On Airplane Crashes And Startups

Image Credit:  Creative Commons

Image Credit: Creative Commons

It’s rare for airplanes to crash, but they do. People die. It’s terribly sad. But airlines do a pretty decent job of keeping us safe. They achieve this by building systems that compartmentalise errors.

In his book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that failures are positively correlated in many man-made systems, meaning that one failure increases the chances of another. That’s how you get contagion, bank runs, markets spiralling out of control. But in the airline industry, mistakes are negatively correlated. Which is to say, a crash reduces the chances of future accidents.

Not only does negative correlation promote resilience by preventing errors from spreading through the system. It promotes antifragility by ensuring that errors actually reduce the chances of further problems occurring.

How does this work in practice? When things go wrong, airlines go into error isolation mode. They conduct exhaustive inquires into mistakes. These are hyperbolic, since one crash has little statistical impact on the aggregate safety of passengers globally. Once the error in the airplane has been isolated, action is taken to stop that same error from occurring in other aircraft. This might include pilot training, or mechanical replacements.

Founders can learn from airlines. We can build companies that compartmentalise errors, absorbing failures without harming the broader business. We can learn from our mistakes and use them to our advantage.

Things go wrong in business. When that happens, it’s essential to identify failures, investigate them, and implement learnings. And in order to facilitate this process, we need decent internal communication channels in place. People and teams need to be comfortable admitting mistakes. Rather than being punished, employees should be rewarded for speaking up about mistakes they have made whilst it’s still early enough to fix them and apply learnings. We need to be comfortable talking to our colleagues about where things have gone wrong, so everyone can learn and improve.

This kind of communication doesn't happen overnight. It takes time to nurture. We can start by admitting our mistakes and inviting colleagues to do the same. Honest self-appraisal enables us to limit the damage when things go wrong. And in the long-run, it will help turn short term failures into long term successes.

Edward Rhys