Crash Course

If you’re afraid of flying, there’s little solace to be found in the final report on the crash of Air France flight 447, which plunged into the Atlantic Ocean three years ago with 228 people on board.

The wide-body jet was headed into a storm when its autopilot disconnected and its sensors started malfunctioning. Whether the crew should still have been able to save the plane remains in dispute, but the report by France’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis cited notable failures beyond just the mechanical.

One was that the chain of command went topsy-turvy. The captain left the cockpit to get some sleep, putting the less experienced of the junior co-pilots in charge. When disaster struck, the other co-pilot began to shout out orders. “This take-over led rapidly, after the autopilot disconnection, to the inversion of the normal hierarchical structure in the cockpit,” the report said.

Second, the co-pilot at the helm had repeatedly expressed concern about the storm ahead, getting no feedback from the captain. The captain was, according to the report, “very unresponsive” and failed to make “a firm, clear decision, by applying a strategy, or giving instructions or a recommendation for action to continue the flight.”

In Managing in Turbulent Times, Peter Drucker noted that organizations operate as “concentric, overlapping, coordinated rings, rather than as pyramids.” This was a good thing, but just as you need “a skeleton in the animal body,” you also need an ultimate authority. “There is need for a clear locus of decisions, for a clear voice and for unity of command in the event of common danger and emergencies,” Drucker wrote. On flight 447, a work environment that was normally collaborative, informal, and team-oriented needed abruptly to revert to strict chain of command—faster than it could.

Drucker also wrote about official controls versus real controls. Whatever worries the co-pilot may have expressed, he apparently was too intimidated or discouraged to press the matter. As Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, “One has to realize that even the most powerful ‘instrument board’ complete with computers, operations research, and simulation, is secondary to the invisible, qualitative control of any human organization, its systems of rewards and punishments, of values and taboos.”

Are your organization’s controls properly set up for emergencies? How so or not?