, the attic floor and beams collapsed onto the second floor crashing down to the first floor where I was standing. The time between us entering the building and the time of the collapse was no longer than 90 seconds. I was knocked to the floor and was trapped under the debris. I suffered a head injury and a torn patellar tendon. The contents of the upstairs ended up in the first floor room and I could have been killed. By my judgment, approximately 80,000 gallons of water was pumped into that structure and we were ordered in anyway. This was after a previous call to evacuate 45 minutes earlier. This should not have happened!"

Mistakes happen. Sometimes, those mistakes hurt or kill people. I’ve studied them among fire fighters, who sometimes experience events like the one described above (which comes from Report 07-0001036, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2014). The mistakes that people in the fire service and other high-risk occupations make often have important safety implications. In other industries and occupations, mistakes may not hurt or kill people, but mistakes often derail projects or anger customers. They create conflict and they degrade the quality of what we make or do. 

Mistakes aren’t exclusive to any industry or sector. 

Mistakes also almost happen. These close calls or near misses—when discussed well and integrated into a learning program—can serve as powerful wakeup calls for people and teams.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about mistakes or near misses, learning from the past to improve future performance is

Read More

When Drowning Prevention Meets Business Strategy

When Drowning Prevention Meets Business Strategy

My children love the water. They swim, they splash, they laugh. 

My children, like most children, are fast. They dart, they scurry, they hide. 

Therefore, when my children encounter water, it can be an exhausting experience for my wife and me. We must be vigilant. 

The pool we frequent has lifeguards. But their vigilance will never match mine. 

Unless, of course, we’re talking about

Read More

Why Perfection Isn’t Good Enough

Why Perfection Isn’t Good Enough

“I just want it to go the right way,” he said, with tears starting to form at the corners of his eyes. “I’m trying and trying and trying and it’s not working.”

The tears began to flow, as he rapidly stamped his feet on the green artificial turn covering the mini-golf course. His knuckles turned white as he gripped his club with a surge of frustration, and he swung as hard as he could at the ball. 

He missed. It was fortunate that he did, because

Read More

Can HR Drive High Reliability?

Can HR Drive High Reliability?

Positive thinking is sometimes overrated. In fact, too much positive thinking can be disastrous. While optimism can help people and organizations bounce back from tough times, when allowed to dominate the psyche during good times, it can blind us to the possibility of what could go wrong.

It’s important, periodically, to think creatively about potential doom.

Read More

Strike a match: Agile improvisation in the face of disaster

Strike a match: Agile improvisation in the face of disaster

On August 5, 1949, a team of 15 smokejumpers parachuted into the Mann Gulch near the Missouri River in Montana to fight a fire that had started the previous day. At first appraisal, fighting the fire seemed a simple task. But thus began one of the worst disasters in the modern history of wildfire suppression in which all but two of the team members lost their lives.

Immortalized in Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire[i], in the folk song Cold Missouri Waters by James Keelaghan and in famed organizational scholar Karl Weick’s scholarly analysis[ii], the incident is a tragic-yet-fascinating account of a team attempting to sense and respond to a rapidly evolving environment. It’s a story of improvisation, counter-intuitive action and collapsed team structures.

According to Maclean’s account, the team

Read More