If you’ve ever been to an air show, you’ve probably seen a pilot put an old airplane into what appears to be an out of control tumble towards the ground, only to save the plane and pull out of the spin at the last moment. It’s really a cool stunt, and it’s really dangerous.
But sometimes they don’t make it.
These death spirals can pop up in other areas as well, and no one but a stunt pilot would enter into them on purpose. In business, we can be doing good work, but market changes or internal inefficiencies multiply, and before we know it we’re spinning out of control. Most businesses will just keep doing what they’re doing, hoping to do it better enough that they survive. Most don’t.
It happens in our relationships as well. We wake up one day and poof…who is that person we’re married to or in business with? Remind me again why we are friends? How did I end up hating my job? All too often we only notice that we’re in a death spiral once it’s too late.
What do we do about the dreaded death spiral?
1 – Learn to Recognize It
How do we know when we’re in a death spiral? It’s hard, but there are signs. Look for complacency or unjustified optimism. Look for silent arguments or issues swept under the table. If there’s an elephant in the room stinking up the place (trust me, both real and metaphorical elephants stink), and no one is saying anything about it, you are already there.
2 – Recovering from the Death Spiral
There is only one thing that can save you (beyond divine intervention or accident, and while I’d hope for the former, I wouldn’t expect the either). That one thing will depend on your exact situation and environment and can take many forms. The one thing is drastic and immediate change.
You have to stay calm and assess the situation. But you have to act, and act quickly. The longer you spiral out of control, the more difficult it will be to recover.
The status quo has got you where you are. Sticking to the same route will only get you killed (only figuratively, I hope).
Small changes may only mask the problem or give the illusion of recovery. You need to zig when everyone else zags.
John G. Miller tells a story in his book QBQ: The Question Behind the Question, about a father flying with his daughter. When the engine of their small plane cuts out, he smoothly tells her that something is wrong and he has to fly the plane differently. Had he continued flying as if he had an engine when he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to tell the story.
Drastic and immediate change in response to the circumstances, even if all you have is a Hail Mary pass.
3 – No Guarantees
By the time you realize you’re in a death spiral, it may be too late. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try, but you should be realistic. Even if you do all the right things, you may not recover.
If I fall out of an airplane without a parachute, I’m going to do two things: pray and flap my arms. Flapping my arms is not a sign of lack of faith…it’s meeting God halfway. It may or may not help, but I’m going down fighting and I’ll have a great story to tell either in the hospital or in Heaven.
Can the Death Spiral Be Avoided?
Probably not always. But if you keep your eyes on where you are going and where you are, you’ll see when you get off course. Constant minor adjustments will keep you on the path. Fail to pay attention, and you veer off course. And pay full attention, and external forces can still knock you off course. In your life, career, business or marriage…be prepared and be alert.
What do you think?