During flight training one of the first things the aspiring pilot is taught is to handle the controls ‘lightly’. I clearly remember my first flying lesson, where I instinctively gripped the yoke (steering wheel) in my fist. “Gentle!”, said my flight instructor, “just use your fingertips”. I soon learned to appreciate the improved control I gained by loosening my grip. Later I realized that this also applies to managing teams.

   firm grip
  Photo 1: a firm grip – often seen practiced by flight
simulator enthusiasts… and managers

So what was the insight? With a looser grip:

  • you have less tendency to over-control and give input where it is not required
  • you are more sensitive to what is happening in the environment
  • you have the other hand (read: time) available for other tasks

While learning to fly, I was impressed by the aerodynamic characteristics that make an airplane always return to stable flight. Just after I earned my pilot license, I took another lesson to learn spin-recovery. A spin is a stall over one wing in which the airplane has lost lift and is in a nose-dive, spinning downward. To recover from such a stall requires counter-intuitive responses (like pushing the nose further down). After a couple of successful spin recoveries, my instructor told me to ‘just let go of the controls – and do nothing’. To my amazement the aircraft recovered by itself and was stable in a matter of seconds. Incredible.

loose grip  
Photo 2: a loose grip for better control  

When managing project teams, I have come to appreciate this concept. and to put trust in the teams. In one of my programs, the steering board wanted the delivery pulled forward and demanded that the teams go into overtime mode. I asked the director to come to one of the team meetings and personally explain the context of the issue and what was at stake. Doing so, we asked the teams how they could make it happen. The teams stepped up to the challenge and delivered – on time – coming with alternative solutions to speed up delivery.

If anything, agile has taught us that self-organizing teams are way more productive and efficient in meeting objectives than teams that are tightly managed. A too firm grip will make you miss important signals. Just like an airplane has aerodynamic characteristics that make it stable in flight, your team knows how to deliver. Instead of using ‘command and control’, be the compass your team needs and guide the way to the point on the horizon. Your team will be smart enough to figure out how to get there.

Join the discussion

I would love to hear from you! Join the discussion on LinkedIn Pulse, where this article has also been posted: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/loosen-your-grip-increase-control-jacques-dunselman.