Life in the VUCA world has a great constant in store for decision-makers: change. Faced with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, the main task for business leaders is to manage the unexpected. And yet we have actually learned that we can only manage what can be measured. Why this rule no longer applies today is illustrated by a dramatic event at the end of the 1980s:
In the afternoon of July 19, 1989, a United Airlines plane is on its way from Denver to Philadelphia. Only 15 minutes after takeoff, the rear engine explodes. At the same time, flying fragments damage all hydraulic systems. The control system no longer works, the DC10 immediately falls into an inclined position and threatens to crash. At the very last moment the pilots manage to straighten the aircraft again. But without hydraulic compensation, the bow plummets 60 metres every minute and rises abruptly. A 41-minute roller coaster ride begins. Together with Dennis Fitch, a DC-10 flight instructor who happens to be on board as a passenger and rushes to the aid of the two pilots, the men manage to steer the plane with the aid of the two lateral engines alone. Without being able to fly left turns and compensate for lateral winds, and without being able to brake, in this almost hopeless situation they manage the emergency landing at the nearest airport and thus save 184 lives. Despite many attempts, it has not yet been possible to repeat this performance in the flight simulator.
Constructing a completely new logic in real time
What we can learn from the pilots of flight UA232 has been investigated by the organizational psychologist Karl Weick and described in his book “Managing the Unexpected”:
- They do not simply try to restore the normal state, but develop a completely new logic of horizontal flight in a very short time.
- They have the ability to learn quickly. The learning gains are immediately checked for plausibility and implemented in real time.
- You act according to the trial-and-error principle. Assessments are constantly revised on the basis of what is happening at the moment.
- In short, they act “agile” – long before agility has become the buzzword par excellence.
In fact, the digital transformation sometimes resembles a roller coaster ride, and at no point can we rely on the proven control systems to keep us on course. Like the crew of flight UA232, we have to construct a completely new logic permanently and in real time. And that only works if we think and act agilely.
Living with contradictions and accepting imperfection
At the same time, we must learn to live with contradictions and endure paradoxes. In fact, the demands on leadership today are more complex than ever. Companies should become more agile, but agile methods in particular need strict rules so that they can come about at all. Managers should optimize the existing business and at the same time be prepared to cannibalize it themselves as disruptors. Decision-makers should delegate more decisions, but in the end take responsibility. Managers should accept uncertainty, but still have all risks under control. And they should humbly admit that they know little, but still courageously go ahead.
To meet these conflicting expectations, we need a whole new understanding of leadership. The old idea of the omniscient and omnipotent boss has served its purpose. But that does not make leadership any easier. Probably the first thing we have to learn is to accept imperfection. And that may be even harder than being an old school hero.
By the way, the probability of a complete hydraulic failure during a flight is mathematically one in a billion. Nevertheless, the unexpected has happened – and has been heroically mastered by the crew.