Leaders attempting to reenergize an enterprise always face a choice: fix problems before embarking on a new path forward, or forge ahead and do both concurrently. Thanks to the software companies in Silicon Valley that long ago decided to ship imperfect software and then fix it, the choice to do both at the same time is fondly known as “Building the Plane While Flying It.”
Not always the preferred choice of leaders, the benefits of forging ahead with the vision while getting the house in order are well traveled. What leaders who build the plane while flying it know is that marrying operational excellence and innovation are nearly impossible without it.
The inherent contradiction of an intolerance for error and uncertainty through experimentation is resolved when we build and fly the plane at the same time. The key is for everyone in an organization to own both problems (building and flying), not just one.
By creating a sense of shared responsibility, the team learns they can create a strong operational foundation while also innovating toward a new and better future. When every team member is connected to building and flying, they act like employees and entrepreneurs. They ensure the present while creating the future.
Innovation is best characterized by uncertainty, experimentation, learning, and a lack of constraint. Mature teams and organizations have a difficult time innovating precisely because they have trained their workers remarkably well to plan, measure, and commit to structures that instill order and reduce the likelihood of failure.
Reinventing what is possible through innovation doesn’t require eliminating this commitment. Instead, leaders yoke the two forces and ask everyone to play on both sides of the ball.
Building the plane while flying it sounds risky — until you understand there is really no other way to achieve great outcomes for an organization challenged by forces beyond their control. The need to innovate can’t wait for the current organization to catch up.
As Henry Ford reminded us, “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.”
I use this analogy all time time to guide my team to push out training programs. I often pair it with, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough. However, I use a boat instead of a plane. Flying a plane before it is ready just sounds too dangerous for me :)