No green light. No extended nose wheel. Stress. Is the lamp broken and the nose wheel indeed extended? Doubt. The crew of flight EA401 is so absorbed by this "crisis" that they do not realize that the autopilot is off and the plane has started descending. The realization comes too late and the plane crashes into the Everglades.

What went wrong here? None of the crew was paying attention to flying. They forgot the golden rule of aviation:

  1. Aviate
  2. Navigate
  3. Communicate

In that order. This rule ensures the appropriate priority in exceptional situations. So, first make sure that you continue to fly the aircraft (Aviate), then determine where you are, where you want to be and what obstacles must be avoided (Navigate) and finally - when everything is in order - communicate with the outside world (Communicate).

In project management, we have our own exception procedures. Looked at through the eyes of a pilot it is strange that our usual step-by-step process is reversed compared to that of aviation. A method such as Prince2 states that in an exceptional situation, we should first write an Exception Report (Communicate), then prepare an Exception Plan (Navigate) and then - implicitly - move to implementation and daily operations (Aviate).

Often with an exception we are (and yes, I've been guilty of this too) so focused on communication with the client and the 'what next?', that we give insufficient attention to the daily operation of the project or program. As a result, the team - already feeling uncertain due to the ‘crisis’ - stops working or works on the wrong things. By the time a new plan is available, a lot of time may have been lost.

But it can be different. Especially in times of crisis, strong and visible leadership is important. The next time there is an exception, remember the golden rule of aviation and start with Aviate: ensure the daily management of the project remains secure. There is a reason why there are two pilots in the cockpit. So why not designate a ’co-pilot‘ that continues to ensure the daily management? Then as project manager you can focus on the Navigate: how to move forward. And then you can safely report out to the Steering Committee (Communicate), knowing that the project always remained under control.

The aviation world has evolved over 100 years into one of the safest and predictable modes of transportation. Project management is older, but not as far as a profession. We can learn a lot from aviation. For example, about the extensive sharing of lessons learned and how new insights are rigorously brought into training programs. Keep learning, keep sharing.

This article appeared in Dutch in a special appendix on Project Management to the Financieel Dagblad on Wednesday 25 March 2015.