What managers can learn from pilots


Charlie Munger, the Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, has strong views on picking the best ideas from different disciplines and use them to become better at what we do.

In Poor Charlie’s Almanack, a collection of Munger’s writing and speeches, he talks about broadscale and narrowscale professionals and how the former can learn from the latter.

Broadscale problems are ones that can only be solved by using ideas from more than one discipline.

Take management, for example. Good managers need to understand accounting, psychology, economics, technology, logistics among other skills.

It is possible to be an expert in just one area, like engineering, but if we don’t understand how accountants think we’ll find it hard to explain what we are trying to do to them.

The thing is that focusing on a specialist area – narrowscale thinking – is how we get to be very good at something.

But, one of the criticisms of academia is that the system forces people to know more and more about less and less – and so the insights that emerge can be hard to apply in practice.

Munger suggests that one solution to developing broadscale knowledge is to find the best elements of narrowscale education and then scale them up and suggests looking at pilot training as an example of the best kind of approach.

He talks about how pilots are trained in a strict six-element system.

The starting point is formal training. We need to have a broad knowledge of practically everything that is useful to fly a plane.

How often are managers formally trained in management methods before being put into a management role? That’s an investment more organisations need to make.

Training alone isn’t enough. We need to practice until we are fluent at what we are trying to do.

It’s one thing learning about economics. Being able to model supply and demand to maximise total revenue is a different thing. Hint – we should almost always raise prices…

We also think a lot about what we want to do – goals we want to reach. This focus is good, but we also need to think about what not to do, the things we should avoid.

Then we need to spend more time on the things that are more important. That might seem obvious – but how often are we distracted by things that take a lot of time but have little to no impact.

Pilots are trained to always use checklists. And they are better at it than doctors – leading to the quip that this is because doctors are involved while pilots are committed. Doctors who have pilot experience must have an advantage…

Finally, just because we’ve done a course doesn’t mean we know all there is to know – we need to maintain knowledge over time, with more lessons and more practice.

Pilots are required to spend a certain amount of time flying to maintain their license. All professionals need to spend time on continuous professional development – but do we?

A lecturer of ours once said that when we graduated we would have a Masters in business administration. That did not mean we were masters of business administration.

Not yet anyway.

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