A few years ago I travelled to Australia to participate in some meetings. It so happened that the PMI Board meeting coincided with the PMI Asia/Pacific Congress in Sydney. The trip served as an opportunity to get to know a new region of the world and experience yet another culture. The event itself was fantastic and the trip went almost without a hitch. The only challenge that I encountered as on the return flight out of Sydney. I had flown Singapore airlines and was excited about the opportunity to experience the Airbus 380. The A380 was a brand new airliner and had been in operation only a few weeks. After we had boarded the plane, we learned that there was a problem with the fuel pump. We deplaned a couple of hours later and we learned that the flight was cancelled. Singapore Airlines, which has one of the best reputations in the industry.
Interestingly enough, this flight was probably one of the best and worst experiences I’ve encountered with an airline. The airline is a fantastic on-board experience. The planes are great and the people are very nice. However, it seemed that as soon as Singapore Airlines encounters a hick-up such as a grounded flight, the airline comes to a screeching halt. It appeared that the great amount of planning and organization that the Singapore Airlines culture is known for, and that is exhibited throughout Singapore itself is of little help when it comes to dealing with unpredictable circumstances. As soon as everyone deplaned, the ground crew simply could not handle dealing with rerouting passengers and addressing ad-hoc complaints.
If I compare this experience with a similar experience I encountered a few months prior with another airline, Royal Jordanian, the differences are striking. RJ is another airline that has developed a very strong reputation recently, however, maybe not to the level of Singapore Airlines. However, when an RJ flight I was on was cancelled it seemed that their ground crew was extremely equipped to handle this hiccup. They had managed to reroute all the passengers within a short period of time. Perhaps RJ had better experience handling this type of challenge before. Having grown up in Jordan I can share that my experience with Arab culture is that it often lacks on the planning side, however, that prepares people to deal more quickly with chaos. It may be that this lack of predictability equips people to better handle chaotic situations. While our culture is sometimes blamed for not being too structured, sometimes too much structure renders people incapable of dealing with new problems. Singapore Airlines’ problem was a perfect example that sometimes too much structure creates little creativity in problem solving. I can tell you however, once Singapore Airlines managed to get through the painful experience of the cancelled flight, they came through with flying colors. The experience of flying on their flight, especially the A380 as a memorable one.
Within organizations dealing with projects, I believe that there is a need to balance systems with creativity. It is imperative for organizations to have the appropriate mechanisms for planning that enable a certain degree of predictability. However, executives must also ensure that their teams are capable of thinking on their feet in the face of unpredictable challenges. To be clear though, this is very different from creating a culture that is only capable of fire fighting.
Chaos is simply part of doing business and within projects having effective risk plans is what enables our teams to overcome unpredictability.