How to Eliminate the "Change Torpedo"

By Don Henderson | VanAllen

Aviation teams often define success by the absence of change rather than by their ability to change.   They are operationally flexible with an organizational stiffness that would be fatal within the larger corporate entity.  Aviation teams leap at the opportunity to change aircraft, destinations, or facilities. However, they are paralyzed by shifts in corporate business models, a shift in the strategic value of on-demand transportation, or political power. Over the last four years, VanAllen has facilitated a change simulation exercise within the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University Aviation Leadership Class.  We have observed a pattern of beliefs in aviation professionals that torpedo their ability to lead change:

  • “If I just explain it to them – they will change” – Aviation professionals tend to be linear, assume those around them are voice activated switches, and ignore the emotional element of change.  Change involves people and emotions.

  • “Results are more important than process” – Within the class, we spend time focused on the change management process before the simulation.  When faced with the simulation, most groups skip process definition, ignore the group dynamic, and jump individually to problem-solving.  The whole group quickly becomes inefficient and often forms smaller uncoordinated work groups.  How we will work together is critical before we work together.

  • “Pilots are the default leaders” – In almost every class, we observe a group that slams into the leadership mountain when a pilot takes control of the exercise and a scheduler or maintenance technician sits quietly in the room with unshared critical information.  Positional or traditional leadership roles may not be effective for all changes. ​

  •  “Shhhhhh . . . we need to be nice” – Many groups crash into the organizational iceberg because nobody will shout “ICEBERG!”  The skills Aviation professionals have learned to live with each other on the hangar floor and in the cockpit often steer us to avoid conflict.  The success of the organization is directly related to the group’s ability to have a hard conversation.


Aviation professionals are not “broken.”  Rarely have aviation leaders been provided the development opportunities of their corporate peers.  The first ten to twenty years of an aviation professional's career are highly scripted experiences with limited organizational variables.  They have few opportunities to observe or experience change when compared with their corporate counterparts.


There is hope!  Within each of the simulations we have facilitated, the group with the largest train wreck usually experiences the greatest learning.  There are five strategies we observe strong aviation teams utilize to develop change management muscles.


  • Provide emerging leaders with academic opportunities to learn change management.  The GSU Aviation Leadership class            ( provides exposure to change management.  Many larger organizations have internal training programs, as well as relationships with local universities.  Sending an emerging leader to a corporate training program helps pollinate the corporate culture into the aviation team.

  • Provide emerging leaders the opportunity to lead an initiative within the aviation team.  Pair them a corporate peer (non-aviation mentor) to offer perspective throughout the project.

  • Model strong project management skills.   Spend time defining the change process.  Identify your key influencers.   Build buy-in and then visibily execute.  

  • Debrief the change process and identify what was successful and what was a challenge.

  • Consider integrating strong change management principles within your SMS Change Management Process (SMS CMP).   We have observed that most SMS CMPs are rudimentary and do not require specific actions.  They often are a larger risk analysis without process definition.


Change is inevitable.   In the late 1800’s, the city leaders of London were concerned with the rapid growth of the city.   Where would they put all the horses?  How would they deal with the waste if there were 40% more horses?   The horseless carriage arrived a few years later and everything changed.  Nothing changes, until it does.

Contact VanAllen today to learn more. 

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