Can you remember a meeting where the terms “off-course” “on the right track” or “move forward” were not used? Unfortunately, navigational metaphors suffer from overuse precisely because they work so well. Projects do tend to resemble journeys after all.

My hunch is that these and similar phrases are overused simply because they've become part of our vocabulary. My goal is to share some fundamental principles of navigation, not only to provide fresh and more nuanced navigational metaphors, but perhaps a fresh perspective or two on getting from point A to point B.

Where are we?

I’ve been in the navigation business for more than 20 years--in fact, aviation is rather pointless without this essential skill. Remember that Lindbergh is not remembered for flying, he’s remembered for navigating!

One of the most important steps in any navigation problem (in the cockpit or in the board room) is determining your starting point: your “initial position”. But even this seemingly innocuous step can be fraught with uncertainty and complexity.

Our modern conception of navigation has several built-in assumptions. This is because the first creators of global maps lived in the northern hemisphere. That may seem like a shoulder-shrug at first, but consider the following illustration. This map shows an alternative projection known as “South-Up Orientation”.

Not surprisingly this type of map was developed in Australia. When most people see one for the first time, they laugh because it's so far removed from traditional world maps that we assume it can’t possibly be credible. And perhaps that reaction is the most valuable take-away.

A south-up projection should remind us that there are perspectives so different from our own, that they seem alien. This is acutely relevant if you’re navigating toward a relationship with a new customer, channel partner or supplier who may or may not share your organization’s cultural perspective.

An even deeper consideration is that if your organization “drew the map” for your market sector, then you’re at a greater risk of hidden hazards than you may realize. Your map, like the traditional “European-projection”, may have built-in biases so subtle and so ingrained that you probably can’t see them.

As I’m writing this article, the Bloomberg channel is running a story about how Sears, the once Herculean force of American retail, is deciding what to do with its last piece of valuable property: the Kenmore brand. 20 years ago, that statement would have sounded absurd. 10 years ago most people assumed Sears would surely find a way to “make-the-turn”. But none the less, here we are. Sears is trying to sell off the Kenmore brand just to cover its bankruptcy costs. I’m sure analysts will be conducting a post-mortem on the cause of Sears' decline for decades, but I have to wonder if it's not what pilots would call a Gross Navigational Error or “GNE”. My point here is that Sears drew the map for retail dominance. Then Walmart and Amazon came along with a very different map--and here we are.

Takeaway Number One

The overarching point here is that we live on a sphere. Aside from its plane-of-rotation and magnetic fields, any point on a sphere is effectively “the top of the world”. It's crucial that we establish our initial position for any journey.

True North

Let’s set aside novelty globes for the moment and return to navigating around a (mostly) spherical planet. The instructor for my first International Procedures class kicked off the lecture by stating:

“You can get from anywhere on the planet, to anywhere on the planet in two steps. Proceed due north. Then, proceed due south.”

There was a pause, then a collective chuckle as we realized he meant due north to the North Pole. From the North Pole, of course, any point on the planet lies due south. The trick lies in knowing which “due south” to choose.

This problem is at once both silly and sobering. Told by the instructor, the question is clearly a joke. But when you’re the one flying across the North Pole, suddenly the question “which due south to pick” becomes all too real. This is primarily because at the magnetic north pole, a compass will either spin or freeze, depending on its construction. Before you can ask “which due south should I use” you need to ask: “Which north pole are we at?” The Earth after all has two north poles and two south poles: there’s the magnetic north pole which is a function of the Earth’s core, and there’s the true north pole which is a function of the Earth’s surface features. And on top of that, they both move.

Takeaway Number Two

The takeaway here is that you must be comfortable with a certain degree of uncertainty or more precisely, a certain degree of error both in your initial position assumption and in your subsequent course-made-good. If you hold out for absolute certainty, you’ll never get off the ground. Having said that, navigational errors are more than just an unavoidable fact of life. They can be useful. They can even be invaluable.

Using Uncertainty to Your Advantage

During World War II Allied bomber crews faced some of their greatest threats before reaching enemy territory. They had to navigate to the target without radio aids, without lights, without radar and most frightening of all, without any meaningful weather information. And not just one plane, these were formations numbering in the hundreds of aircraft, each with fuel supplies measured in minutes.

How did they do it? They missed their target. On purpose.

These crews got the job done by exploiting an orienteering technique called “aiming-off”. It works like this: if you attempt to hike across a trackless jungle or dense forest in search of a base camp and you miss by even a few yards you could easily walk right past the camp. But if you can find a linear feature such as a river, bluff or mountain which passes the camp, you’re in business. Simply hike well off to one side, intercept the linear feature and use it to “hand-rail” to your base camp. When applied to aviation, this technique is called “landfall navigation”.

Landfall navigation is a hybrid of “dead-reckoning” (which is simply a “best guess” heading) and of “pilotage” (which means following landmarks). Landfall navigation works in essentially the same way as aiming off. If you’re setting off across an uncharted expanse of water, with unknown winds and no navigational aids the last thing you want to do is try and fly directly to the target. Just like the base camp, you will certainly miss.

Instead, if you know the winds are say… generally from the south, then you fly off-course to the south. Well off-course to the south, not just a two or three-degree wind-correction angle, but 20 or 30 or 40 degrees into the wind. SO far south-of-course that you’re sure to hit the coast well south of the target.

As you make landfall (technically known as ‘Coasting-In”) you turn north and begin following the beach. This is where dead-reckoning switches over to pilotage. You continue north along the coast until you pick up a verifiable landmark. For example, the mouth of the Seine river at La Havre, France. From there you make your way using progressively detailed landmarks until you reach the target.

Takeaway Number Three

We are all faced with uncertainty from time to time. Uncertainty can seem overwhelming. Whether it’s in business, or in life (or just en-route) there are times when we suddenly realize:

  • I have no outside guidance

  • I’m heading into uncharted territory

  • I don’t know the conditions ahead

  • I can’t verify my current position

  • I can’t turn back

This combination of unknown factors can lead to panic--unless you have a plan. But as the flyers of the 8th Air Force demonstrated, even against all that uncertainty, you can still navigate. In fact, you can still accomplish your mission and still return safely. But to do so, you must be willing to accept increased uncertainty now in exchange for positive control later. In other words, sometimes you have to get lost for a while to ensure you can find your way home.

In our next segment we’ll look at how increased navigational accuracy in the North Atlantic led to a paradoxical increase in near misses, and how the lessons learned apply to making better decisions in any environment.


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