Top TEN #9 Spatial Disorientation

On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Carolyn waited anxiously at Essex County Airport, New Jersey, for the arrival of Carolyn’s sister Lauren Bessette. A rising star at Morgan Stanley, Lauren was running late.

They had planned to leave at 6 PM but didn’t take off until 8:39, shortly after sunset.

John-John, as we fondly knew him, had obtained his pilot license the year before. Certified for visual flight, he had not completed the instrument training that enables pilots to fly when visibility is poor. As he had done previously, Kennedy would follow the lights below up the coast. But, to make up for lost time, he decided to fly a direct path for the last 50 km (30 mi) over the ocean to his destination at Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Inexperienced pilots are advised against this as it leaves the horizon as their only reference point. Presumably, Kennedy didn’t consider this and didn’t know that the moon’s low position that night would make the horizon faint. 

Weather reports obtained before the flight indicated visibility that night of 4 to 10 miles. There was no mention of the haze that would roll in from the ocean, envelop Kennedy’s plane, and rob him of sight. An hour into his flight and minutes away from his destination John-John found himself locked in a nightmare of spatial disorientation. He realized his plane was out of control, but he lacked the experience to put mind over the tricks played by his senses. At 9:41 PM, John-John’s plane crashed nose-first into the ocean killing himself, his wife, and his sister-in-law. 

It’s a tragic story and another sad chapter in the history of the Kennedy family. It also stands out as a reminder of a valuable lesson in life and business.

Spatial Disorientation 

Spatial disorientation, in a broader context, is when we act differently than we know we should. We give into uncertainty and fall back on bad habits. The easy way is the one we’re most familiar with even though it’s not likely to produce the results we want. We’ve been down this path before, but tell ourselves it will be different this time. At least, that’s what we want to trick ourselves into believing. But it isn’t different. It’s simply the repeat of a past mistake; maybe one that has been committed many times.  

How do we break away from this illusion and find a better course for ourselves and our business?

Caught in suspended life between COVID-19 and normalcy, now is a great time to remake ourselves. A possible answer (and one I’m testing too) is OKR.

Objectives and Key Results (OKR)

From the perspective of OKR (Objectives and Key Results), we tend to aim low. Modeled by Intel’s Andy Grove (originally in Hungarian Graf András), OKR maintains that to achieve meaningful goals, we have to set big ones. Teams that were making all their goals were a sort of failure in Grove’s mind because they weren’t reaching far enough.

Grove thought like John-John’s father, President John F. Kennedy, who explained that the US was going to the moon “not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.” Called the Moonshot Goal, Kennedy’s plan was outlandish, but it worked.

Entrepreneurs like Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk (and hundreds of others) succeeded not because of their strategic thinking but because of their outlandishness. They set ridiculous goals and often don’t make them. But this doesn’t matter when they’re consistently outperforming their competitors.

During his time at Intel, where his career began, legendary venture capitalist John Doerr was trained in OKR by Grove. Years later, Doerr would introduce OKR to the two young Google founders, Page and Brin. Their Objective: “Build the simplest search engine in the world.” And a Key Result: “Reach 1 million searches per day.” Google continues to use OKR.

OKR is a model for defining our Objective, specifying Key Results needed to meet that Objective, and creating Initiatives to act on achieving the key results. It’s primarily a tool for business, but OKR can also be applied to personal goals, as excellently detailed in this article: How to set your Personal OKRs and stick to them.

Strategic Execution Provider – Perdoo

According to the strategic execution provider, Perdoo, “OKRs provide the missing link between ambition and reality. They help you break out of the status quo and take you into new, often unknown territory. If you have a big dream – an inspiring vision – for your company, you need OKRs that take you there. OKRs symbolize ambition.”*

OKR encourages us to dream but then explains how to make that dream possible by detailing the steps needed to reach it.

Hostages to quarantine, many of us may be experiencing a degree of spatial disorientation. I am. OKR is the instrument panel that can guide us to where we want to go. Think about it. Maybe apply it. There’s likely not a better time than now.

* What is an OKR?

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