Hand on heart, are you always clear about your role in a project? What tasks you have to complete and by when? Knowing exactly what your responsibilities are plays a very important role in your success? 

And this applies to both your professional and private life.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in the cockpit

In the airline cockpit it is more simple: one pilot has the role of the “pilot flying” – the actual aeronautical control of the aircraft – and the other has the role of the “pilot monitoring”. The latter is in charge of the flight radio and assists with flight execution. This distribution of roles is alternated in each case and is completely independent of the positions of captain or first officer.

This understanding of roles is defined in clear processes, the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). The roles, tasks and responsibilities are defined down to the last detail. 

I can theoretically even spend a 14-hour working day together in the cockpit without exchanging a single private word. The safety of the flight is never in danger because the SOPs ensure that all steps are carried out correctly.

This also means: the cockpit crew checks each other and even the most inexperienced co-pilot should not be afraid to point out mistakes to the captain, on the contrary: he is even encouraged to do so. The captain has the leading role, but the hierarchies are very flat and the training is designed in such a way that every crew member is encouraged to communicate observations or doubts immediately.

Turbulence on the night flight

The importance of this clear understanding of roles is shown by an anecdote that our crew member Kerstin experienced in the cockpit: A previously inconspicuous flight at night over the Alps from the Balearic Islands towards Germany. Cabin service was in full swing, the weather charts presented themselves inconspicuously, no sign of turbulence. A beautiful, clear night: cloudless, snow-covered mountain peaks in the moonlight, peaceful calm. Suddenly, without warning, they ran into so-called clear air turbulence. This type of turbulence is not recognisable to pilots in advance because there are no visible clues to the movement of air masses in clear, cloud-free air.

Clear roles, best handling

The turbulence was so strong that the autopilot switched off and controls had to be taken over manually. As a pilot, Kerstin has internalised the core point #2 “Expect the unexpected”. In the cockpit, we train to anticipate and react to emergencies, so Kerstin was immediately present and highly concentrated in order to complete the following steps in a well-rehearsed manner with her colleague: 

Step 1: Aviate or also “fly the aircraft first”. As “pilot flying”, she immediately took control of the aircraft and tried to maintain altitude, course and speed.

Step 2: Navigate. The “pilot monitoring” took care of observing the airspace.

Step 3: Communicate. Quick and clear communication is essential. The pilot monitoring informed air traffic control so that the other aircraft in the airspace could be warned, and he immediately switched on the seat belt sign for the passengers. After a few minutes, things calmed down and the situation was under control aeronautically.

Step 4: Situation analysis. Check that all systems are working properly and that cabin crew and passengers are well.

Importance of role awareness

Fortunately, all passengers escaped that night with their scars, there were no injuries. Together with the cabin manager, the decision was made to fly on to Berlin.

After landing, the last step was the debriefing. The entire crew discussed what had happened, how each individual had experienced it and whether there were possible improvements from this situation or whether anyone needed further support.

The clear understanding of each individual’s role makes the difference in the end how a flight succeeds – with or without an emergency on board. 

Clear division of roles in professional and private life

Can this understanding of roles be transferred 1:1 to professional or even private life? Standard operating procedures for all situations, so to speak?

How often have you walked out of a meeting and asked yourself who actually does what and by when? Was it always clear? 

By defining processes and distributing roles and responsibilities, we can ensure that each individual knows exactly what is his or her responsibility and what is not. In this way, we avoid misunderstandings and duplications, among other things. In this way, we ensure that projects can be carried out efficiently and without multiple loops, and that they can be completed on time and within budget.

If you ever want to change your role in the cockpit, there is a strict prescribed procedure for that too: The pilot flying says “You have control” and the colleague then clearly says “I have control” – only then are the controls really transferred.

We must and can ensure, even without such obvious closed loops, that the distribution of roles is always clear to everyone by, among other things, creating a clear organisational chart or an overview of responsibilities before each project. The point here is to show “who wears the hat” and is in charge of a task. It is also important that we determine by when this task should be completed, especially if there are interfaces with other tasks and employees in the team. 

Standard Operating Procedures for project work

And the described working method from the cockpit is also recommended for unforeseen problems.

If we now translate the flight over the Alps into, for example, a project at work that gets into turbulence for unforeseeable reasons, we can see some astonishing parallels.

  • Fly the aircraft first….so in the event of an unforeseen incident, the first thing to do is keep the project “up in the air” and check whether you are still “on track” despite everything, and if not, what measures need to be taken. Perhaps quick measures are required, which have to be implemented quickly and without hesitation.
  • Navigate….once again safely in the air for the moment we undertake a precise situation analysis. Where do we stand? How big is the deviation from the target course? Does it make any sense at all to return to the target course? Or would a recalculation make more sense? A complete rescheduling? A diversion? A safety landing? How much fuel do we need (costs, resources) to get back to the flight path? Will we even make it to the destination with the remaining fuel?
  • Communicate….who are my stakeholders? Who do I have to inform?

For this last point of communication, another model that we in aviation like to use for such purposes comes in handy: NITS

We inform our stakeholders in this NITS order: Nature of problem – Intentions – Time – Specials.

This is our common thread, so that nothing is forgotten.

First we describe, what the problem actually is. Then what we plan to do, in what time frame and whether there is anything special to be considered.

Short, concise and structured – and a wonderful hook to assign tasks or roles at the same time in order to close the loop again directly and to have the controls exactly in view, so to speak.