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Technical and Non-Technical Capability: which lever are you reaching for?

If you’ve read the news recently, you may well have been struck by the tragic absurdity of TransAsia flight GE235, which crashed shortly after take off.

42 people died after Captain Liao Jian-Zong accidentally shut down the plane’s sole remaining engine after the other engine failed on take off – an occurrence common enough to be specifically trained and tested for at regular pilot certification. Black box records reveal the pilot’s last words to have been: ‘Wow. I pulled back the wrong side of the throttle’.

Contrast this with 2009’s flight US1549, where Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger successfully ditched a much larger aircraft in the Hudson River, with no loss of life.

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Both pilots had extensive military experience and technical training in the skills to safely respond to the emergencies facing them – so what went wrong?

Let’s go back to basics. What is performance, and how does it come about? And what levers do we have available to improve performance?

At its simplest, performance is the product of an individual’s skills and behaviour; in an organisational context, it’s the aggregation of many individuals’ contributions to a common outcome. Let’s remember though that the outcomes produced are not always the goals sought.

In breaking this down further, it’s necessary to consider how individuals ‘perform’. Performance is the result of technical factors resourcing, trained skills and rule-based functions (the use of protocols, checklists and strategies) – and also non-technical/ human factors: individual mindset, traits and preferences.

These non-technical factors underpin the technical factors, much as the computer operating system underpins the applications installed on a device. Whereas the acquisition of technical skills can be a lifelong process, the non-technical or human factors are comparatively stable over time.

Whether recruiting, training, evaluating or intervening, leaders and consultants must carefully assess performance in light of both these sets of factors. It is common for less technically resourced groups to outperform their better resourced competition, just as ‘super teams’ selected on potential often fail to live up to expectation. Research conducted recently at MIT’s renowned Human Dynamics lab has shown that 50% of the observed variance between high performing and low performing teams can be attributed to non-technical factors. This statistic starkly illustrates why technical interventions often fail to deliver; it’s the non-technical factors that can lead to increasing staff turnover, absenteeism and conflict.

Each individual team member possesses their own operating system – predicting their strengths and motivational and communicational preferences, and therefore how distress will be shown. The leader who is able to observe, understand and authentically engage at a non-technical level is able to optimise the functioning of each individual, and the production of technical factors (skills) that result in performance.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has extensively researched this understanding of non-technical factors in order to deliver on the potential of ground and shuttle crew. After abandoning now discredited psychometrics such as Myers-Briggs (MBTi), NASA came to validate a body of science showing that non-technical factors are observable, measurable and predictable, which is to say: trainableDubbed the Process Communication Model, this suite of tools and theory allows non-technical/human factors to be understood and better managed quickly and effectively – a prerequisite to technical training.

Many industries are now training personnel to individualise communication and leadership in order to optimise performance. In Australia, the Colleges of Paediatricians, Surgeons and Anaesthetists accredit and use this training; it is also being used in education, law enforcement and sports.

In applying this knowledge to the tragic deaths of 43 people, it must be observed that flight 235’s captain had exhibited concerning deficits on both technical and non-technical assessments, yet only the technical failing was addressed, establishing a dynamic where an underlying root cause remained at best unaddressed, at worst left to deepen. Many organisations face similar risk when ‘change management’ is addressed on a technical level, or when non-technical factors are taught using technical rules instead of skills-based methods. It will not be surprising if the final GE235 incident report reveals a pilot whose mindset was unable to support remedial technical training, let alone performance in an emergency.  I expect too that those responsible for Captain Liao’s certification lacked the non-technical skills to engage in the necessary constructive conflict that would have prevented this tragedy.

If we, as leaders, managers and consultants are to effectively communicate, motivate and optimise performance, especially with the addition of costly technical utilities and processes, it is crucial to understand the role of non-technical factors and then ask ourselves: Which lever are we reaching for?

Next time: What role do non-technical factors play in organisational culture?

Get in touch if you are interested in learning more about Paul’s PCM practice, as well as understanding how this fits into a systems thinker’s world.

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