In Atul Gwande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto, he has an example of a checklist for what to do when a pilot has engine failure during flight. The first step is to check the airspeed. The next instruction is in bold and centred:
FLY THE AIRPLANE!
The checklist then goes on to tell the aircraft crew what various other settings should be. The instructions to ‘Fly the airplane’ are intended to remind the crew that whatever problem they are facing, they shouldn’t forget their main job. The crew shouldn’t let that issue consume so much of their energy that they don’t focus on their real work.
In one example, a plane flying out of Denver crashed when the crew became so preoccupied with a malfunction in the landing gear indicator that they forgot to monitor their fuel consumption. The crew forgot their primary task: to fly the plane. They were problem-solving around how they could safely address the immediate problem and forgot that there were other facets to landing the plane safely. (Having fuel being an essential driver of success flying a plane.)
In Your Project – FLY THE AIRPLANE
There will be a lot of things that go wrong in your project. There will be little issues and major failures. Risks, issues, opportunities, and failures are all a part of successfully delivering a change in the world. As you are bombarded by concerns, issues, and concerns that might scuttle the project, make sure that you have your destination and purpose in mind. As the project leader, be sure that you know where you are going. Tell others about it. Address the concerns that you can, but if you need to spend energy on flying the plane instead of refilling the coffee pot, be clear about what you are doing. People will respect and support the fact that you can’t address their immediate pain because you have a broader goal that you are working towards.
If you consistently show that you are leading towards the vision of the project, the people around you will start to understand which issues they can solve themselves, and which issues relate to the bigger strategic work that you as the project leader are directing.
In any project that you have, make sure that you are not too focused on issues to the detriment of the big-picture flight plan. Make sure that everyone gets to the destination where you set out to arrive. Fly the airplane.