Wednesday, 25 August 2021

My Thinkers360 Interview

I have recently been interviewed by Thinkers360 about my work on innovative approaches to airline leadership and management. This interview has now been published and it can be viewed here

Thinkers360: Tell us a bit about your background and areas of expertise

JR: I am the founder of Astute Aviation, the airline industry consultancy specialising in modern approaches to leadership and management. My diverse experience spanning strategy, network, schedule planning, and operations, sales, and marketing, within legacy, low-cost airlines and a software company, has been a foundation for a broad and deep understanding of airline and industry issues. This experiential knowledge and understanding of key management issues encouraged me to start exploring the opportunities for setting the foundation for an integrative approach to management.

My work is mostly focused on the neglected area of airline management – understanding the deeper causes and consequences of disruptive changes in planned operations resulting from broken relationships between strategy, operations, and financial well-being and also between data, people, and processes.

Bringing these new ideas into practice was challenging in many ways. It often pushed me beyond what I thought were my limits. So much so that at some point, when experiencing difficulties with data modelling, I decided to set up a software company, later awarded for the innovative solution for cost efficiency improvement in the airline industry. Working with an amazing team of professionals and being supported by a number of airlines was a great experience.

I have shared my experiences through writing, speaking, and demonstrating the advantages of this new approach to diverse management teams, assisting them with widening their knowledge to improve their decisions when faced with complex problems. This proved that complexity which is a by-product of strategic choices and scope of management is to a high degree manageable. I have written two books: ‘Beyond Airline Disruptions’ and the revised 2nd edition subtitled ‘Thinking and Managing Anew’. Both are a leader’s guide to reality, to creating connected and adaptable airlines that can sustain challenges in the age of heightened uncertainty, always with human values in sight. I keep expanding my knowledge by reading and by learning from other people’s experiences. I have learned a great deal by talking to and also interviewing fresh thinkers within and outside of the industry. These ‘Insightful Interviews’ are published on my website I blog at ‘Beyond Airline Disruptions‘.

Thinkers360: What do you think are the main obstacles that prevent airlines from adapting to new realities and hard to predict future?

JR: Firstly, airlines like many other companies are carrying lots of historical baggage. The management system was created for a different age, with different needs. It proved to be unsustainable even before the pandemic. Companies are well aware that the system is broken, that complexities are on the rise and that decisions made in siloed organisations quickly become new sources of complexities and disruptions.

There is no shortage of written and spoken ideas about what needs to be done to overcome complexity, to adapt, to connect strategy and operations – all that to catch up with reality. The main reason why so many good ideas remain just ideas is that they are too generic to be applied to individual organisations. This is because you cannot generalise management culture, interactions between people, processes, and technology, relationships between managers and employees, or their relationships with customers. Each organisation is unique and has to find their own way of managing complexity. These are the reasons why the change hasn’t happened yet. As Aaron Dignan explained, ‘that’s because we fail to recognise that organisations aren’t machines, to be predicted and controlled. They are complex human systems, full of potential to be released.’

Complexity and uncertainty are nothing new in the airline business. They are manageable as long as leaders and strategists are aware of where the organisation is now, its internal and external limits, and how far are they from the turning point from which doing more starts making things worse. And to identify that point you need to understand the magnitude of misalignment between strategic assumptions and operational reality manifested as disruption events. Being constantly aware of how far we are from this turning point and making the necessary adjustments require new skills.

Thinkers360: You see disruptions as a systemic issue, and as a bridge between strategic assumptions and reality. Can you tell us more about this?

JR: Yes, disruptions are a systemic issue. They reveal the company culture and its mindset. They are the most accurate indicator of airline health, quality of leadership, management decisions, and also of the relationships with employees, customers, and partners. They are real and factual. Put in the context of decision making, they can be described as unifying.

Disruptions are complex events but, unlike organisational complexities, they are fact based. This gives us the opportunity to focus on real life problems as they come, understand their intertwined origins, and take balanced actions conscious about their wider consequences.

We need the power of courage to see disruptions for what they are, to start moving beyond denial and rigid responses because complexity doesn’t agree with rigidity. When disruptions are pushed aside and ignored, they get stronger. When we ignore disruptions, we lose the capacity to cope with real-life problems, to see the world for what it really is. What we need to do is to be open to changes even when they reveal our weaknesses.

Thinkers360: This seems like a more grounded and integrative approach to strategy, planning, and decision making. How does it fit into conventional practices?

JR: In complex and dynamic organisation strategy has to be understood in the current context, which traditionally has not been the case. This requires a new framework for contextual planning and for connected, adaptive, pattern-based decision making that learns from misalignments with reality. The very nature of this process allows for gradual implementation in parallel with the existing system.

We still need an annual plan to set the strategic direction and communicate a clear and simple set of values across the organisation. But from then on, all of the attention of leaders and strategists has to move closer to the frontline to ensure the constant fine-tuning between strategy and operations.

The fine-tuning happens during collaborative meetups set up at a neutral platform where the same problem is looked at from different perspectives. This is the process where integrative learning and decision making happen, all based on diverse experiences.

Each of these events end up with the creation of relational action maps and the progress tracking maps. For the leaders and senior executives responsible for the overall performance, this provides visual mapping of the key pain points presented in a way that ensures the best possible trade-offs while balancing the elements of cost and service quality at system level. This is what a connected airline is about.

Thinkers360: Can you tell us what drew you into this less explored area of airline business?

JR: This process emerged through my work based on diverse experiences, learning by questioning things and data that don’t say much about the intricacies of things that shaped them. Over time, it helped me with building the ability to see the interconnections and understand interactions behind both local and systemic problems including the cultural issues.

Thinkers360: What do you enjoy doing most?

JR: Among the work, I enjoy the most is being engaged in projects aimed at creating a more coherent decision making that expands beyond departmental or other specialist boundaries. This includes airlines, airports, regulators, industry organisations and software companies. It is always a learning process for me.

I also enjoy coaching executives and aspiring leaders to help them understand their problems and propose the solutions related to a specific context, seen from a wider perspective.

My goal is to contribute to creation of a connected airline by bringing more authenticity into decision making at corporate level, across organisations and domains. It has been central to my activities over years.

Thinkers360: How do you utilise Thinkers360?

JR: Thinkers360 is such a wonderfully unique platform for innovation and fresh thinking. This is the place I go when searching for answers to my many questions knowing that they are coming from credible sources. Thinkers360 provides fresh thinkers with the opportunity to share their ideas and practical solutions with a global audience, and to bring innovation to new levels.

What I also like about Thinkers360 is that it offers existing and to-be innovators a unique access to the cutting-edge topics in business, technology and sustainability, so much needed in today’s world where diverse knowledge and interconnections matter most. The great thing is that you can connect with people whose work you find inspiring and exchange ideas. And, potentially, find partners you were looking for to bring these ideas to life.

                  Editor’s Note: See Jasenka’s Thinkers360 In-Depth Profile & Portfolio.

Thinkers360: What’s your main advice for upcoming thought leaders?

JR: The industry needs you. Whatever you do, think about if this could be done better. Focus on one thing at a time and go deep into understanding it. Start questioning wide and then become more specific. The toughest thing to do is to figure out what questions to ask but once you have the right questions then the best answers become available.

Then you put your ideas into practice. Without practice, knowledge has no value.

You have to accept that to some degree you may be wrong, knowing that your goal is to work on being less wrong over time. Then new thoughts will come in and new ideas. Keep predicting the future and making adjustments based on the errors you find from your previous predictions. This is how you become constantly aligned with reality. I think this is important.