LEADING IN A COMPLEX WORLD

With an average of 2,500 arrivals or departures daily, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport boasts the busiest terminal complex in the world. A quarter-million passengers pass through it each day.

As one would imagine, the logistics of coordinating such a high volume of traffic are incredibly complicated. A sophisticated air traffic control system is responsible for ensuring that all incoming flights arrive safely and that all outgoing planes smoothly take off. The system has to be versatile enough to respond to severe weather, airplane mechanical problems, and runway repairs. To avoid delays and service interruptions, air traffic controllers constantly must reroute planes, adjust schedules, and initiate communication of updated flight plans.

The intricacies of the interconnected air traffic control system appear dizzyingly complex to someone unfamiliar with its operation. However, every day of the year the system enables the safe transport of hundreds of thousands of people in and out of Atlanta. Studying how the air traffic control system functions undoubtedly would yield scores of leadership insights for dealing with complexity. However, I’d like to highlight three specific lessons.

1) Build a Team with Diverse Perspectives

Obviously, the workings of air traffic control system exceed the cognitive capacity of any single individual. At the control tower, one person keeps an eye on the weather and also reviews and approves proposed flight plans. Another controller manages the flow of traffic on the ground, guiding planes as they taxi between the gates and runways. Yet another controller monitors radar to track all aircraft within a five-mile radius of the airport. He or she makes sure planes stay a safe distance apart from one another and gives final clearance for takeoffs and landings.

As leaders, we tend to attract people like ourselves. This tendency is healthy in that we draw people to our organizations who share our values but unhealthy in that we surround ourselves with like-minded thinkers. As a leader, your ability to be influential in complex environments is tied to the diversity of thought represented on your team. Not only do you need people with specialized knowledge in finance, marketing, sales, etc. but also people who differ in how they think. You also need people who push the envelope of creativity, others who thrive on efficiency, and still others concerned with preserving your company’s unique identity. Ultimately, you want a team of individuals who are naturally wired to pay attention to different segments of the information streaming into your organization.

2) Develop Decision-Making Guidelines

To facilitate the uninterrupted inflow and outflow of traffic, air traffic controllers must be able to make split-second decisions. Delays in the decision-making process not only gum up the efficient flow of traffic, but also put lives in jeopardy. Accordingly, air traffic controllers are trained and equipped to take immediate action on incoming information.

Leaders who are unable or unwilling to delegate drown themselves in work. To cut down on complexity, de-centralize decision-making by entrusting those on the front lines with the requisite authority to make things happen. Provide a set of guidelines, consist with your values, as a shorthand way to instruct employees on determining the best course of action.

3) Pay the Price of Continuous Upgrades

As air traffic has increased over the years, Atlanta’s airport has invested in upgrades such building new runways and taxiways and constructing an improved control tower. Presently, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is undertaking a program to shift its air traffic control from ground-based radar to satellite-based GPS tracking. The new technologies will locate planes faster and with greater precision, enabling aircraft traveling to or from Atlanta to fly closer together. As a result, congestion at the airport will be reduced and fuel costs minimized.

As technology progresses, new opportunities emerge and old systems become obsolete. In other words, willingness to change becomes more and more imperative. Since costly, energy-consuming changes do not happen by themselves, you, as the leader, are responsible to identify outdated ways of doing business and to replace them with upgraded systems.

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