Communication & Setting Success Criteria

'People on an Airfield'

19 December 2022
Effective Storytelling - Podcast
Short stories with key learning points for personal development and professional development. Often to make you smile, and always to make you think.
Clear priorities are one thing - but what if they conflict? A great example of the need to connect top level strategy with ground level decision making.

This story comes from Jan Carlzon, former Head of Scandinavian Airlines. He said:

I woke up in a cold sweat one night, having had a nightmare. I dreamt that I’d been watching a conversation between three of my staff, on the apron of the airfield, standing alongside one of our planes which was due to take off. 

The first one said: 

“Look, the plane has to go. We pride ourselves on punctuality, it is one of our key performance criteria. It needs to go in the next 5 minutes, to be punctual.” 

The second one said: 

“No. We have a commitment to customer in-flight service, and a lot of our reputation is built on this. We have 180 passengers on board, and only 165 meals. We need to wait until the extra 15 meals have been delivered – which will take 10 minutes.” 

Then the third one chipped in: 

“That’s all very well, but I just don’t like the look of this rivet holding the engine on…” 

Carlsen’s concern was this: how would they decide?

For Carlsen, it was clear: safety first, then punctuality, and compensate the passengers without the in-flight meal. But it was no use him knowing – it was the staff on the ground who needed to decide… and he realised that they might not use the same stacking of criteria that he felt was obvious…

they might not use the same stacking of criteria that he felt was obvious…

Leaders need to communicate, and in terms of performance management, it isn’t enough to say what the business objectives are. They need to say what the key criteria are for successful product or service delivery. But Carlzon’s nightmare takes it further. There is no point in setting several performance criteria – safety, punctuality, customer service – if you do not clarify their stacking order (priority order) if and when they conflict.

There is no point in setting several performance criteria… if you don’t clarify their priority order.

There are a number of take-ways from this story:

  • Setting success criteria
  • Standards
  • Communication
  • Decision making
  • Trust v control
  • Prioritising
  • Values into action

Setting success criteria

Success needs to be defined, so that everyone is clear what is needed to produce that success. For example, it’s not enough to have an objective such as ‘to keep customers happy’. What are the key factors that are necessary to make a customer happy? This requires success criteria to be set. In this case, 3 such criteria have been identified by Carlzon – the Chief Executive – punctuality, in flight customer care, and safety. These criteria give clarity: they help everyone focus on what really matters.


It’s not enough for the Chief Executive to have identified these criteria. Carlzon realized he needed to communicate these criteria fully, so that everyone responsible for ‘customer satisfaction’ knew these three criteria. Ideally, of course, there would be standards applied to each criterion, in effect to define each of the criteria. So ‘punctuality’ might be set at ‘leaving the stand at no later than 10 minutes from the published time’; ‘in flight customer care’ might be defined as ‘full in-flight service of food and drink available as published’; and ‘safety’ might be defined as ‘100% completion of safety checklist’.


Having decided these criteria, and how they should be defined, Carlzon then needed to consider how best to get this information out to everyone who would have a role in delivering them – such as the three on the tarmac. Possibilities could include a briefing system, where each level of the hierarchy briefs their team, and answers any questions; this could then possibly be reinforced by something more permanent – an email, a leaflet, or a handbook, including key checklists. There could be a poster or in-house video campaign, and the criteria and standards could be emphasised or reviewed at any appraisal or PDR meeting. There could also be incentives or rewards such as bonuses for the standards being met.  

Decision making

The central part of Carlzon’s nightmare was decision making. Given thqt all three of the criteria could not be met at the same time, the employees were in effect disagreeing over which criterion was a priority. To Carlzon, the answer was obvious: safety, punctuality, then inflight customer service. In that order. But what if the decision makers on the ground, on the front line, did not have that clarity, the same understanding? Not only would there be potential inconsistency, each time a similar situation occurred, but the wrong decision could be catastrophic. (As an aside, the Chernobyl nuclear plan disaster occurred because of similar circumstances. Those on the front line, and in particular an autocratic supervisor, prioritised the wrong criteria – meeting a test deadline, rather than prioritising safety). So Carlzon would have to make sure that in all communications, the stacking order of the criteria were clear, should such a conflict between criteria arise.  

Trust v Control

This situation also raises another important organisational issue: the tension, or dilemma, between empowering front line staff, by giving them more autonomy, and yet ensuring consistency, and effectiveness of decision making. It is no use empowering those on the tarmac to make their own decisions, if, in doing so, they put the business at risk. The answer, probably, is to be clear what part of front-line decision making is negotiable, and what is not. In this instance, safety is non-negotiable, and needs to be made absolutely clear. And if that just seems obvious, then remember Chernobyl. And in a separate incident, the captain of The Titanic had such trust in the reputation of the ship as ‘unsinkable’ that appropriate control measures were not taken until far, far too late…


Quite simply, it’s the responsibility of the senior leadership, setting the criteria for success, to spot where potential conflict between the criteria might occur, and make it crystal clear to everyone that, in such an eventuality, what the priorities are. And although in this instance the priority is safety, and would probably be seen as such by most, the priority between punctuality and in-flight care is less obvious, and potentially open to debate. There is also the issue that different contexts could produce different priorities. When I was a lecturer, I had students in the same class who had a different attitude to ‘success’ according to their different contexts: those that saw each session as a social time out, to be enjoyed, were not concerned with academic success; those that saw the course as a major stepping stone to their career, had a high regard for academic success.

Values into action

Roy Disney has said: “once you are clear about your values, every decision is easy”. In other words, clear values are a useful filter through which decisions need to be tested. So in this example, if everyone in the organisation had a non-negotiable value of ‘safety first’, then Carlzon could perhaps have relaxed. In such a situation, the values of the organisation, rather than rules or supervision, become the key mechanism for control.  

Effective Storytelling - Podcast
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