Lessons from United

Corporate structure craves process. Process creates consistency allowing a company to set a repeatable, positive client experience. Process provides a track for people to run on, so they can feel confident that they’re playing a winnable game in serving their clients. Process allows assumptions to be tested and improved upon, and it sets the course for a common mission. But as the recent news surrounding United Airlines has taught us, real life situations don’t always follow perfectly in line with if-then scenarios contained in a procedure manual.

Until recently, most of us didn’t know about the way major airlines like United operate. We may have been oblivious of the standard practice of overbooking flights, the max compensation caps offered to passengers willing to give up their seat, and the complicated algorithms used to rate flyers. Rules are rules and they typically don’t exist without reason. So why do these rules exist? Because airlines have learned, based on the behavior of their market – the flyers – what it takes to operate an airline as smoothly as possible.

The rules that guide United are there to ensure a standard of safety, comfort, and punctuality – and at fares low enough to make flying accessible to the average consumer. I get it. But I’m left wondering how the employees of a company so large and sophisticated can end up so boxed into a corner by procedure that their only course of action was to call the police (leading to the disturbing scene on the video material that went viral). How does the idea of ‘doing the right thing’ – and empowering your team to do so – get so twisted? When does doing right by a process overtake doing right by a person? Fair or unfair, something was broken within United’s culture.

The United Airline passenger incident is unsettling – and it serves as an example. At M3, we must diligently and constantly work to assess communications, procedures, and reinforce the message that sometimes it’s appropriate to toss the process. Rules are rules – and if you bend the rules as an M3er, there will be a conversation. But come to that conversation with a clear head about a sound decision you made in the moment to best serve a client, and we promise you will not be reprimanded but commended.

How close are any of us – either personally or professionally – to not thinking something through but blindly following status quo? How nimble are we? How empowered are we to act with intelligence and objectivity? Humanity is complicated and it doesn’t always follow process. People have bad days, people get tired, people get overwhelmed, people just want to get where they are going, and people can disagree. Here’s to those who don’t forget people – and do the hard work of balancing good process with good judgement.

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