Imagine racing toward Earth at 130 miles per hours. At 3,000 feet, you deploy your parachute. After watching the navy blue nylon flutter to its familiar rectangular shape above your head, you reach above your head to your steering handles. Pulling them sharply downward, you hear a snap! In an instant, your parachute begins to spiral tighter and tighter as you struggle to recover level flight. At 2,000 feet, your “decision” altitude, you reach for your main release handle, followed in quick order by your reserve handle. Two minutes later, safely beneath your plain white reserve parachute, you make a soft and relieved landing on terra firma.
Terrifying thought, huh? As a licensed skydiver, I’d trained repeatedly for just such a situation, and, yet, when my steering line failed on my 90th jump, I can assure you plenty of choice words escaped my lips!
In hindsight, my first cut-away experience was a positive one, believe it or not! The end result was full confidence both in the technical safety gear I employ in my jumps, but most importantly that all the practice and rehearsing of emergency procedures paid off. I simply reacted the way I had been trained, not just in the early days of skydiving, but even those safety “habits” I’ve maintained on every single jump over the past five years.
Think now to the application of this same notion to leadership. With any project or organizational initiative, there exists an aspect of risk. It’s why we build mitigation strategies (or ought to) as a part of formal project management procedures. These strategies may seem like mundane, overly cautious steps to account for very low probability risks, but when they are actually needed, we’re certainly glad to have built them!
In an earlier (and most frequently viewed) post, I spoke of the correlation between skydiving and leadership. Both inherently involve taking informed risks. But part of informed risk-taking is ensuring you, as a leader of a project team or an entire organization, know what you will do if best-laid plans go awry.
When leaders practice the following four steps, they naturally build agility and adaptability not as an accidental or instinctive property, but rather as a deliberate and planned evolution in any situation.
- Primary Planning. The Pareto Principle applies here. If 80% of your time is spent contemplating and actively planning for the future, the 20% effort remaining is easily enough to see your plan through to fruition.
- Contingency Planning. Once you have established the roadmap toward a desired outcome, spend time (within the 80% mentioned above) talking through what steps you are prepared to take to address unforeseen challenges, hurdles, and pitfalls along the way. In doing so, leaders can typically anticipate the types of problems they may encounter as they move forward.
- Rehearsal. Once contingency plans have been created, it’s critical to walk through the specific actions and reactions that you will take to get your team back on track. Actively walk critical team members through their contingency responsibilities before embarking on the implementation of a plan.
- Proceed with confidence. You have put in place the necessary safeguards to ensure success. If you have successfully addressed major risks in your contingency planning, and have practiced the actions, reactions, and decision making necessary to overcome such hurdles, then even if pitfalls for which you haven’t prepared emerge, your team will naturally follow the established reactionary methodologies you practiced.
When the steering line on my parachute snapped, that was not a malfunction for which I had specifically trained. However, on countless previous jumps, I had practiced what I would do if faced with addressing an emergency situation as I passed an altitude of 2,000 feet. Regardless of the situation, I instinctively understood that at 2,000 feet, I would chop my main parachute in favor of my reserve rig. So, when my helmet alarm chimed at that altitude, I didn’t hesitate. And, as a result of that reinforced planning and practice, I walked away from the drop zone that day a few dollars short, but unscathed.
That’s a lesson all leaders can apply!