Gladwell, crashing planes and risk management


In his book “Outliers”, author Malcolm Gladwell explains how “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication” as opposed to mechanical causes. Also, they usually happen after a sequence of mistakes and misfortunes and rarely because of one event.

Our respective cultures dictate how we work and communicate with others. Gladwell describes how communication is very formal in many places where there is a social hierarchy between the “inferior” and “superior” person having the conversation. (Think customer and waiter, accountant and CFO, and co-pilot and pilot.)

Even though it’s a co-pilot’s role to take control of the plane when he or she thinks the pilot has made the wrong decision or is unfit to fly, in cultures where the inferior and superior roles are well defined, the co-pilot won’t do the right thing and take control of the plane. Literally and figuratively this type of behavior won’t fly.

Like pilots, CEOs have dashboards with gauges to help them navigate the organization. They also have hundreds or thousands of co-pilots and flight engineers helping to fly these organizations who each have their own dashboards. Unfortunately, if someone hears a beep or sees a flashing light, not only is there no mechanism for warning the pilot, the culture usually won’t permit it. Even in an organization with a Chief Risk Officers or head of risk management, if the culture makes it socially unacceptable to speak up or tell the CEO he’s fucked up, the organization is destined to crash and burn.

The last word goes to Gladwell who solves this cultural problem by explaining: “Planes are safer when the least experienced pilot is flying, because it means the second pilot isn’t afraid to speak up.”


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