When is the best time to change? - What MH17 teaches us about pivoting strategies
Take the unfortunate incident of MH17. It was allegedly shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Many people have questioned why Malaysian Airlines (MAS) chose to fly over the region when there was an armed conflict there. In fact, accusing fingers were being pointed at MAS policy makers until they heard that other airlines, including Singapore Airlines, were over-flying that region. Suddenly, the issue died down. There is comfort in numbers and because other airlines also used the route, it's got to be okay!
Then what about the fact that there had not been many incidents to date? Since the start of the conflict, there had not been any issues with commercial aircraft flying over the region. Indeed, in all previous conflicts, there had only been eight incidents of commercial aircraft downing (see BBC article), with the last one being in 2001. So, there was really almost no risk in overflying the region, especially when they were flying at cruising altitude (33,000 feet) where no shoulder-fired weapons can hit.
With both these "reasons", it seemed safe for MAS to save flying time, save fuel and cut emissions by over-flying Ukraine. Except that it wasn't.
The question is, "Was it a forseeable event and should they have changed the route?"
In MH17's case, it was forseeable. That a number of US and European airlines diverted their route when the conflict erupted showed that it was. Caution has always been the better part of valour, unless of course, valour to you is saving the airline money. According to WhatToFly.com, the average fuel cost of a Boeing 777 is about US$10,000 per hour. That it would take about 30-40 minutes to circumvent the troubled spot means that it would cost the airlines an additional US$5,000 - US$6,700. With margins so thin, that would be huge savings for profit-conscious airlines. So while it was foreseeable, there was a huge economic disincentive to re-route.
The reason why change is so difficult for people is because the cost of change is usually high. Moving away from our comfort zone takes a lot of time and effort, and sometimes, money; and that cannot be easily justified. Many people trade long-term benefit for short-term gain. In these instances, making the change is unjustified. Until it is thrust upon them. By which time, it is too late.
So this brings us to the fundamental question, "When is the best time to change, especially when we have so many conflicting requirements?"
When your worst-case scenario is too risky
Every situation has a best case and worst case scenario (see article entitled "If your future is uncertain, bracket it!") These are fuelled by our assumptions and the worst case would be when the assumptions are all wrong. In the case of MH17, the assumptions may include, "There is no way the conflict can affect commercial airlines", "Other airlines are also doing it," "The conflict is between separatists and government forces on the ground", and "Separatists don't have equipment that can blow a plane at 33,000 feet." The worst case scenario is one when all these are wrong, and when we play that out, we actually find the situation to be too risky to take. In this case, a change is really necessary.
When the situation indicates that it is transitting towards the worst case
In the days before the downing of MH17, there were already indicators that the separatists had the equipment to down aircraft. Even if has not demonstrated its ability to down an aircraft at 33,000 feet, the status quo has certainly changed and the situation is not-so-slowly transitting towards the worst-case scenario. When this happens, there is a need to make a change, if only temporarily, to avert the worst. This presupposes, of course, that there are indicators, and someone is looking out for them!
When circumstances change the dimension of the decision
Operational decisions do not need a concerted change protocol because variability and adaptability are designed into the system. However, the decision becomes critical when the situation becomes more strategic. There are three factors to take into account to assess if a situation is getting more strategic (see How do we know if our decision is strategic?) So when the situation suddenly shifts from being an operational to a strategic one, there is a need to concertedly assess if we need to pivot our strategy and make the change.
The case of MH17 is sad and unfortunate. Even after we uncovered some of the pivot points, we cannot blame MAS for it. Could they have averted the situation? Yes, but at what cost? They were already reeling from the disappearance of MH370 and they needed to turn things around. Taking the long way around would have added more cost in an already difficult time. There had not been any recent incidents to convince MAS that they should have diverted the flight path. The cost of the change was indeed very high. But perhaps we can take some learning away from this incident:
1. There is a need to have indicators, knowing how much it costs to change, and also the cost of not changing;
2. We need to know if there are shifts in the situation that are moving us closer to the worst case scenario;
3. Environment shifts are getting more frequent and larger and if we do not constantly look out for them, we might get inundated by the tsunami of change.
4. There needs to be a protocol to call the attention of decision makers to make the pivot before it is too late.
Our hearts go out to the victims and family members of MH17 and other airline tragedies.
Written by Ian Dyason