How Pilots Teach Us to Approach New Technology


Three years ago, I piloted an airplane solo for the first time. It was my goal for years and was an exhilarating accomplishment. But while I’d love to claim that it was made possible by my amazing skill, in truth it came to fruition because I followed a proven system.

Others who have been lucky enough to fly an airplane solo can no doubt relate. How else would it be possible to take someone off the street and have them flying an aircraft themselves — and living to tell about it — in less than two months?

Flight training requires time with an instructor and their personal sign-off to authorize the solo flight and, later, fitness for the final check-ride. Their guidance is essential to taking core concepts and not just turning them into action, but also burning them into your memory so they’ll be instinctive. The system they follow is what makes commercial flights in particular super safe.


I tell this story because flight training offers several lessons for those implementing new technologies in the service of a mission to improve business outcomes.

Here are five ways flight training applies to implementing technology.

Use checklists to drive everything.

For example, the preflight inspection ensures all aircraft systems are checked prior to takeoff. As the saying goes, “I’d rather be on the ground wishing I was up there, rather than up there wishing I was down here.” You should create a checklist based on best practices for the people, process and technology aspects to make evaluations and implementations go more smoothly and ensure no step is missed.

Use self-assessments, and develop emotional intelligence.

The IMSAFE mnemonic helps pilots determine their own fitness to fly. Similarly, with new technology, it’s important to have a methodology around making good decisions for organizational fitness.

Ask yourself: Do we have a clear vision as a company? Independent of any technology, what are the business outcomes we seek to achieve? Do we have executive buy-in (and long-term commitment)? Are all of the right stakeholders involved? Where are the holes in our business case for this technology?

(Over)communicate to establish alignment. 

By using standard language to communicate with other pilots and ground control, everyone involved in a flight ensures they’re aware of each other and their intentions. Pilots and ground control must communicate position in the air and on the ground, flight path, destination, intentions upon landing and so on. When they’re flying using instruments (or flying under instrument flight rules), there’s also a common language for exactly how they will approach and land at an airport. Everyone does it the same way, every time. Communicating every step of the way ensures the alignment of the entire “operation.”

Likewise, your organization will probably not adopt a new technology just because it’s there. You’ll need team buy-in and a comprehensive communication plan with regular repetition to drive adoption and ensure everyone remains aligned. Words are just code for the images in our heads, so establish a common basis for communication to help ensure the flight path is understood by all. Agree on, track and monitor a limited number of meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs), and distribute them widely.

Plan for mistakes — they can be expensive.

The majority of flight training focuses on what can go wrong. That includes running out of fuel, engine loss, stalls, radio communication outages and more. This applies not just to the initial training but also to ongoing pilot training. The goal is to leave as little to chance as possible by identifying and ranking risk factors. As the saying goes, “You don’t have to take off, but you do have to land.”

When you’re implementing new technologies to support business outcomes, you should plan properly and conduct a full evaluation of each technology under multiple identified scenarios to reduce risk and provide a proper understanding of capabilities and limitations.

Document everything. 

Every detail is documented for pilots: how to operate the aircraft safely, passenger and cargo weight limits, changes to the aircraft, weather conditions, aircraft usage, and all policies and procedures related to flight operation. With technology, you should create an easily accessible, comprehensive resource for ongoing learning. In addition, “cheat sheets” and quick reference guides for specific use cases and click paths can increase your chances for success.

Each of the above steps helps flight teams either make a no-go decision or ensure a safe flight. They can also help drive enhanced business outcomes — powered by new technologies — from exploration through to a final decision.

Pilots follow many of these principles not just in training, but also during each day on the job. This system makes it possible to fly millions of passengers to their destinations safely each day. If you apply these same lessons to your technology evaluation and implementation process, you can dramatically increase your organization’s chances of reaching its desired business outcomes with less risk and more confidence in long-term success.