Friday, May 08, 2009

Plane Crashes and Culture

I'm reading the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. He is also the author of The Tipping Point and Blink. All of them are worth reading if you haven't read them yet.

This book looks at some of the factors into being successful. For example, a significant number of professional hockey players were born in the earlier part of the year. You'll have to read the book to know why.

At one point he starts talking about plane crashes. In particular, he talks about Korean Airlines in the '80's and 90's. Their flight record was so bad back then the US Army didn't allow military personnel stationed in Korea to fly the airlines.

What was the cause of these crashes? Gladwell talks about how culture is significant. A researcher named Geert Hofstede came up with a term called Power Distance Index (PDI).
Power Distance Index (PDI) that is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society's level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders. Power and inequality, of course, are extremely fundamental facts of any society and anybody with some international experience will be aware that 'all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others'.

The US has a low PDI, Korea has a high PDI. So in Korean culture, it is less common for a subordinate to directly confront their superior. In the case of Korean Airlines, plane crashes can be attributed to the captain making a mistake and the first officer or flight engineer not directly confronting the captain, leading to the crash. Granted, there are always exceptions. The crash of the Air Florida flight in Washington DC in 1982 can in part be attribute to this same reluctance of a subordinate to directly confront a superior, even though both members of the flight crew were Americans.

So what does this have to do with project management? In a leadership position, we need to understand how comfortable our team is in dealing with us directly. It's tricky enough if we're on a team of others from the mid-west US, but it gets even more complicated as we're dealing with multi-cultural teams. We can't expect people to change, especially over the short period of time of a project, so we need to understand our team.

As for Korean Air, they did change their culture. This was done in part by making English the official language of flight crews. This change in language, along with other training, enabled the crews to be more direct with their captains, significantly improving their safety record.

No comments: