Communicating Intent

This is the Sixth in a series of posts that will provide, throughout the year, an improvement strategy that will cover the entire family of 9 Automation Airmanship® principles.

Good, effective communication is a constant across high-performance teams in any domain. In Automation Airmanship, we apply this truth to working directly with fellow crewmembers, the technology on the flight deck, and around the flight operation in general (that is, Air Traffic Control, maintenance, dispatch and flight following, mission coordination, etc.). It’s not just a recommendation that individuals and organizations constantly seek to improve this skill, our experience and field work has shown communication to be a vocational asset and therefore a key principle of 21st-century airmanship.

Studies by one of the giants of research into high-performing teams, Gary Klein, describe well-communicated intent as seeming to have the effect of allowing team members to “read each other’s minds.” The research is compelling, and the results are hard to argue with. Klein explains in Sources of Power (The MIT Press, 1998) that it’s not about planning for every contingency (that’s not even remotely possible in aviation), but using clear intent communicated from the beginning to improvise and adjust as a problem or mission develops, rather than getting into conflicts and going off in wrong directions. *

For decades I’ve conducted flight operations with the knowledge that good communications factor heavily into overall success, but I’ve recently adopted a new strategy that I employ in every preflight, designed specifically to improve the flow of information for the duration of a flight, from preflight to shutdown. After I have completed most of my evaluation of the flight information (weather, notams, aircraft status and the like) along with my crew, I put in a direct call to the dispatcher assigned to the flight and ask one question: “Is there anything in addition to what we’ve already been provided that you think we should be concerned about during this flight?” And then I pause and listen for any additional clues, subtle knowledge or evidence of any “blind spots” that I might have missed in my own planning. After we discuss what we both know so far, I then share my intentions for communicating any problems that we might encounter enroute to our destination. Since adopting this approach, I’ve noticed not just better outcomes, but more rewarding interactions with the entire flight operations team that I work with when I fly.

On a recent transcontinental flight, this strategy really paid off. Prior to departure, my First Officer and I talked briefly about the potential for developing weather near the destination that wasn’t showing up on any radar or satellite images (it was too early in the day for that), and how the conditions for strong storms seemed possible even if it wasn’t yet forecast, mainly based on our experience during the hot summer months in the Southeast US. We both had the same concern, and talked about how unforecast storms could impact our flight. We then dialed-up our dispatcher, shared our concern and experience in similar situations, and asked him to send any changes or new information directly to us en route. A few hours into the flight leg, we were alerted by the onboard messaging system that some storms were indeed developing, giving us some solid knowledge to use for planning our arrival, that we may not have had if we hadn’t discussed it prior to the flight. Sure, the storms would have likely resulted in the same decisions without a deliberate conversation in pre-flight, but it sure felt good to know we’d already discussed a plan for handling the contingency when the alert chime sounded and we then read that message from dispatch.

Pausing to listen, asking the right questions, and demonstrating engagement is a key component of communicating intent in a technology-dependent and information-rich environment. Especially an environment that can change as rapidly as aviation. You don’t have to just keep applying the same communications habits that have been delivering good results for most of your career—you can improve how you gather information and share it with others in the operation, and move your whole team forward. Constant improvement can be hard, but it can yield enormous rewards even for the best among us.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.

* Gary Klein: Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1998.

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