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A Project Management Lesson From Flight 1549
By Barry Shore, Ph.D.

Everyone has been mesmerized by the miraculous outcome of US Airways Flight 1549. From TV commentators to the office cafeteria, people have asked, how was it possible to crash land on the Hudson in frigid weather with no loss of life?

The plane departed La Guardia Airport at 3:26 on January 15th. At 3:29, just three minutes into the flight, and at an altitude of 3,200 feet, the plane hit a flock of birds crippling both engines. The pilot immediately reported a “double bird strike.”

Then a drama unfolded that compressed a critical decision process to seconds.

Decisions like this, or indeed any personal or project management decision, involve several steps including the collection of data, the identification of alternatives, assessment of risks, the selection of the most appropriate alternative, and the execution of the steps necessary to succeed in reaching the goal. But in most situations, decision makers have time before they move from one decision step to the next.

Not the case here.

Once it was determined that both engines had failed, there were only two or three alternatives from which to choose; return to LaGuardia Airport and land on a runway or continue to the Hudson River and land in the water. Air Traffic Control recommended a third alternative: land in Teterboro Airport.

With the aircraft losing altitude quickly, the risks of making it back to La Guardia or to Teterboro were high. The pilot, C.B.”Sully” Sullenberger, made a split second decision. Returning to La Guardia or reaching Teterboro in New Jersey was out.

But the risks of landing on the Hudson were substantial. Could the plane find and glide to a safe landing spot? Would the fuselage remain intact upon impact? Would the aircraft sink in the 36 degree water before rescue crews could reach stranded passengers? And could they even clear the George Washington Bridge?

Nonetheless, he turned south and brought the pane down on the river.

The governor called it the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

While a miracle might have occurred, and while good luck was certainly instrumental in the rescue effort, most agree that the most important factor was skill. From Pilot to crew and rescue personnel, the operation was an example of how to do it right!

Everyone had been trained. Not just one training session, but a series of sessions that developed and reinforced the skills necessary in such situations. Pilots flew simulators practicing emergency procedures, flight attendants attended sessions emphasizing the evacuation of passengers as quickly as possible, and ferry captains regularly drilled their crew on emergency procedures. Indeed the kind of performance that we have marveled at in New York was the result of extensive and continual training.

Yes, people get bored with training: new software releases, project management skills, team building skills, and conflict resolution, often bring yawns to those participating. Of course, not every minute spent in training proves useful. Some will complain that the session is irrelevant and prefer to ignore its message. Perhaps this explains why most of us tune out when flight attendants review emergency procedures before a flight. We don’t expect to use the information and therefore find it irrelevant (the last US airline fatality was over two years ago).

Indeed we all know that single training sessions – where we bring in charismatic speakers – seldom have lasting effects. To be productive, training must be targeted and constantly reinforced. What we learn that we “should” do must become part of what we “actually” do. We should be able to draw on these lessons in the “Blink” of the eye. Success in execution requires continuous reinforcement.

Training strategy is critical to its success. Top management must determine what is important. What is the basic message and what are the relevant and core skills that need to be emphasized?

In fact without a clear training strategy the company is usually left with a collection of unrelated and scattered programs, cobbled together without clear focus. Granted, that the airlines have a clearer focus when designing safety training programs, but this difference can’t leave the organization off-the-hook completely. Especially since corporations allocate considerable sums to project management training.

As we have been reminded in this miraculous outcome on the Hudson River, training is serious business. Leaving it to chance or abandoning training because people claim to be bored may miss the opportunity to build a focused team capable of moving from “good” to “great.”

Global Project Strategy

@ 2008 Barry Shore. Not to be used without written permission of the author.

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