If there’s one thing that the aviation industry is known for, it’s a love of terminology. Okay, it’s also known for flying airplanes, but adherence to concisely defined terminology unquestionably contributes to keeping them in the air. Communication that’s ambiguous or otherwise lacking clarity is universally recognised as undesirable. Pilots drill on Standard Operating Procedures until they’re second nature because the value of such well-defined process has been proven since humans learned to organise themselves. The objective of this article is to provide a definition for the term “Baby Steps”, then examine how that fits with two approaches to implementing operational programs, which I have coined as “Cartography” and “Navigation”.
At Closed Loop, we’re often told by airlines that their preferred approach to developing a complex operational program is to take baby steps, which we tend to interpret as an intention to roll out functionality slowly, likely only obtaining budget for it as needed. The term itself is somewhat whimsical, evoking imagery of immaturity, so being delivered with an implied wink and a nudge, as if to say “you know what airlines are like...” Sadly though, the term is often appropriate. A baby treats every step as a discrete achievement rather than part of a journey from one point to another, so doesn’t correlate a submission to gravity as anything other than one failed step. Accordingly, there’s little concern for failure, nor is there any reason not to just stand up again and set off in a different direction. Baby steps in an operational program are similar – there’s too little responsibility to the one previous and too much uncertainty about the one following. Of course nobody plans to fail, but with the luxury of considering only one step at a time, it’s pretty easy to underestimate the gravity of failure. It’s also too easy to set off in a new direction.
Cartography is a task that unless previously done badly, needs only to be done once. I suppose that would make it a somewhat depressing career, knowing that notwithstanding ongoing geographical changes, every day that one does their job well is one day closer to them no longer being needed. While unquestionably scientific, cartography relies absolutely on baby steps. What has occurred previously is known and what will occur in the future is not. There is purpose and beauty in the mapping of every inlet of a coastline and in fact, the more of the map you try to take in at a time the less you are able to appreciate the nuance. The here and now is important, days past are less so and the future is so unknown as to be irrelevant. Cartographers who take baby steps are brave, as every step carries risk. Airlines that take this approach to operational programs are not afforded the same nobility as the team hacking a path along unexplored coastline and nor should they be. They are conflating two objectives – the first being an understanding of the problem domain and the second being an attempt to achieve a result within it. Trying to complete these in tandem immediately brings to mind the idea of learning on the job (which thankfully, is not common practice in the more critical parts of the airline industry). There are so many things that can go wrong, the most obvious being that the destination is found not to match the hopes of the organisation. Despite concerns that I may be overstretching the analogy, the realisation that they are back where they started forces airlines to conclude that they have just circumnavigated an island. Maybe for the first time, maybe not... Airlines that take baby steps are foolhardy, as every step carries risk.
Every morning when they get up, navigators say a silent thank you to cartographers. Navigation is to cartography what colouring in is to art. The lines are there – one need only stay within their boundaries to succeed. That’s not intended to diminish the role of the navigator in any way, it simply illustrates how although they both focus intently on the map, the two roles are otherwise almost unrelated. Navigation is also highly scientific and often reliant on incremental progress. Thanks to the cartographer though, these are not baby steps. No navigator worth their salt will accept being told that their destination has not been established, but that they need to forge a path toward it. By their very nature, they want to be provided with a destination and use their skills to determine the most efficient route to arrive at it. The navigator may plan to traverse the same route between two points as the cartographer did, leading the casual observer to remark that the journey was the same, but the mindset behind the two couldn’t be more different. Airlines that deploy a navigator to manage operational programs recognise the difference between the roles. They realise that navigators are risk averse. Their professional pride relies on not just the successful journey, but one that was also comfortable and interesting. They feel a deep sense of accomplishment not just about the good parts, but also about the pitfalls that only they and the cartographer were even aware existed.
So, cartography or navigation? As much as I respect cartographers, I wouldn’t want to be one. Cartographers rely on baby steps and baby steps are dangerous, so cartography is dangerous. Navigation leverages from cartography, so isn’t dangerous... or at least, not in the same ways. The next time someone tells you that an operational program is going to be done as a series of baby steps, consider exploring what they mean by that. Perhaps it’s just a throwaway line and everything will be fine, but perhaps it’s an indication of an underlying and somewhat unhealthy corporate culture. In that case, it may be worth questioning whether your participation in the project will provide you with personal satisfaction and the organisation with the benefits that it should be able to realise. If the cartography hasn’t already been done, the project might just be another statistic in the making.