10,000 Airplanes, 1,000 Processes, One Goal: The Power of Collaboration

January 2019

By Brian Wierzbinski

Executive Vice President/CFO, Experimental Aircraft Association

As we enter 2019, many of us see a big, open frontier, ready to be developed with the results and events we want to accomplish during the coming year. At same time, we see a planner full of meetings, programs, deadlines, and more.

There’s the conflict that can rend even the best dreams. Lofty expectations run right into day-to-day demands and unexpected turns that can bog us down. How can we make it overcome hurdles and succeed?

The power of collaboration.

Each year, we plan and execute the world’s largest fly-in convention when EAA AirVenture Oshkosh brings 600,000 people and 10,000 airplanes to the Oshkosh area. The challenge is creating an event that is grand enough to handle world-class challenges, while small enough for each participant to have expectations met.

Fortunately, we have many lessons learned through more than six decades of the events, especially as head toward our 50th consecutive year in Oshkosh in 2019. Those lessons remind us ultimately, even the best plan that builds on past successes depends on the collective passion and energy of hundreds of full- and part-time staff people, plus thousands of volunteers. The connections of those people make the difference:

Communications must be more than two-way: It’s up-and-down, side-to-side, beginning-to-end, and any other direction one can conceive. An example – Each year, EAA develops its plan for AirVenture based on debriefing at all levels and builds a list of seven to 10 ‘A’ priorities that are absolutely essential. Then we add commitments from each of the 50 teams in their individual areas, with both staff and volunteers involved. Leaders must know the key elements and communicate them, while from the bottom up there must be ability to describe hurdles and challenges. In addition, all materials should be available to stakeholders to provide “the grease in the wheels of collaboration.”

Deadlines spur action. If planning deadlines are soft, planning will be soft and continual until the last minute. For EAA AirVenture, planning begins in fall by studying the debriefs, then seeking features and attractions, followed by the commercial elements of the events, and finally establishing how everything will be executed. We aim for May 31 for a complete production plan and who is in charge of executing each element. From June 1 to opening day, it’s then execution phase. It took about three years to completely convince everyone that the deadlines were set and solid. That helps in the next step…

Prepare for the unexpected. Without deadlines and a plan, unexpected events cause chaos within an organization or event. For instance, summer in Wisconsin means there is likely at least one thunderstorm coming during AirVenture week. Having a weather action plan in place means that not only do people know what to do, but necessary supplies and equipment are ready. Having the plan also eliminates distractions from continual questions that come when there is no plan.

Discipline to say no. There is never a shortage of ideas for AirVenture. Even up to opening day, we still hear from people suggesting, “You know what would be really great this year? You should (fill in blank here).” Those distractions, when multiplied a hundred times or more, can tear apart a plan. It comes down to one simple rule: if we can’t do it well, we won’t do it.

Be ready for the human factor. People continually reinforce human nature in all dimensions. Those hopes, dreams, faults, egos, and all else are a part of anything with a people element. Leadership must exhibit core values themselves by living it, not just saying it. Teaching collaboration means being collaborative as an example. The planning and preparation fortify the collaborative process and minimize individuals going rogue or “playing cowboy.”

Find the leaders at all levels. Leaders are found often outside the hierarchy of an organizational chart. People who have a degree of involvement and passion for an organization or event can take responsibility and thrive. Allowing volunteers and staff an opportunity to step up and build a stronger foundation. It also means recognizing when someone might not be a good fit. If there’s a better place to use a skill set, guide that person toward it. Also, if a person shows to run counter to the basic tenets of an organization or event, there can’t be fear to have a hard conversation and make a change.

Plan to succeed, not just survive. It’s easy to say or think, “If we can just get to (that date), we’ll be OK.” Strive to be more than OK. Planning and creating paths for success include saying, “When we get to (that date), here’s what success will look like.” It gives everyone the same shared vision and knowledge of the effort to get there. It also creates a mindset that we’re in it to succeed, not just reach the end.

One unifying element of EAA AirVenture is the realization that each role is important, but only together does each role create something bigger than the individual efforts. People want to succeed; planning for that success makes it possible and gratifying for all involved. May the end of 2019 look like the big dream you had at the beginning!

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