I was talking to a client this morning who had a classic case of the ‘overwhelms’ and even if you haven’t suffered from it, you’ll probably have seen the symptoms in others. It's that feeling that the problems you’re facing are so big and so complex that the temptation to do absolutely nothing is, well, overwhelming.
During our conversation I shared a piece of advice with him that I was given years ago while I was learning to fly helicopters and have applied ever since in business as well as my own life. It was just after I’d spent an hour learning to perform the manoeuvre known as autorotation – also known as throwing the helicopter at the ground and missing. It’s unique to choppers and is the technique a pilot uses to land safely after a complete engine failure. I was flying back to the airfield, and I was frazzled.
My ears were filled with the metallic, slightly dismembered voices of the Air Traffic Controller sitting in his comfortable seat in the aerodrome control tower and Nick - the unfortunate soul to whom the task of teaching me to fly had been entrusted - sitting in his distinctly less comfortable seat beside me in what seemed like the smallest aircraft in the world. He didn't seem very happy and I could understand why - I'd nearly crashed into power lines less than thirty minutes earlier and now I was totally exhausted and mentally drained by the sheer concentration required to stop a half-ton helicopter becoming a half-ton blot on the landscape. So drained, in fact, that I couldn't even tell left from right and had lost the ability to think clearly or form coherent sentences - two facts that by themselves are moderately inconvenient but combine them when you're trying to negotiate your way into a crowd of circling aircraft above a busy airfield and all of a sudden, life becomes a bit more interesting and potentially a lot shorter.
Aviation radio procedures are carried out in English. Apparently. In reality, it's like learning another language whilst trying to juggle jelly. Whilst riding a unicycle. I knew that I had to tell all the other pilots and the Airspace Controller what I was doing so they could plan accordingly and avoid those embarrassing mid-air collisions that make for a lot of paperwork for witnesses and survivors alike. The trouble was that my brain simply couldn't dredge up the sequence of words and figures required to do it and whilst it was diverting more and more resources to the task it was neglecting one key fact - from the very moment it leaves the production line, a helicopter wants only to be on the ground – either in one piece or thousands – and the pilots job is to persuade it to do otherwise.
With all my dwindling mental faculties now focussed on forming a simple sentence, I'd forgotten this crucial duty and was in real danger of adding to Nick’s pile of paperwork that day; if, of course, he survived the impact.
"You've got just three tasks today,” he rasped. “Aviate, Navigate and Communicate.”
“Do them in THAT order and we’ll both be fine.”
And everything clicked into place. I concentrated on the most important thing first – keeping us from crashing into another aircraft or a nearby planet. Then, when I’d got that sorted, I worked out where I was, where I needed to be and how best to get there.
Then, after all that, I thought about what I needed to say on the radio.
Define a Main Effort
When a military leader is delegating tasks to his subordinates to achieve a particular objective, he uses a concept called the Main Effort to clearly indicate to everyone what he regards as the most important task. It’s not that other tasks aren’t important, it’s simply that this is the one that is critical to the success of the mission and all his subordinates are expected to act in direct support of it at all times or be prepared to surrender resources to it if required. In short, it serves to focus everyone’s attention on this – the most critical – of tasks.
The challenge facing my client was that he had just lost a key member of his team just as his company was about to enter the busiest time of the year. I thought this concept might help him get clarity of focus.
I had him write down all the tasks that he had responsibility for. There were four or five major ones – a mix of project and ‘business as usual’ work. Then I had him put a circle around the Main Effort – the one task that, if he didn’t complete successfully, would mean mission failure for him and his team. He considered each one in turn before pointing at one and stating, with conviction in his voice, that if they didn’t achieve that one thing then the entire company may as well turn the lights off and all go home.
A few more tasks were identified as Supporting Efforts – those that would make a positive impact on results but not a critical one. More interestingly, however, was one project that he’d previously considered as a potential Main Effort.
“If we don’t deliver this project,” he realised, “we’ll be no worse off than last year and if we do try and deliver it we’ll introduce a huge risk to the business that we just don’t need right now.”
He put a line through it.