The Airplane Pilot Analogy

When we purchase a ticket from an airline we all expect to reach our destination safely and at the agreed upon time. Once aboard the plane it is up to the pilot to ensure that our expectations are met if not exceeded. We, the passengers, are the stakeholders and the pilot is our entrusted PM.

The pilot (aka PM) plots a course to our (aka Stakeholders) desired destination. He or she holds this destination sacred and agrees to help us achieve it unless something catastrophic occurs along the way. For any Agile product development effort it is up to the PM to understand the needs of the Stakeholders and ensure that a common vision is established that meets the needs of the majority of the Stakeholders needs.
On the way to our destination the pilot cannot simply plot a straight-line course and expect nothing to change. He or she may need to divert around a mountain range or bad weather, unexpected turbulence may call for a sudden change in altitude to keep the stakeholders ride smooth and comfortable. Throughout the course of developing a new product the PM will need to constantly inspect and adapt the features that are being built based upon constant customer feedback.
The need to inspect and adapt along the journey is critical, however we must be careful not to take it too far. The pilot that diverts too far from their course may risk running out of fuel along the way and not reaching the intended destination. As PM you cannot get carried away with too many stakeholder requests. We have to be careful to avoid inspecting and adapting ourselves into a solution that does not meet the overall vision.
I fly a lot and some of my most memorable flights have occurred because of the pilot. On one flight, before takeoff, the pilot came out of the cockpit and addressed each and every passenger. He let us know key elements about our flight (flight time, altitude, current weather conditions) all while looking us in the eye and thanking us for our business. On another flight the pilot came over the PA system and announced every major landmark on our journey, it became so annoying that passengers actually started complaining about the frequency of communication. A good PM understands that no communication is just as bad as overly communicating, they find the sweet spot and ensure that their stakeholder’s communications needs are being met.
Much about the duties of a PM can be learned from an airline pilot who understands where their passengers want to go, is willing to change course when outside factors dictate, and is an excellent communicator. Buckle your seatbelt, secure your tray table, and bring your seat to its most upright position; it’s time to takeoff as your team’s PM!

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