November 9, 2012
To land a plane you need to line up with the runway, figure out the right rate of descent and airspeed, then monitor and manage those, all the way down to the ground.
Your goal is to touch down on the runway, rather than before or after it, while travelling fast enough that the plane doesn’t stall and fall out of the sky, but slow enough that the wheels stay attached when they hit the ground, and you can stop within the amount of runway you have at your disposal.
Well, not so much.
How not to land a plane
If you drop the average person with no experience of flying into the captain’s seat, and ask them to land a plane, they will almost certainly get into trouble very quickly. Even if you line them up with the runway and tell them the rate of descent and airspeed they need to maintain, they will probably still lose control of the aircraft.
What inevitably goes wrong is that a layman assumes that you should use the throttle to control airspeed, and you should use forward and backward movement of the yolk or joystick to control the rate of descent. That’s understandable. A plane is just a three dimensional car, and in a car we control speed with the gas peddle, and direction with the steering wheel.
With a plane things are reversed. If your rate of descent is too fast, increase the throttle. This will flatten out your descent and get you back on track. If you are too high, decreasing the throttle will cause the plane to fall faster.
While getting back on the correct rate of descent with the throttle, you control the airspeed by pulling back on the yolk to raise the nose, which slows the plane. If the plane is too slow, pushing the nose down will speed it up.
Landing your first project
Training for new project managers is often either non existent, or amounts to a one or two day course.
Contrast this with the on the ground, theoretical training required by a pilot. For a sense of what a pilot goes through in ground school, take a look here
Landing a plane is actually much simpler than bringing a typical software project in on time. But we impose some of that difficulty on ourselves, by not knowing which levers to pull to control the project.
We seem permanently stuck, like amateur pilots using levers that are intuitive, rather than asking whether we might crash less projects by trying something different. How many projects have run into trouble, only for the corrective action to make matters worse?
Throwing more bodies at a late project, Calling extra meetings, demanding more status reports, introducing or abandoning tools or practices, cutting corners in QA, Version Control, Deployment. Shipping more features with more bugs, rather than less features with less bugs.
The pilots teach us a number of lessons that we can apply to projects.
Few people have an automatic ability to fly planes, or manage project. These are skills that need to be learned. Pilots can not afford to learn from their mistakes, so the learning is front loaded with serious training that is both broad and deep. The intuitive ways of controlling a plane or a project are often the wrong controls and are more likely to make things worse than better. A layman may have some chance of landing a small aircraft and some people have been “talked down”, but they have virtually no chance of manually landing a large commercial airliner. This last point is interesting. No layperson has ever been called on to land a “heavy” jet. With the technological advances modern aircraft stand a much better chance of landing themselves than of being successfully landed by a layperson.
The interesting thing about lay pilots is they are significantly more likely to be able to land a single engine light aircraft 10 times than land a jet once. In fact while the first one or two landings of the light aircraft might be a little bumpy, the pilot will likely improve with each effort.
This “many small landings” instead of “one big landing” is the essence of Agile project management.