The IHST, The Elephant, The Rider and The Path

A lot of smart, highly experienced helicopter people are frustrated. Since its inception in 2006, a lot of work has been done for the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) with the goal of preventing accidents, but helicopters are still crashing from entirely preventable causes. Some IHST supporters have asked, “How do we fix stupid?” Others ask, “How can we reach the people who own and operate their own helicopters and don’t come to our safety conferences?” Psychology, neuroscience and a simple analogy about riding elephants may hold the key.

Here is why you need to know something about this potential key to preventing more accidents. Helicopters save lives and enable work that would be difficult or impossible by other means. Despite their vital role in society, the public perception of helicopters is not as positive as it might be if the industry could improve its safety record. Despite recent progress, there are still far too many accidents occurring for all-too-familiar reasons. These accidents can be prevented!

There are over 500 people from all around the world doing volunteer work for the IHST. The IHST’s regional teams have analyzed over 1,000 helicopter accidents and produced toolkits, brochures, fact sheets, videos and other materials to promote the best accident prevention methods identified by those analyses. Since the IHST’s inception and all this work, the number of helicopter accidents happening around the world each year has declined, but with people still dying in preventable accidents, there is still much more to be done.

If you look at the body of work done by the IHST and made available for free on its website ( you might conclude with an objective mindset that the IHST has clearly identified the most common causes of helicopter accidents and provided more-than-sufficient means to prevent those accidents. The IHST has indeed made a compelling case for improved helicopter safety, but that case has been tailored to the conscious, logical mind. Recent research in psychology and neuroscience show us, however, that at least 95% of the decisions we make every day do not engage our conscious minds. Most of our decisions take place instinctively in our unconscious minds.

In two books[1] Psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers a useful analogy, which points to what might be missing from the approach taken so far by the IHST. Haidt likens our unconscious minds to an elephant and our conscious minds to an elephant rider. The rider can train the elephant and influence its direction, but when rider and elephant come into conflict about which way to go, the elephant wins. Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch uses Haidt’s analogy and describes how to train the elephant to follow the rider’s desired path.

The IHST has been talking and writing to the elephant rider, but appears to have failed to reach, in an effective way, the elephant. It is time to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.”


The book Switch offers key steps for directing the rider, motivating the elephant and shaping the path for the elephant (see Attachment 1). Having already given lots of direction for the rider, the IHST might gain the most by focusing on the steps for motivating the elephant and shaping the path.

The Heath brothers suggest that the first step for motivating the elephant is to “Find The Feeling”. They give examples of how behavior changes were caused by getting people to see and feel, firsthand, the results of the actions that need to change. In the commercial helicopter industry this approach will likely need to show the key actors (owners, pilots, and maintenance technicians) the very human and vulnerable side of the trusting customers who use their services. In the case of individuals who fly their own helicopters, this approach will likely need to show the potential impacts on the families and friends who depend on these pilots to get home safely.

The Heath brothers’ second step for motivating the elephant is to “Shrink The Change”. The IHST has already focused on four key areas for accident prevention (Safety Management Systems, training, systems & equipment, and maintenance practices). To follow the Heath brothers’ advice for motivating the elephant, it might be best to narrow the focus on just one thing that will do the most good. With personal/private operators being the source of the most accidents, perhaps preflight risk assessment is the one thing that needs the most emphasis for now.

The third step for motivating the elephant is to “Grow Your People.” For the IHST, this means creating a sense of identity around safe helicopter flying. Emirates Airline’s Human Factors Manager, Nicklas Dahlstrom, once observed during a meeting of the IHST’s Middle East & North Africa (MENA) team that the pride of the helicopter profession seems to be in overcoming great risks to do heroic deeds. Nicklas urged the IHST to find ways to make safety the pride of the helicopter profession.

The Heath brothers’ advice on shaping the path for the elephant might help create a sense of identity around safety in the helicopter industry. Their advice aligns with the advice given by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power Of Habit.   Safety Management Systems (SMS), training programs, maintenance practices and systems and equipment like health & usage monitoring systems (HUMS) and flight data monitoring (FDM) programs can “tweak the environment” and build habit-strength safe behaviors. Leadership is key to “rally the herd” behind safety.

The IHST has done the analysis to justify its recommendations. The IHST has provided the tools to appeal to the elephant rider and those tools can build the path for changing the elephant’s behavior. Consistent with the promotion element required in SMSs, the IHST and all those who support it must do more to motivate the elephant. We must connect to deep emotions and challenge the beliefs that lead to unsafe behaviors. We must focus on the key change that will do the most good and lead to other supporting changes – like tipping over the first domino in a line of dominoes. Along the way, we must use our best marketing skills to make safety the pride of the helicopter industry.

[1] The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Attachment 1


A role in society to be carried on?

In early August 2014, Brian Codd, former SAS officer and icon at Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club near London, died of cancer just a few days before the beginning of the Carnegie Shield competition at Royal Dornoch in northeastern Scotland. I’d first met Brian at the Carnegie Shield competition and he’d sponsored my membership at Royal Mid-Surrey.   He’d introduced me to former European PGA champion David Talbot and the group of gentlemen who play friendly matches every Saturday and Sunday afternoon at Royal Mid-Surrey. We played together as partners many times and usually won because Brian always played well when I didn’t.  Brian was a bit like an older brother to me.

He not only followed the rules, he enforced them. No mobile phone use on the course or even in the club house. Punctuality meant being ready early and starting on time. Golf has always been a game of high integrity and Brian was a guardian of golf’s integrity and etiquette.

Brian was of Irish descent, but you might’ve thought he was Dutch from his directness. Brian called things the way he saw them and spoke plainly and assertively. Some might have said that Brian complained a lot. He didn’t suffer fools and no shortcoming escaped his criticism.

Brian was a fixture among the group of gentlemen who played the afternoon “roll up” at Royal Mid-Surrey. Some were annoyed by his manner, but no one stayed away because of it. He was as an expected part of the experience. He was respected for his constancy. You could count on Brian to be Brian.

After his simple Benedictine memorial service at mid-day at Ealing Abbey, the family and the many Royal Mid-Surrey members who attended the service adjourned to the upstairs dining room at Royal Mid-Surrey for a luncheon reception. Some members who had turned out for Brian’s memorial service and reception confessed how they didn’t really like Brian, yet they had what they termed “massive respect” for him.

Like many people in life, Brian protected the boundaries for acceptable behavior. Perhaps he might have been even more endearing if he’d been more tactful, but he earned respect despite his blunt approach because he was willing to stand up for what he believed was right. People respected him because he was willing to say what they would’ve liked to have said.

The rule of law, business ethics and basic civility depend on people like Brian who preserve the boundaries for acceptable behavior. For the rest of my life, I will strive more than ever to be the best of what I saw in Brian. Perhaps with a bit more empathy for others, but with no less commitment to stand up for what is right. Rest in peace Brian. Others will pick up where you left off.


Cultural change and human nature

Having defined “winning culture” and described the goal, the strategy and the structure for creating a winning culture in previous articles, let’s explore cultural change and the facts of human nature that you must take into account to change a culture.  To use your management system effectively to execute your focused strategy and to continuously improve toward your inspiring goal, you must also work on the existing culture.


My thinking on a “winning culture” is mainly based on the concept of a “generative culture” as defined by Hearts and Minds at  When you read this reference material about generative culture you will see that it is a culture in which two-way communications is predominant, leading to ever-increasing levels of trust and accountability with a corresponding drop in bureaucracy, supervision requirements and workloads.  Hence, communications is one of the best places to start when working to improve workplace culture.  I suggest you start by asking whether people in the workplace feel free to talk about their concerns.  In the most effective workplace cultures, the boss is among the first to hear bad news and there are few surprises, up or down the management lines.


I believe that culture grows out of predominant habits and that habits grow out of behaviors that are based on beliefs.  If we want to improve a culture, as I stated earlier, we first have to talk about beliefs.  Then we have to work on the key habits that impact the culture.  James Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit will give you great examples of how habits can be changed for the better.  Duhigg’s book suggests that we work with the “cue-routine-reward” cycle to get people to recognize key cues of habitual routines and to assess the cravings for rewards that drive the cycle in order to devise new, more effective routines.  Duhigg’s example of Tony Dungy’s success in American professional football suggests that we most focus on the cues for the most important workplace threats or opportunities and train to habit strength our responses to those cues.


If culture is the “final frontier” in workplace improvement, the first wall of defense we are likely to face when entering that final frontier is the ego.  Sami Cohen’s new book An Invitation to the Now tells us about the “constructed self” made up of the “ideal self”, the “conceptual self” and the “projected self.”  When people invest heavily in keeping up appearances for the projected self, they often withhold information to protect their egos.  They guard against confessing confusion, concerns or incompetence even when the situation screams out that they should.  The projected self is often the source of the “can do” attitude that leads aircraft pilots and maintenance technicians to press on with a course of action that should be stopped.


By now you are probably recognizing that, whereas the goal and the strategy can be clear, concise and focused, the structure or management system has many elements, with feedback loops, and that creating a winning culture will require you to take on human factors.  You may well be asking how to go about this whole system with focus.


Gary Keller tells us how to manage this dilemma in his book The One Thing.  The trick is to focus, to the best of your ability, on one thing at a time when carrying out improvement efforts.  Recent neuroscience research (reported by Duhigg in The Power of Habit and by Dr. Richard Restak in several books) confirms that the human brain is wired to do only one thing at a time when cognitive effort is required.  To be most effective at one thing at a time, Keller tells us to look for changes that could make other changes easier or unnecessary.  Keller uses a domino analogy and points out that a small domino can topple a domino that is 50% larger.  This approach is essentially the same as Charles Duhigg’s targeting of “keystone habits” that can shift other habits without as much effort.


You can prove the practicality of focus with a simple experiment on your own.  Imagine that a jug of water represents all the resources you have for a given time frame and that full glasses of water represent the work products you want to complete.  Imagine that you have five glasses and only enough water to fill one.  In one case, simply fill one glass and wait for another jug of water, which will come at the end of the first simulated work period.  In the other case, put one fifth of the water in each of the five glasses.  Then imagine that with each new jug of water comes another glass to fill (representing new problems or opportunities) and repeat the above processes for eight simulated work periods.  In each iteration, fill one glass in the first case and spread the water across all the glasses in the second case.  In the first case, at the end of eight work periods, you will have finished eight work products (eight full glasses of water) and have four projects in the work queue.  In the second case, after eight work periods, you will have finished only five work products and have seven incomplete projects in progress.  In terms of finished work, spreading resources starts behind and stays behind the focused allocation of resources and leaves more work in progress at any given time.  The differences in completed products and work in progress get progressively worse with time.


What this means is that you must use whole system thinking in working to build the structure to execute the strategy to achieve the goal, while establishing a winning culture, and you must carry out this work with focus on the most important things first.  The journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.  The goal must inspire you to want to go that “1,000 miles.”  The strategy must show that the journey is possible.  The structure must make the path clear and sustainable.  Focusing on the right steps in the right direction along the path will build momentum and confidence in the path.  It takes focused action and whole system thinking to make the entire journey.  For safety and customer satisfaction, that road may go on forever, and the longer the road the more important it is to start now.


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