Our recent columns explored the architecture and science behind institutional learning systems that help organizations manage risk – i.e., learn to thrive. Chesley Sullenberger’s story is a fitting capstone to this section, reminding us that learning to thrive is much more than a tale of heroes and miracles.
The Case for Building Institutional Learning Systems
- Because today the world is more connected but less tolerant, more informed but less confident, more aware but less engaged, more accessible but less open.
- Because facts are vulnerable, speed matters too much, and trust matters too little.
- Because individually we can always know more but can’t always understand more.
- Because as complexity grows, scrutiny intensifies, competition increases, power shifts, and the cost of control escalates.
- Because we can produce better and more affordable results that will endure if we develop an instinct to include.
- Because it’s both the right thing and the smart thing to do.
The dictionary teaches us that miracles are surprising and welcome events that are not explicable by natural or scientific laws. We often attribute miraculous events to a leader or miracle worker – as was the case with the most successful ditching in aviation history dubbed by some as the “Miracle on the Hudson.” In the eyes of the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, the event was anything but a miracle:
"[O]n January 15, 2009, I was the Captain on US Airways Flight 1549, which has been called the “Miracle on the Hudson.” On that flight, multiple bird strikes caused both engines to fail and, in concert with my crew, including of course our First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, I conducted an emergency landing on the Hudson River saving the lives of all 155 people aboard. And Jeff is with us today in the hearing room. Jeff, I could not have had a better colleague that day or since.
I saw the birds just 100 seconds after takeoff, about two seconds before we hit them. We were traveling at 316 feet per second, and there was not enough time or distance to maneuver a jet airliner away from them. When they struck and damaged both engines, we had just 208 seconds to do something we had never trained for, and get it right the first time.
The fact that we landed a commercial airliner on the Hudson River with no engines and no fatalities was not a miracle, however. It was the result of teamwork, skill, in-depth knowledge, and the kind of judgment that comes only from experience."
In other words, Sullenberger gave credit to the concept of collective intelligence which is the heart of risk management. This collective intelligence manifested itself in two ways – the training and experience afforded to Sullenberger and the accumulation of knowledge that led to building an aircraft to be equipped with technology to survive a bird strike – a risk that dates back to the experimental flights of the Wright Brothers in the early 1900’s.
Let’s look first at the role that collective intelligence played in Sullenberger’s development which began at age 5. Sullenberger recalls building his first model airplane at age 6, getting his private pilot’s certificate at the minimum age of 17, his commercial pilot’s certificate at the minimum age of 18, and then entering the Air Force Academy. By the time he was 20, Sullenberger was a flight instructor in airplanes and gliders – flying thousands of hours while at the Academy and teaching other cadets how to fly airplanes and gliders on his weekends and after school. Upon graduation from the Academy, Sullenberger was named the outstanding cadet in airmanship.
Sullenberger then became a fighter pilot which was another opportunity to develop his skills as a continuous lifelong learner. The military debriefings after every flight taught him how to learn from other professionals as they talked about what worked, what didn’t and why, and what they could do to make it better next time. Sullenberger explained that pilots of his generation could quote chapter and verse of the last half century of seminal aviation accidents – where they occurred, why, and what they had learned from each of them. All of this knowledge and experience built up over more 40 years and 20,000 hours in the air, including 5,000 hours (or 6 ½ years) on the airplane in question (a $62 million Airbus A320), equipped Sullenberger to problem-solve in the moment for a situation that he never been trained for (a double bird strike that turned a jet airplane into a 75-ton glider passing over one of the world’s most densely populated cities with no runway in reach). For Sullenberger, problem-solving in the moment meant devising and implementing a solution in 208 seconds or just under 3 ½ minutes.
Sullenberger’s problem-solving was aided by the accumulated knowledge that went into building the airplane. A significant risk in modern aviation is the vulnerability of birds being ingested by the jet engine. In fact, governmental regulations require that every type of jet engine used in commercial aircraft pass the chicken gun test (literally chicken carcasses are launched at high velocity into spinning jet engines). In Sullenberger’s case, this accumulated knowledge made it possible for the left engine to withstand the bird strike to retain enough speed – not enough for sufficient thrust to make a runway – but enough for the plane’s electronics and hydraulics system to remain functional. This, in turn, enabled the plane’s fly-by-wire computer system to assist Sullenberger in controlling the airplane.
In short, there is much in Sullenberger’s story to learn about risk management. At one level, the story teaches us that personal experience and training matter. At another level, the story reminds us of the power of group intelligence – the incremental accumulation of knowledge through decades of small decisions made by thousands of individuals and organizations. Simply put, learning to thrive – the essence of risk management – is not a miracle or a stroke of good fortune. It takes time and sustained learning, individually and organizationally, to create excellence.
John Wooden, the ESPN Sports Coach of the 20th Century put it this way:
When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made.
Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens - and when it happens, it lasts.
Wooden – A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court, at 143 (1997).