Change Nothing and Nothing Changes: Challenging the Status Quo

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One of the most unsettling words in the English language is “change,” especially when it’s someone else’s idea. So much so that there is even a prayer that asks “…give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Because it is fraught with unknowns, the thought of change is uncomfortable for most us…a normal reaction, especially if we’ve been getting along by doing the same thing the same way for a long time.  Yet, intuitively, we all know that our air show businesses must continually develop and improve if we are to survive. We also know that managing these conflicting feelings isn’t always easy.

Some changes are small and impact few in an organization, such as the reconfiguration of an entrance gate, or perhaps the flow of traffic into a parking area.  Some changes are large, such as going to electronic ticketing for the first time, the addition of a night show, or a major rearrangement of static displays on the ramp. Whether changes are small or large, they will immediately be supported by some and opposed by others; while others will go along, reserving judgment for later. Surprisingly, it isn’t necessarily change in and of itself that foments apprehension and concern.

The Human Dynamics of Change

According to Dave Kinnear of DBK Associates, a California-based change management consulting firm, “People don’t hate change. They hate being changed.” He says people adapt easily to change if it’s their idea, but, when it’s imposed on them from outside sources, that’s something else altogether.

“If you want to make anything close to a major change in the way an organization does things, it’s critical that there be a vision of the new reality of where you are going. People resent change when they are kept in the dark. This is more critical in volunteer organizations than anywhere else,” Kinnear said.

And for any change to be successful, Kinnear says leaders must create a sense of urgency. “If there is no sense of urgency, you won’t get people to understand and put up with the pain that change can cause.”

Kinnear said most people who oppose change at the outset do so because they perceive a loss of control. He added that resistance doesn’t just come from members of an organization. “We often run into managers who don’t want to change because they are either vested in a system they created or they are the type of people who avoid risk. That’s not someone you want in a leadership position. A good leader builds a culture where change is not a stranger,” he said.  And he said it is difficult, if not impossible, to over communicate. “Significant change must be driven from the top, but you must include as many folks as possible in the change process.”

It’s an axiom in organizational dynamics that ten percent of your people will always be early adopters and embrace change, no matter what that change may be. Another 80 percent will wait and see before deciding whether they like it or not, and the remaining 10 percent will never accept it.

Kinnear calls these the CAVE people. They are Citizens Against Virtually Everything. “The wait-and-see crowd usually accepts change over time. They see it working and that it improves the organization.  You will never get 100 percent, so you must keep the wait-and-see crowd away from those who will never accept the change. Instead, team them up with the early adopters and the results will be far better,” he said.

The air show community has seen several examples of change in recent years, brought on in part by outsiders coming in to take over established organizations. In some cases, the need for change was why they were hired in the first place. But they knew from the outset that they had to proceed carefully.

Generating Buy-In

One of these is John “Lites” Leenhouts, who recently took over as president and CEO of Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Florida.  He’s a veteran of 28 years as a naval aviator and served for eleven years with Northrup Grumman, but had no air show management experience at the time he was hired. When he came to Sun ‘n Fun, he knew he was working with good people who were vested in the way things were being done and didn’t want to step on toes as he began to implement his ideas.

“I came in to lead a team of hard-working professionals and volunteers who had been doing their jobs for many years. They knew much more about this show and this business than I did and the worst thing I could have done would have been to start telling them how to do their job,” he said.

Leenhouts had been coming to Sun ‘n Fun as a spectator and volunteer for much of the past 30 years, and he began to notice areas where change was needed.  “Having been a volunteer myself, I knew I had to get their buy-in and their support in those areas where changes were needed,” he said.

His first step was to socialize new concepts with the volunteer leaders. “I bounced my ideas off them casually, listened to their input, listened to their own ideas, and then started proposing changes to staff, as well as the workforce in general,” he said. “People are now comfortable telling me what they think when I lay out an idea and they will also tell me if they don’t think it will work. I take that as a positive sign. But when we do implement change, I use terms like ‘all’ and ‘we,’ so that once a change is approved, it’s ‘our’ change.”

Like the organizer of any large air show, Leenhouts had two organizations under him. One was the staff in the front office, and the other was the volunteer workforce that put the show together each year. At times, there was a divide between these two organizations he had to bridge. “I gave them a common theme, which was change. I had to make sure we were all moving forward together.  They all agreed on the need for change and began to champion it.”

Now, he said, they spend time at every weekly staff meeting discussing different approaches to how they do things and look for better ways to do them. “If we want to change something, we first socialize it through informal discussions, and then go to a group setting to get their input. We discuss the pros and cons, evaluate the upside against the downside, then take it to our volunteers to see if they can implement it. If they endorse it, we go forward,” he said.  By the time a change is announced, there is so much momentum behind it that it can’t be stopped.

“So you go forward”

Stephan Brown is the president and CEO of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), headquartered in Midland, Texas.  The CAF has 70 units in 28 states, with over 9,000 members and 156 airplanes.  By his own admission, he has been aggressive about pushing change.  

“I was brought here to help change the CAF. We had problems and rolled out our changes, presented the logic, and sought input. New ideas weren’t always accepted right away, but we had to change to survive,” he said.   Among his changes were new uniforms, getting away from the familiar gray uniforms and Stetsons. Now, the uniform is a bit more modern: khaki pants, button down blue shirts and polo shirts with the CAF logo on the left breast.  “When we first proposed the idea of a change in uniforms, we orchestrated a fashion show at a meeting. People embraced it, which opened the door for us to ease it into our requirements.”

One idea that met with some resistance was adding the CAF logo to every airplane the organization owns. Many in the CAF were opposed, wanting nothing but military markings on the aircraft. “We needed to do a better job branding the CAF. Some changes are not popular, but you know they are the right thing to do, so you go forward. It took a lot of time and talking, but most of our critics have come around and now are proud when they see the CAF logo on TV, in magazines, and elsewhere,” he said.

A key to Brown’s success has been his commitment to let critics have their say. “You have to let them voice their dissatisfaction. You must always give them an answer, and allow them to agree to disagree, if necessary.”

One of his most successful strategies came when he said the organization needed to raise the dues for membership and for its units, if it was to get out of its financial hole. “I went before a live audience of CAF members to make the case and we videotaped the presentation. We produced and distributed over 8,000 DVDs of my presentation showing where we are, how we got here, and how we are going to get out of it. The board was concerned that we would lose members with a dues increase, but a large number of our members watched the video and let us know they accepted the increases. We lost very few members as a result. Now the CAF is again in the black with a very bright future,” he said.

Avoiding Toes When Blazing New Trails

When Ivey Liipfert became the air show coordinator at MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina, she had no experience in such a role. She had been the show’s sponsorship coordinator for just a year as an employee of the Marine Corps Community Services office on base. Being the first civilian to take on this role created some trust issues at the outset. Her mantra was, “Just because it’s always been done that way is not an acceptable answer in every case.” And one of her first big changes was not well received.

“We stepped on some toes when we decided to hire a professional air boss. Even though running an air show is a lot different than running a military air field, we had to proceed cautiously to overcome the resistance,” she said.  “Military people are very loyal to each other, but our air boss came to the field early, met with the key players to talk over issues, and their comfort level improved. Now, everyone is on board with it and they realize how much safer the show is with a professional air boss.”

Because of her marketing background, Liipfert also recognized that the entire customer experience was being neglected, and that, too, needed to change. From the layout of chalets to children’s entertainment to the placement of the portable restrooms, change became the order of the day. “We are an established show, but we wanted to bring fresh ideas to make the entire experience better for people coming to the show,” she said.

There are people in any organization who can’t see the reasons for, or the benefits of, a new idea and won’t get behind it. That’s what happened when she wanted to include a task force demonstration in the show, featuring ground assault troops, aerial support, pyro, helicopters and more. “Some of our people were against it and didn’t think the Marine Corps would support it. But we persevered and made it happen,” she said.

Since one of the main goals of an air show at a military base is recruiting and exposing young people to the military, the task force demo made a lot of sense to her. “I kept pushing forward, found some in the organization who liked the idea, got their buy in, and moved forward. It was a highlight of the show, and many said, their favorite part of the show,” she said.

A key to maintaining freshness at any event is a constructive critique or de-brief when it’s over. “We always ask for the good, the bad and the ugly. I’m always open to suggestions,” says Liipfert. “We always seek opinions after each event from volunteer coordinators, parking, traffic control, security, and marketing. Everyone submits their after-action reports which include ideas on what we can do better.”

Technology-Driven Change

Sometimes, changes come from outside our industry and aren’t even intended for our use, but imaginative minds have found ways to make use of them. For example, composite materials have led to aerobatic airplanes with capabilities beyond our imagination a few decades ago.  Audio and video advances have significantly enhanced our marketing capabilities.  And then there is the entire field of electronic ticketing, not something that was embraced early on.

For most of the last 15 years, John Haak of ClicknPrint/ExtremeTix has been a pioneer in the field of electronic ticketing, working to get air shows to adopt web-based ticket sales.  Haak said it was a very hard sell at first because people were reluctant to trust the new technology. What they had been doing was still working for them and they didn’t see how electronic ticketing would be much of an improvement. 

Now, air show spectators can get their tickets scanned right off their phone, just like an airline boarding pass. In nearly every case, Haak says shows that have adopted on-line ticket sales have seen an increase in revenue and have a more accurate count of bodies coming through the gate.

Another significant development that has somewhat surprisingly met with opposition has been in the improvement of sound system technology. Jay Rabbitt is known for having one of the best sound systems in the air show business, but he says having a quality product isn’t always enough. Some shows just don’t place a high value on sound quality.

“The biggest resistance has been due to the cost of a quality system by those who think sound doesn’t matter.  This is a common problem with a variety of motor sports activities. It is difficult to place a value on sound until something goes wrong or until you can’t hear it,” he said.

He notes that sponsors often complain about not being able to hear their mentions on the public address system during a show and many shows have sound systems that don’t reach back into the crowd. “Pure aviation people often don’t get it, but those focusing on entertainment understand it,” he said.

Changing the Culture of Air Show Safety

One of the most dramatic and difficult areas of change in the air show industry in recent years has been the improvement of pilot safety. Prior to 1990, the number of pilot fatalities was growing at an alarming rate (see graph below). That’s when the Federal Aviation Administration took the unprecedented step of inviting an industry group, ICAS, to help reverse the trend.

Although the air show community was largely supportive of the concept of this ICAS involvement in the Aerobatic Competency Evaluation (ACE) program, actual implementation generated some hard feelings. Brick walls of opposition were erected that, in some cases, took many years to break down. Over time, though, the benefits of the unusual FAA/ICAS partnership produced a significant drop in the air show accident rate.

More recently, one of the most vocal advocates of a strong ICAS safety program has been Doug Rozendaal. He chaired the standards evaluation board and safety committee for the Commemorative Air Force and brought his expertise to the ICAS Safety Committee. “Many of the ICAS safety programs were already in place when I became involved [in 2008], but I feel very strongly about it,” he said.

By the time Rozendaal became involved, there was consensus within the air show community that the improvements of the early 1990s were no longer enough and that the industry needed a renewed emphasis on improving safety and reducing the accident rate. Beginning in 2008, ICAS began to look at how other professional aviation organizations were approaching the issue and began leveraging those ideas to change pilot behavior. They also knew that ICAS was going to have to commit resources if any kind of safety program was to be successful. This commitment led to the hiring of a full-time safety director, and the development of the weekly Operations Bulletin, the ICARUS program of self-reporting, and other programs aimed at getting – and keeping — pilots’ attention.

Once again, many pilots resisted the changes being recommended, but — over time — most have come around.  “Most of those who raised objections didn’t fully understand what we were doing. Our goal was to get everyone to acknowledge unnecessary risks head on and drive them down as far as possible,” Rozendaal said.

Statistics show the improvement that has taken place in performer safety since ICAS took charge of the issue.  Fatalities still occur, but at a far lower rate. “Safety is never an end state. It is a journey and, no matter how good we are, we know we need to get better. We have to be relentless,” he said.

One of the most successful aspects of this change has been the willingness of performers to critique each other when they see something wrong, whether the advice is solicited or not. Some pilots are still reluctant to try to tell a peer how to do something and other pilots still become defensive when unsolicited advice is offered. But those barriers are slowly being broken down and the exchange of ideas and suggestions takes place more frequently all the time. The result is safer performances and more entertainment for fans.

“None of this is rocket science,” said Rozendaal. “We are all peers. Everybody needs to operate with the attitude they have something to learn and something to contribute. When somebody takes you aside, you need to be open to it.” But Rozendaal and most other air show veterans concede that this is a significant change in the air show safety culture…a change that is taking time.

The People Side of Change

While change is full of hidden dangers to some, others see it as full of hidden opportunities. But it is still a hard sell. According to Stan Cherkasky of Change Management Consulting in Wayne, New Jersey, 45 percent of all change initiatives fail.  And of the remaining 55 percent that succeed, only half fully meet the expectations of stakeholders.

Some would see these numbers and say, “Why bother?” But Cherkasky says that, when done properly, the benefits far outweigh the dangers. “The most significant reason change initiatives fail is because those proposing the changes ignore the human side of the equation,” he said. “We often look at the mechanics of change without understanding the needs of people involved, whether it is volunteers, paid staff, spectators or performers.” And the only solution, he says, is communication.

But it’s important to know how to communicate. Behavioral scientists have learned that people generally fall into four basic categories, called behavioral styles, and each communicates differently:

  • A driver, for example, is hard charging, often an assertive, get-it-done kind of person who wants to be told the bottom line first, gain enough information to move forward, and wants people to get out of his way and let him do his job.
  • The expressive is also assertive, but is always generating new ideas. If you take an idea to an expressive, you should be prepared to listen to several more ideas before moving forward.
  • The amiable is usually more timid, tends to back away from assertive people, and wants to be sure everyone feels good about a proposed change before moving forward. They tend to focus on relationships and don’t like conflict or to cause stress in another person. Great care must be taken when approaching them about change or they will simply shut down.
  • The analytical person also is not comfortable around assertive personalities, absorbs data, is constantly analyzing the situation and is slower to make decisions. Like the amiable, they don’t like being rushed into adopting changes.

Cherkasky (who will speak on the people side of air shows on Wednesday, December 12 at the ICAS Convention in Las Vegas) says there are four phases of the change process:  First is shock and resistance. Second is confusion, indifference or apathy.  Third is integration.  And the fourth is execution. “Each stage requires careful communication with sensitivity to the behavior styles of those involved. When done correctly, the new way of doing things becomes the norm and you are able to move forward.”

One of Cherkasky’s guiding principles is becoming what he calls “other-centered” and less “self-centered.”  Somewhat like the biblical “Golden Rule,” he calls his “The 24 Karat Rule.”  “To help those with different behavior styles accept change, you have to do unto them as they would like to be done unto.” While the grammar may not be correct, the concept is solid. “You have to first understand your own behavior style, and then communicate in ways to help other behavior styles better understand what is needed and why it is needed,” he said.

In the face of all the challenges confronted by our business, failure to innovate is a recipe for failure.  Change occurs at such a fast pace today that we actually backslide when we don’t progress. In that environment, a grudging acceptance of occasional change is not enough. Circumstances require that we embrace, encourage and welcome change…not just in some areas of our business, but in all areas where forward progress will help us become safer, more profitable, more effective, more efficient and more entertaining.  As the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.