When you learn to fly airplanes, you learn about a dangerous condition called “spatial disorientation.” Spatial disorientation happens most often when a pilot is flying in the clouds or at night and the visual references outside the airplane that tell him which way is up are nonexistent. If you haven’t experienced it before, you would be amazed to learn how many tricks your own body and mind can play on you. Pilots can be in a slow descending turn and think that they are flying straight and level. Or even worse is when pilots are in a steep turn or pitch and perhaps think they are correcting the situation, but in reality they are making it worse or steeper or more dangerous. I like the way Wikipedia puts it: “…is when a pilot’s perception of direction does not agree with reality.” Many have lost their lives due to spatial disorientation.
Recently I’ve encountered a few spatially disoriented sales people and entrepreneurs and it has me thinking that this condition can be just as fatal in business as in flying.
In sales, it is the sales person who really doesn’t understand how the customer organization operates. My recent example is anyone selling into associations, non-profits, or even churches. Anyone selling a B2B product or service into these organizations that thinks this buyer operate the same as the rest of the business world is disoriented! Without having true understanding of the buyer’s decision process, way of thinking, and ultimate organizational goals (that, by the way are not the same as most businesses) you can’t hardly avoid getting yourself into trouble. You may be in a spiraling dive to the ground with your deal, but you may continue to plow resources and energy into it… which in many times may even be making your situation worse.
The other encounter I had recently is the entrepreneur who isn’t aware of the financials, the true culture of the team when he isn’t around, or even the actual satisfaction of the customers. Just like the pilot in the clouds, he has no clue whether things are actually healthy or about to implode. Which way is up! Reality doesn’t match perception. Or, they may in fact be just fine in some cases, he just doesn’t know it: which means that when things start to slide, he will be unaware that something is wrong until it is too late.
The good news is that you can learn how to avoid spatial disorientation the same way pilots do. The common quote is “Trust Your Instruments.”
When learning to fly at night or in the clouds, before you can trust them, you must first learn how to read the instruments in the airplane. While today’s avionics are getting easier and easier to read and interpret, they still require training. You still have to know how to scan a bunch of dials and screens and translate that data to a picture in your mind of the current state of the ship. You have to be taught how to do this. You have to learn how to do this. It is not automatically known by human beings from watching Top Gun. If you are selling into something you don’t understand, you have to learn how those businesses operate. In the association example, go volunteer to be on the Board of an association. This is just what you need to learn how things happen on the other end of the phone. In the business example, join an organization like EO, read books constantly, attend conferences, learn from peers. One of my favorite books for helping you learn how to “read the instruments” is Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish.
Side lesson: in “old school” panels (analog gauges instead of digital screens; shown to the right), pilots are taught that most of your attention must go to the “six pack” of primary instruments: airspeed, vertical speed, attitude indicator, heading, altitude, and turn coordinator. These are the basics; the fundamentals; the most important instruments. In business, I’d propose that we have the same type of fundamentals: cash flow, A/R, sales pipeline, “top of the funnel” metrics, customer satisfaction, and employee satisfaction are just a few of the most critical instruments.
The second part to surviving, after you’ve learned to read your instruments is learning to trust your instruments. This is the hard part in both flying and business. Your instruments rarely will lie to you. (Yes, avionics can fail, but part of learning how to read them is learning how to recognize a failure.) So if you are in a turn, but you feel like you are straight and level, trust the turn indicator! In business, when your cash forecast is telling you things are getting tight it is important to act on this information, not just ignore it. If your debt to income ratios are getting out of whack, then it’s time to do something. If your DSO or time it takes to collect your money from customers is creeping up, you need to pay attention to this and act before it starts to affect other areas of the business.
Short version: be situationally aware at all times and you will be better prepared when problems arise.