Which Plane Should I Catch?

Okay, I confess – this post technically has nothing to do with air travel, but the concept of hopping on a plane, does serve as an important symbol for communication.

So let’s get started – referencing the airplane images provided in this post, I’d like for you to answer the following questions.  And, for the record, they are not trick questions.

First, how high do you think the commercial airliner is flying?  Answer = Very high.

Second, how high do you think the combat plane is flying?  Answer = Not high at all.  In fact, it’s very low near the ground.

Let these images resonate with you for a bit because in a moment, I’m going to illustrate to you one of the most common communication mistakes people make… specifically at the office, where the impact of the mistake, could prove detrimental.


Regardless of your position (i.e. title / designation) in a company, I want you to imagine that you are at work and your group has encountered a critical operational problem impacting many customers (which really means, impacting revenue) and unfortunately, the problem has gained executive-level visibility.

Furthermore, let’s assume that you have been requested to take the lead on managing the problematic issue to resolution and, more importantly, providing the status updates about the situation up to management.

Now Boarding

When it’s times to communicate what’s going on, the first thing you have to decide before saying a word is, “Which Plane Should I Catch?”  But, before I explain why, I’ll explain the airline symbols and how they correlate to your decision.

Think of “Commercial Airliners” flying at the same level as management – cruising through the skies overlooking a tremendous coverage area (e.g. many projects, many direct reports) and they are focusing on keeping the flight as comfortable (i.e. no disruptions) as possible and getting its passengers safely to their destination (i.e. delivering results in the most efficient and effective way possible).

Think of “Combat Planes” flying at the same level as the person who’s in the trenches actually performing the work.  This person is in the heart of every activity and knows what’s going on, inside and out, and can speak to issues at the most technical, detailed levels.

Practical Application

Okay, set your mental image back to dealing with that operational disruption causing havoc for customers and you’re running at a hundred miles per hour trying to get it fixed!  You’re stressed… you’re hungry… you don’t even have time to go to the bathroom!  It’s just not a good time for you!  You wish you’d called in sick but you didn’t!  Man up!

In the midst of the activity, a fellow peer comes up to you and says, “I think there is something wrong with the flex capacitor and it’s causing the problems!  Normally, it needs 40 kajiggawatts of power but its only drawing 20 watts of alternating current!”  Before you open your mouth to instinctively reply, ask yourself: Which plane should you hop in to carry this conversation forward?

Answer = Combat Plane!  Why?  First, consider who’s approaching you – it’s your peer and they are in the trenches working on the problem.  Second, he’s speaking to you in such a detailed way, which, in many cases, requires a similar, potentially detailed, answer to arrive at either next steps or possibly, a solution.

A few minutes later, you arrive back at your desk and receive a call from your boss, and he says, “I know you are in the midst of this issue, but I’m about to hop into my weekly meeting and I’d like to have an update for senior management.”  Before you open your mouth again to instinctively reply what you have just learned about the flex capacitor not working, ask yourself again: Which plane should you hop in to carry this conversation forward?

Answer = Commercial Airliner!  Once again, you must first consider who has approached you.  In this case, it’s someone who is already traveling in a commercial airliner!  Second, while he may understand the issue with the flex capacitor, his peers in senior management may not and more importantly, may not care.  Third, you have to get to the heart of what the real question is – which is, in no uncertain terms, “Give me an brief update – tell me what you are doing – tell me your on top of it – and finally, when do you think we can put this issue behind us!”  Remember – as explained above, this person in the commercial airliner is managing more than just this one issue at any given point in time and therefore can’t be bogged down (with exceptions, of course).

Alternating Planes

Now, keep one thing in mind, many times our managers were once in combat planes themselves and have navigated their way up to the commercial airliner.  Accordingly, they are probably capable of asking detailed questions (combat plane) and then switching back to generic questions (commercial airliner).  The art behind having an effective conversation in this situation is being mindful of what questions are being asked (i.e. high level, low level), how the conversation is trending (i.e. did it start high and now going low?), and then tailoring each response from the appropriate flight.

Finally, another quick example of when to decide which plane to hop into could be a company / staff meeting.  Once the host of the meeting has set the tone, it’s important that you be mindful of which plane they are communicating from and, when it’s time to ask questions, ensure you are doing so from the correct plane.  You don’t want to send a commercial airliner into a free fall collision with a combat plane, do you?  Of course not… however, if you do – you have other issues that I, or this blog, may not be able to help you with.

So, the next time you find yourself about to enter into a dialogue of some sort, set yourself up to communicate effectively by first asking yourself, “Which Plane Should I Catch?”

To your continued success…


Author: vikaskhanna


2 thoughts on “Which Plane Should I Catch?”

  1. In my work life today and throughout the many years where I was a consultant, I’ve called this skill-set “changing elevations”. In most of our jobs, we all have some need to go from three feet off the ground to thirty-thousand feet and back again. It’s almost never possible to be in both places at once and it’s a rare breed who can perform well at both extremes. The concept that you present here–pausing to consider the proper context–is key. Context is king.

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