How airline pilots can improve your business research

Switch on to business radar

Allan Leighton, Chairman of the Royal Mail recently declared:

"I believe every organisation should have radar - to listen to your people, listen to your customers all the time. It shouldn't be called research it should be called radar. You cannot be selective when you have it. You have to have it all the time."

I think he has a great point. Take the following scenario:

"Good evening ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain speaking. We've got some problems with a few of our indicator instruments. And air traffic control's radar doesn't seem to be working. But don't worry. I've a rough idea of where we're going and some data from last year, so if you'll just fasten your seat belts, we'll begin our taxi to the runway."

Sound a little scary? I'm betting you probably wouldn't want to fly with this pilot.

Yet businesses decisions are regularly made based on nothing more than last year's data and a rough idea. Decisions that affect people's livelihoods, well-being and, of course, business profitability.

Would you have been nearly as scared of flying on this plane if the pilot had said Air Traffic Control's research wasn't working? Somehow, flying without research doesn't seem quite so alarming as flying without radar! Yet done right, the two should be interchangeable.

So how can you start tuning into business radar, instead of dusty old research?

1) Always on

You can't just do a bit of radar when you think you might need it. Radar is always on, always monitoring the information stream in anticipation of the unexpected. In research terms, that means listening to customers, staff and other data on an ongoing, not an ad-hoc basis.

2) All around

Radar takes a 360 degree view of information, it doesn't focus on one source at the cost of all others. Letters, switchboard activity, website activity, conversations with customers, regular staff surveys, news reports, transactional information, emails are all data sources. This is all radar. Listen in, by keeping on top of it and finding a standard way of recording and reporting on key information.

3) Alarms and flashing lights

Radar can only alert. Make those alerts easy to spot, as opposed to hidden deep in 100 page reports. Make the bells ring loud and the lights flash bright through the way reporting information is presented and distributed. If the boss wants a 50 word summary in a text message, that's great. Because the point of alarms and flashing lights is for the leadership to see the problem and act.

4) Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

But is there even a problem? What is going on? Why? Often the picture isn't really clear and your radar triggers more questions than answers. But staff on the ground know more than is often allowed for - talking to them can give insight to what is going on. You may also need to know more about what customers think and what their reasons are for this. Radar reveals the need to make time and space for the person who not only asks great questions, but can also work with the information to figure out the answers.

5) Looks forward more often than you look back

It is Air Traffic Control with their radar that keeps planes safely apart. The pilots react to the inputs from the people with a clearer view of where they're heading than their own. The focus is on what is going on now and what might be in the way - not what happened last spring.

Allan reckons the decisions he makes with his business radar are "80 percent tactical, 20 strategic." Radar can therefore support the small day to day decisions and course alterations as well as the big strategic leaps.

So the radar is switched on 24/7 and it is monitoring all the channels. Not only are there alarm bells, but there's someone who can try and figure out what they mean for where the business is heading.

Captain - I think we're ready to get the fasten seat belts sign on and start that taxi to the runway!