Building Airplanes in the Air
I once had someone tell me that his company’s prescription for dealing with slipping project schedules was to “build airplanes while they were in the air.” I understand the virtuous, even heroic, aspect of this metaphor. This company would go to any length to keep their commitments and deliver on customer expectations. But, in practice, it easily becomes what I call a “fictional fix.”
You know you’re dealing with a “fictional fix” when it starts showing up as an explanation for why something CAN’T be done. YES we should have a process for making sure the project goal is clearly defined, and that project team members are on board, BUT we just don’t have the time to do that because “we build airplanes while they’re in the air.” YES, having the core team collaborate in the creation of the work breakdown structure and dependency diagram is useful in catching important missing details, BUT… given the all-consuming nature of “building airplanes in the air” that’s not realistic.
Fictional fixes often arise as solutions to symptoms misunderstood as causes. For example, the project is due in a week, but there are two weeks of work remaining to complete it. Delivering the project late or without key features are both unacceptable outcomes. With scope reduction and deadline extension off the table only one option remains…more resources. Since projects almost always run late this becomes an expected response, which may deliver the project on time and to spec, but even when it does the apparent success of this “solution” masks a serious underlying problem.
Imagine this team standing on a strip of carpet inside the unfinished carcass of a plane frantically riveting on its aluminum skin as it hurdles through the clouds en route to the customer. At one point, someone shouts through his oxygen mask, “Okay! Let’s attach the landing gear.” As the jet stream whips through their hair, team members desperately scan the cabin for the missing part. What do they do when they discover that, in their rush to get this unfinished plane in the air, they forgot to include it and other key components essential for completing the job? If the plane comes down in flames all that speed was useless.
The biggest liability presented by fictional fixes is that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Because “building airplanes in the air” eats up all our time and resources we don’t have time to adequately plan or collaborate, this leads to miscommunication, overlooked aspects of the work, and the redoing or undoing of the mistakes that result. Consequently the project runs late forcing us to “build airplanes in the air.”
Collaborative planning and clear communication does take more time at the outset of the project, but the time it saves in the long run by reducing the redoing and undoing is so significant that “building airplanes in the air” becomes unnecessary. If it ain’t broke it won’t need fixing, especially fictional fixing.