Collaboration Lessons from Disaster Documentaries and Other “Unexpected” Sources

This post is for anyone who has ever asked me for book recommendations on collaboration.

Yesterday, Carmen Medina‘s wrote a wonderful blog post on the television documentary series, Air Disasters. (It’s known as Mayday in Canada.) She shares a number of insights she gathered from the show on human performance, systems design, and leadership in general. For example:

The Importance of Sleep and Good Rest:

Commercial airlines have strict rules about how many hours flight crews can work before they must rest…. These rules reflect hard lessons learned about how poor rest and lack of sleep can degrade the cognitive performance and judgment of pilots…. The aviation industry learned long ago that “people just have to tough it out” is not a useful strategy.

Hierarchy Can Kill You:

Traditionally the captain and the first officer in commercial aviation were in a command and obey-orders relationship. But captains are not infallible and there are several fatal accidents that could have been avoided if the first officer had been listened to. Oftentimes the captain would have had a hard time “hearing” the other view because the first officer actually never verbalized his concern. The respect for hierarchy was so paralyzing that first officers have deferred to wrongheaded captains even when it led to certain death. These types of accidents became so concerning for the aviation industry that airlines instituted mandatory crew resource management procedures that emphasize the importance of collaboration and teamwork in the cockpit.

Who’s Accountable?

As airline crash investigators know, many airplane accidents involve a chain of unlikely events, any one of which would rarely occur. A supervisor decides to pitch in and help his overworked maintenance team by removing a set of screws. The maintenance team isn’t able to finish the job but don’t know to replace the screws. Nevertheless, the plane makes many safe landings and takeoffs until a pilot decides to make an unusually fast descent. The pilot and all the passengers die.

Who exactly is accountable here? Is it the supervisor who tried to be helpful? Or the airline management that under-resourced its maintenance operations? Or the pilot? In many organizations, holding someone “accountable” is the signature move of “strong leaders”. But what often happens is that some unfortunate individual is held to blame for what was a systemic failure of an organization — often driven by complacency, expediency, and/or greed.

These are all really good lessons, all from watching a television show! Of course, it’s a little disingenuous to say that. Carmen was a long-time leader at the CIA with a lifetime of hard-earned experiences. Most of us would not be able to recognize the deeper lessons that Carmen did, much less articulate them so clearly. This is what the best authors do — pull good insights from all kinds of places, some of them unexpected — and package them in a clear and compelling way. Not surprisingly, Carmen is one of those authors.

Still, when it comes to collaboration at least, I find that many people seem to eschew sources like television documentaries or — more dishearteningly — their own experiences for books written by “experts.” You don’t have to have been a CEO at a Fortune 500 company or a business school professor to have had amazing insights and experiences on collaboration. (Honestly, I don’t think many CEOs or business school professors would even make my list of top collaboration practitioners.)

Do you have a family? Friends? Classmates? A partner of any sort, business or life? Are you in a band? Do you play pickup sports or volunteer in your community? If so, I promise you, you already have a lifetime of experiences on which to draw. It’s only a matter of being intentional about sifting through your experiences for insights and trying to practice what you learn. Once you start doing this, you’ll start to recognize deeper lessons from all sorts of places, some of them unexpected. I use television and movie clips all the time to help groups learn how to recognize and navigate power dynamics. For those of you follow this blog, I obviously write a lot about basketball, and athlete podcasts have been a particularly rich source of insights for me for a while now. (My favorites are All the Smoke and The Old Man and the Three.) Over the past few years, I’ve been learning a ton about systems design and collaboration from watching birds and experimenting with bird feeders.

Deeply examining your own experiences and drawing from unexpected sources are much more effective for learning about collaboration than reading a book, and they’re far more fun.

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