They are the unsung heroes of every airport and commercial flight; the calm quiet voice in the pilot’s ears talking him through landing and take-off. The air traffic controller (ATC) is one of the most stressful jobs in the world, responsible for the safety of hundreds of thousands of air passengers daily. Heathrow control tower lands 650 planes per day, most of which wait in ‘holding stacks’ – literal queues of planes in the sky. Passengers are oblivious to the highly disciplined interaction between pilot and ATC but this incredibly tight co-ordination depends on standard procedures, very rigorous planning and a life-or-death discipline.
Flight plans are just theory until pilots and ATC work together
Large organisations also need this mindset in their projects landscape. Limited resources, market pressures and internal complexity require planning and disciplined communication between portfolio managers (ATC) and programme managers (pilots). Changes to IT systems are usually scheduled for once a month and processes for these release weekends often kick in weeks before. Strategic programmes also need to be co-ordinated across multiple business units; enterprise architectures have many moving parts and changing them must be done with discipline and planning. Ambitious strategies always require diligent execution; flight plans are just theory until pilots and ATC work together to make them a safe and successful reality.
mutually co-dependent relationship with the control tower
People aspects and working relationships often arise from the culture and leadership practices in the organisation. When a pilot enters the airspace around an airport there is a mutually co-dependent relationship with the control tower. Equally in large organisations, the architects, project managers, portfolio managers and other disciplines all have roles to play in the busy airspaces of projects and enterprise architectures. The portfolio manager must have a broad overview of what’s happening and how it fits into the evolving architecture which is continually calibrated against actual progress. They must co-ordinate between projects, track delivery and ensure that everyone has access to relevant information.
Trust and collaboration are critical success factors in the stress of pressured delivery
The control tower is the single co-ordinating mechanism for a common airspace; this is crucial if there is an emergency landing or a safety situation. This is just the same as when projects require fast-tracking; agility that achieves strategic, disruptive or regulatory requirements. New ways of working are often misunderstood as being less structured. Agile may have shorter cycles of work but the adherence to common principles then becomes even more important. Trust and collaboration are critical success factors in the stress of pressured delivery; the human factor takes over but only because the groundwork of training and planning is well laid.
keep people aligned to a consistent way of working
There are other programme management metaphors such as burning your boats, construction sites and launch countdowns. But more important than the method, the language or the metaphor is the delivery of business value. Responding to disruptive change requires organisations to think carefully about how they plan, run and co-ordinate multiple large programmes. Adequately used metaphors like these and air traffic control helps to keep people aligned to a common vocabulary and consistent way of working.