Always focus on the things that matter most.
In December 1972, a Lockheed L-1011 jumbo jet left New York’s JFK International Airport bound for Miami, Florida. The late-night flight was uneventful until it began its initial descent into Miami International Airport. The pilots lowered the landing gear, then noticed that one light on their control panel did not illuminate.
This particular light indicated whether or not the nose landing gear had successfully lowered and locked into position. The pilots dared not attempt landing the plane without successful deployment of the nose wheel. The pilots radioed the tower and explained the situation. The tower approved their plan to return to 2,000 feet elevation and maintain a circling holding pattern over the dark everglades while the crew attempted to solve the landing gear problem.
While the crew worked on resolving what seemed to be the only issue they faced, a far more serious problem developed and went unnoticed: the plane’s autopilot system was inadvertently disengaged and the plane began a gradual descent toward the dark swamp below. The plane’s systems warned the crew that their altitude was decreasing, but the pilots and engineers were so intently focused on addressing the problem of the lightbulb and landing gear, they failed to hear the warning chime that could have prevented the crash.
Too late, the pilots finally noticed that the plane had lost altitude. It crashed into the Everglades and over 100 passengers and crew lost their lives. In the investigation that took place following the crash, it was determined that the nose landing gear was in perfect working order and had fully extended. The only thing not working was a small, inexpensive green light bulb in the control panel that had burned out.
The crew was so preoccupied, they ignored the remainder of the plane’s systems—even critical alarm signals. A tragedy could have been avoided if they had focused their attention on the whole system, rather than a single part.
It is easy to become distracted and miss the real target. Do you face problems at work that sap your energy and block your perspective of the big picture? Don’t become so focused on dealing with immediate issues that you fail to notice significant warning signs of larger problems. It is never worth the risk to ignore systems that are in place to protect your company, department, or a specific project.
The lesson of the lightbulb suggests the need for checks and balances—ways to ensure that at least one person is monitoring each part of your “system.” It teaches us to maintain a holistic view of our work, even while we tackle minute problems. It reminds us to always focus on the things that matter most.
- Make sure you have elements in place to monitor your “whole system” as well as the individual parts so you know if you are on track.
- Initiate safeguards to ensure that every element of your organization that is essential to your overall success is not overlooked, even in a crisis.
- What accountability processes could you use to ensure that delegated tasks and small-group assignments are completed effectively within the larger context of the your organization’s goals?