The Art of Project Management: Expert advice from experienced project managers in Silicon Valley, and around the world

Fictional Fixes

Building Airplanes in the Air


I once had someone tell me that his company’s prescription for dealing with slipping project schedules was to “build airplanes while they were in the air.” I understand the virtuous, even heroic, aspect of this metaphor. This company would go to any length to keep their commitments and deliver on customer expectations. But, in practice, it easily becomes what I call a “fictional fix.”

You know you’re dealing with a “fictional fix” when it starts showing up as an explanation for why something CAN’T be done. YES we should have a process for making sure the project goal is clearly defined, and that project team members are on board, BUT we just don’t have the time to do that because “we build airplanes while they’re in the air.” YES, having the core team collaborate in the creation of the work breakdown structure and dependency diagram is useful in catching important missing details, BUT… given the all-consuming nature of “building airplanes in the air” that’s not realistic.

Fictional fixes are solutions that treat the symptoms instead of the disease, which is why they tend to become chronic. Treating a headache with aspirin without alleviating the pressure on the pinched-nerve causing it means aspirin is going to become part of the daily diet. Meanwhile the headaches, over time, will probably get worse. Similarly throwing resources at a constantly slipping schedule will likely provide short-term relief, but if we don’t also address why schedules are chronically out of alignment with real world performance two things are likely to happen: 1. We’re going to waste precious resources, and 2. The problem will get worse over time.

Fictional fixes also mask unintended consequences. Imagine this team standing on a strip of carpet inside the unfinished carcass of a plane frantically riveting on its aluminum skin as it hurdles through the clouds en route to the customer. At one point, someone shouts through his oxygen mask, “Okay! Let’s attach the landing gear.” As the jet stream whips through their hair, team members desperately scan the cabin for the missing part. What do they do when they discover that, in their rush to get this unfinished plane in the air, they forgot to include it and other key components essential for completing the job? If the plane comes down in flames all that speed was useless.

The biggest liability presented by fictional fixes is that they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Because “building airplanes in the air” eats up all our time and resources we don’t have time to adequately plan or collaborate, this leads to miscommunication, overlooked aspects of the work, and the redoing or undoing of the mistakes that result. Consequently the project runs late forcing us to “build airplanes in the air.”

Collaborative planning and clear communication does take more time at the outset of the project, but the time it saves in the long run by reducing the redoing and undoing is so significant that “building airplanes in the air” becomes unnecessary. If it ain’t broke it won’t need fixing, especially fictional fixes.










About the Author

Barry Flicker is the founder of Basic Training, a San Francisco Bay Area-based company that specializes in project management and offers a complete curriculum of courses in management and professional development to organizations intent on keeping pace with the rapid transformations of the global economy. He has authored texts for courses on project management, collaborative negotiating, conflict resolution, nonlinear problem solving, meeting management, and effective communication. His work helps free people from the limiting assumptions and counter productive behavior blocking their success. The immediate applicability of this approach has made him one of the most sought after experts in Silicon Valley and throughout the country. In addition to a “Who’s Who”list of corporate clients, his work has, for years, been utilized as part of the professional development curriculum of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). His Project Game has become part of one of the leading business incubation courses in the country taught at UC Berkeley. His success as a trainer, consultant, writer and speaker, reflect a colorful personal history which has included: touring with a rock band, performing as a stage magician, working the comedy clubs of San Francisco, and serving as a white water river guide. His most recent book, Working at Warp Speed, published by Berrett-Koehler has become the must-read business book of today.
Creative Commons License
Note: This work and all associated comments are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Leave a Reply