Landing the Plane: Finding Clarity within Complexity

by Ross Peters, Managing Partner.

The cockpit–all those screens and switches, too many to count, plus lights, blue, yellow-orange, red.

If things are really rough, a buzzer might sound. The voices from the tower are muffled in the radio. If this plane is an organization, its strategy and its people are being tested in the face of rough air and a low ceiling heading toward a foggy landing.

CLARITY: When we need it most, it is most difficult to come by.

In complex organizational moments, organizations need some understanding in order to debrief what has occurred, in order to understand what is happening in the present moment with accuracy, and in order to discern what is coming next. Yet our crystal balls look like a low ceiling landing into the Atlanta Airport. But have no fear!… planes land safely all day, every day.

In some ways leading a school or college in an uncertain environment can indeed feel like being caught perpetually trying land a passenger plane with limited visibility. So what instruments are required to find the way forward in the fog and bad weather? What will ensure the institution is headed the correct direction at the correct altitude and speed?

For a moment, let us consider (and then challenge!) this:

  • Mission and strategy determine direction. Strategy is a projected flight path and a destination. It doesn’t go anywhere on its own, but it inspires departure, and it keeps us on track when clarity is difficult to achieve. It requires us to trust it the way pilots trust a compass.
  • Leadership controls altitude. Leadership makes the decisions large and small that provide the corrections to ensure that the turbulence and low visibility that can accompany progress don’t prevent a smooth landing. Many factors can drive a plane off course, drive it down, push it up. Leadership has its hands on the controls to steady it even when the way forward.
  • The community determines the speed at which we travel toward the destination. Not that leadership doesn’t have influence here, but it is inextricably linked to the community as a whole. The community are not simply passengers, they together are the co-pilot. The community’s readiness (its learning curve about the strategy and its tolerance for progress) is the driving force controlling the speed at which an organization moves forward.

Metaphors like this can be enlightening, but their accuracy is also limited and often flawed. It appears helpful in that they offer to simplify complexity in order to allow us to wrap our arms around the outer edges of it; however, pushing to understand the nuance of the individual organization’s context is requisite in order to create the sort of clarity that defines long term strategic success…the sort of clarity that will land the plane smoothly over and over again regardless of the weather. Rather than representing individual silos such as the bullet-points above indicate, it is more accurate to assert that there is a Venn Diagram between mission and strategy, leadership, and the community. To a degree determined by context–the people, the moment in the organization’s history, the marketplace, etc.–each plays a part in organizational direction, altitude, and speed.

What organizations need is the strength to embrace complexity as complexity and to discover clarity of purpose and resolve despite that complexity, and they need the resilience/antifragility from all constituents to help navigate direction (strategy) and to control altitude and gauge speed.

So…”please make sure your seat belts are buckled, your trays are in their upright and locked positions, and prepare for landing. We will have you on the ground soon.”

Cover photo by Ross Peters: Low Ceiling Flying into Atlanta, February 16, 2020