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What I Learned from Sully

February 13, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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If my admiration for Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was intense before, it rages now with the fire of a thousand suns, now that I’ve seen his sit-down with Katie Couric.  

There are so many ways I’m inspired by Sully.  The leadership.  The sense of calm.  The apparent lack of ego. The clarity, intelligence and plain-speak of his communication.  And at the risk of trivializing the feat he pulled off in the Hudson, I couldn’t help but think there are lessons in project management we can take from Sully.

Fans of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” know the power of breaking down complex projects into manageable “next actions” — literally, physical stuff you need to do to keep the engine of your project revving. (Read more here.) Great trick to keep you out of the worry zone and in action (see “How Not to Worry” post). 

I thought of this during the Sully-Couric interview.  If you want to know how to break down “execute emergency water landing without destroying plane/killing people” into next actions, here’s how.  Per Sully:

I needed to touch down with the wings exactly level.

I needed to touch down with the nose slightly up.

I needed to touch down with a descent rate that was survivable.

I needed to touch down at our minimum flying speed but not below it.

Sully broke down his overwhelming task into discrete physical actions — in less than 60 seconds.  Oh, and then this last bit:

I needed to make all these things happen simultaneously.

OK, not your usual project management challenge.  But what Sully’s handling of that plane reinforced for me is the need to stay in action. Figure out what needs to get done…and do it. 

And stay in the moment.  When Couric asked Sully if upon landing he reflected on the fact that he had just saved all those lives he said no, because he hadn’t quite yet.  They were still in the water. There was more work to be done.  More critical next actions to take.

What critical next actions do you need to take?

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