High Tech Strategies > Articles and Insights > Customer Alignment Lifecycle > Situational Awareness: the key to new product success
air traffic control specialists

Managing a High-Tech Product is Like Flying an Airplane

In 1983 I was flying on a small regional airline when our landing gear got stuck…halfway between up and down. This experience taught me all about situational awareness.

I had departed from Memphis, TN and was flying to Mountain Home, AR on a tiny regional airline appropriately named “Mountain Home Airlines.” As we approached our destination, the co-pilot turned to me (the airplane only held five passengers and I happened to be in the front seat) and said, “our indicator light shows that our landing gear will not lower into landing position. So, we’re going to fly past the air traffic control tower and they will hopefully be able to see what is wrong.”

As I looked out the window I could see two air traffic control specialists with binoculars, examining the bottom of our plane. The co-pilot then said to me “it appears that our landing gear is stuck, halfway between up and down. So, we’re going to execute a maneuver that involves “kissing” the runway with our gear halfway down. Hopefully this will jar it loose and back into working condition.”

My immediate thought was: these are the words that will be on my grave-stone. “Here lies Warren; died attempting to kiss the runway.

The aircraft descended as if we were going to land, but instead of slowing down, the pilot flew at flight speed about 6 inches over the runway. He then lightly bounced the plane off of the runway surface, and immediately took off again. The maneuver worked and the co-pilot — with great relief — said that the landing gear was no longer stuck. We flew past the air traffic control tower a second time to confirm our gear was fully operational and we landed in Mountain Home, AR.

Situational Awareness in Aviation

Years later, as I was learning to fly airplanes myself, I realized the amazing amount of focus and judgement that was demonstrated by the Mountain Home pilot. To execute that maneuver, he had to:

  • align the aircraft with the runway
  • descend at “flight” speed
  • compensate for the weather conditions (wind speed and direction) near the ground
  • fly the aircraft 6 inches over the runway in “ground effect”
  • make sure the wings were perfectly level at all times
  • reduce altitude slowly and gently bump the runway with our malfunctioning landing gear
  • take off using a reduced amount of available runway

A mistake in any one of these areas would have resulted in a fatal crash.

situational awareness
Pilots are trained to juggle many things at once in a high-stakes environment

Situational Awareness in a Technology-Based Business

After spending many years working in high-tech startups and launching dozens of new products, it occurred to me that the practices of that veteran pilot can teach us a lot about managing a new product or innovation. In fact, new-product success requires the same “situational awareness” as flying an airplane.

To achieve sustained growth with a new product, a business leader must align all key business disciplines with the characteristics and motivations of the customer or end user. To do this she must:

  • know which customers are ready to buy and why
  • offer the right mix of product attributes
  • collaborate with partners that add value
  • sell through the appropriate distribution channels
  • use your long-term advantages to differentiate and position your product
  • communicate the right messages
  • deliver the expected value (or cost-benefit ratio)
  • build a management team that has the necessary skillsets

A mistake in any one of these areas can easily result in a failed product or company.

No matter what business you are in, there are two clear strategies you can employ to help your team develop situational awareness, and focus on the business activities that are the most critical:

Use known patterns of adoption. Rely on patterns of innovation-adoption that are already known and understood. Always have awareness of where you are in the adoption lifecycle. This reduces the number of potential action steps your team has to understand and execute in order to be successful.

Maximize customer-alignment in six key dimensions. Always align your activities and business disciplines with the things that provide exceptional value for the customer or end user. This means making sure all of the different parts of your business are adding value for the customer.

When running an emerging high-tech business, think like a pilot who needs to focus on doing the right things at the right time.

Here is a free, interactive tool that helps business and product leaders minimize the potential for misalignment in each stage of the product lifecycle. It’s called The Customer Alignment Lifecycle™: Link to Free Tool

Have a good flight!

Written by: Warren