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What plane crashes have in common with Product Development

Daniel F Lopes

When we think of airline crashes we think of old aeroplanes, bad pilots, and terrorists.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gadwell analysed the stories behind plane crashes. He focused more specifically on Korean Air, an airline which had more plane crashes than almost any other in the world until the end of the 1990s.

When we think of airline crashes we think of old aeroplanes, bad pilots, and terrorists. But what the Korean Air found was that the issue behind most of the plane crashes was a cultural one — in Korean culture, there’s a high hierarchical differentiation between elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in U.S. and Europe.

The consequence of this is a huge communication gap between all the crew, and even with the air controllers.

In the case study of the plane crash of Korean Air in Guam, they’re flying along when, after running into bad weather, the pilot makes an error. This is noticed by the co-pilot, but due to the hierarchical differentiation, he prefers not to make any correction, which would have avoided the plane crash.

Even though this was most evident in Korean Air — which had the biggest hierarchical gap — , this was verified in several other airlines, from eastern and western countries. The study changed aviation, and Korean Air is now as safe as any other airline.

If the team culture is not right, issues that are found or predicted by team members are not communicated.

Product Development issues usually don’t cause plane crashes (fortunately), but several bad decisions are made for similar reasons. If the team culture is not right, issues that are found or predicted by team members are not communicated — be it because they believe their words will not be heard, because of lack of confidence in their thoughts, or even, in some cases, because of fear of reprehension.

So that’s why in Product Development (and Startups in general) it’s so important to have a culture of openness. That’s why it’s important to foster the expression of the thoughts of everyone in the team.

At the end, in some teams, the final decision will still be made by a single person. And we may even later find out he has chosen the wrong one. But the most important point is to be sure that every thought is listened to, and that the final decision is made with all information, for the right reasons.


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