I Didn’t Know They Didn’t Know What I Knew


If any of you caught my blog from last week, 7 ½ Ways to Conceptually Destroy Meetings Paradox, then you will smile sardonically with me when I tell you about my week. I just finished a three day meeting. That’s some serious karmic payback. To be fair, I decided after day two that it was no longer a meeting, it was a work group. OK, fine, give me a break, I had to talk myself off the ledge, because first of all it was good work we were doing, we stayed on task, and finished what we set out to do.

This work group did inspire me to an idea I wanted to write about this week. The differences and sometimes HUGE differences in the abilities, intellect, experience and idiosyncrasies of a given group of strangers brought together for a task. By surrounding yourself with those who are different from you with a goal to achieve, I think you have a greater chance of creating a product that will be superior. It gives me great hope that some of humanity will always survive despite our inherent variances, after the Rapture or global climate change. Whichever comes first.

This group of people from all around the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) included some seriously smart and experienced talent and then there was me. We had engineers of all types, pilots who have flown a variety of complex aircraft in complex situations and me, an air traffic controller by training, political scientist by university. Let me be the first to tell you, aviation in the United States is incredibly safe, far safer than getting into your bath tub, but we never stop insuring that safety and so our group’ mission is helping to create predictive models and investigating all the potential risks so all of the FAA is on the same page.

I thought my background as a Chicago air traffic controller without any formal analytic training was not going to help these folks interpret statistical data and create a usable spreadsheet. Me and an Excel document is not a pretty sight. Reading the data presented on one is no problem, but if you expect me to create any magic spreadsheet alchemy, I guarantee you’d find me in a slobbering bawling mess under my desk within minutes.

What I found at the end of the week was that I brought a unique perspective which empowered the team to keep our process dynamic and finish with a sound document. I did not recognize that as we brought up one safety issue after another I was able to interpret events from an air traffic control perspective and bring the issue to common understanding. At the same time the pilots did the same and gave perspective from the flight deck and performance of aircraft. As the pilot/controller dialogue hummed along the engineers would step in with their special talents of interpreting our nonsense, crafting graphical and numerical ways of demonstrating the safety issue eventually painting a picture everyone in our agency could see.

Each of us has different work super powers and often we don’t recognize those powers can enable other employees’ powers. What I found out was that my skills of keeping airplanes separated, was more than just that. What I was able to do was explain what I find as normal everyday air traffic control stuff, to a group of experts enabling their super powers. I didn’t know they didn’t know what I knew. When I explained my world, it opened them up to understanding the issue at hand and they then applied their knowledge, teaching me as well, to come up with a great product. The pilots in the room did the same thing when safety issues were introduced from their viewpoint.

The lesson I learned this week was that everyone at work brings a unique talent to the table that we should seek out when we are all thrown together for a purpose. Keep this in mind when you are assigned a task, goal, or mission and need to gather a team. Hunt for the skills you need and leave the kryptonite at home.

Michael Hannigan is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Matthew Garlipp

Some awesome insight, Michael — and definitely a confidence boost! Dealing with unfamiliar tasks — especially technology-based — can be seriously intimidating. But it’s a great reminder that each team member contributes his/her own unique skillset that produces a great overall product or outcome.