Boeing saga is a lesson for product managers

Rio Akasaka
Mar 15 · 5 min read

Two catastrophic flight accidents 5 months apart, involving the same aircraft, with eerily similar flight patterns and symptoms. This was the story of the Boeing 737 Max 8, Boeing’s latest generation mid-range narrow-body aircraft; the causes of both crashes to date remains unclear, though suspicions point to a possibly faulty Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a system that aims to overcompensate for a front-heavy jet.

What struck me the most, though, was that it took 3 days for the FAA, arguably one of the world’s largest aviation authority (handling some 5000 aircraft in the sky at any moment) to decide to ground the plane.

It took quite literally the rest of the world to ground the plane before the FAA decided to act.

Behind the tragedy of the delayed decision lies, however, a few interesting points I thought I might share from the point of view of a product manager. You see, a product manager’s goal is to deliver new features for products, balancing many different inputs from different stakeholders on what is important to build. Sometimes you need to build things that users want. At other times, you need to build what you think users will want.

One of the key responsibilities of a product manager is also to managing risk. That can be because a feature is unexpectedly harder to build (and thus takes longer to ship), the feature is shipped but is broken or doesn’t work as expected, or, sometimes, because there’s an acute privacy, security or legal issue with the feature (e.g. your feature is leaking personal information). And when that happens, how you react, and how quickly you do so can be an extremely complicated decision. In other words, I understand why the FAA took so long to respond, even if it wasn’t the right decision.

Here’s why:

Managing the impact to the brand and revenue
Admitting something has gone awry inevitably impacts your product or company’s brand negatively, and as a consequence, revenue. It might be callous to call out cost as a consideration here, but it’s a calculation one needs to make especially in the case of an airline industry, where the mechanics, the pilots, the passengers, the crew are all affected, and not just Boeing’s stock. From a brand perspective, the 787 Dreamliner battery fire issue from 2013 was probably acute — if Boeing can’t ship reliable airplanes, should we be buying/flying Boeing planes at all? In the case of the FAA, taking more time to respond meant poorer PR, since it could be perceived as negligence or an unwillingness to act.

As a product manager who might face something similar, one needs to balance this potential hit to the brand/revenue with the real possibility that the issue is a) not a real one at all, or b) can be fixed swiftly enough to limit the negative ramifications.

Making sure you have all the data
Picking apart the reasons to delay, “not having access to all the data” was one of the reasons the FAA said they were not comfortable grounding all the 787s immediately. The fact that the accidents were on the same models of plans could be pure coincidence; getting the black boxes out of Ethiopia was a challenge, so they had no reason to suspect they were linked, etc. etc.

As a PM, acting without having all the data is a required and critical skill, because it may take an uncomfortably, and unacceptably, long amount of time to get “good enough data”.

Managing perceived vs. real risk
The other reason the FAA argued there was no need for particular concern was that the airline industry was one that was built around safety. Indeed, more people die in the US of car accidents in 4 days than died in both plane crashes. You could argue that by grounding the planes, you’re contributing to more deaths, because fewer people are flying on planes and are instead driving to their destinations, and getting killed. You might argue that without enough data to connect the two, the possibility of another accident involving Max 8s are incredibly, absolutely, rare.

A PM might understand the inner workings of the system and understand that the real risk (of a broken feature, or a feature with a severe privacy, security or legal issue) is extremely low, but losing sight of the perceived risk can come across as tone-deaf.

Managing external expectations and pressures
Lastly, but most importantly, is the tricky business of balancing the inputs from so many stakeholders and external actors. In the case of the FAA, it was clear from the start that it wasn’t the first to act, with China and Singapore the first national authorities to issue grounding orders. Closer to home, the Association of Flight Attendants decried the delay to ground planes fairly early on. On the other hand, Boeing stockholders initially rallied the company when the FAA didn’t take action to ground the planes immediately, assuming it meant there could be nothing wrong with the planes themselves. I’m sure there was more than one phone-call from a Boeing exec to the FAA or to Trump to give them a little more time to decide what to do.

A PM’s job would be to wade through the noise to get to the signal, and figure out whose voice is the most important to listen to. It might be easy to say “oh, always listen to the user”, but I don’t think that’s always true. Sometimes you need to take calculated business decisions that don’t align with users’ immediate needs.

In the case of Boeing and the FAA, however, because the risk of another catastrophe was at least non-negligible, erring on the side of safety would have been the better thing to maintain users’ trust.

Rio Akasaka

Written by

Canon photography, Stanford/Swarthmore alum, Google product manager, IDEO, #twitterdots, all things HCI

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