Not many of us start the day with the fate of hundreds of lives in our hands. Commercial pilots do. They’re highly trained, incredibly focused and extremely disciplined. You wouldn’t think they’d need a prompt telling them to “Pull Up!” if they’re flying too low—but it turns out they do.
In the late 1960s the rapidly growing commercial aviation market experienced several high-profile, catastrophic accidents. Investigators found experienced pilots were becoming disoriented and flying perfectly functioning aircraft straight into the ground. This drove an FAA mandate that all large aircraft be equipped with ground proximity warning systems alerting pilots to “Pull Up!” to avoid crashing.
So why is “Pull Up!” a Get Shit Done (GSD) principle? It’s because we can fall into the same trap, getting caught up in minute details that distract us from our primary mission. We forget to pull up, look around to see where we are, and ensure we’re on the right course. When that happens we need to be jolted out of the status quo.
Of course, I don’t mean a literal voice shouting at you—although I’m happy to leave you a voice mail reminding you to “Pull Up!”
Saying “Let’s pull up for a minute,” can be a super effective technique to pulling out of the weeds and getting yourself (or your team) back on track. When we pull up, we’re able to evaluate with a fresh perspective if we’re on track to hit the task at hand.
Here’s one of my favorite examples: sales kickoff meetings. The moment the dates are set people come out of the woodwork, wanting time in front of the sales team. The agenda begins to buckle, and something’s got to give. That’s the time to pull up and ask, “What does the sales team truly need to walk out of the room with to crush their number?”
By pulling up and asking that simple question, you’re able to strip politics and personality out of the equation. When everyone is clear about the real business objective, you’ll get closer to consensus—and get back to driving big outcomes.
Another example: the annual planning process. Too often, teams start by simply extending what they’ve been doing while layering new initiatives on top of last year’s plan. Frustration mounts, tensions flare, and the excitement for the year ahead crumbles.
That’s a perfect time to pull up and ask clarifying questions to steer the conversation back to GSD. For example, you can ask “What three things are we currently doing that no longer support our mission?” Eliminate those three, and you’ll create space for new initiatives.
Hitting the pause button to pull up may sound basic, but you’d be shocked how many organizations don’t do this. Here are three reasons I’ve observed:
We get distracted by a single aspect of the problem and lose focus on the big picture. Another airplane example: In December 1972 a brand new Eastern Airlines jet crashed into the Florida Everglades. The investigation revealed that the entire flight crew had become so preoccupied with a faulty landing gear indicator light that they didn’t realize the autopilot had disengaged, sending the plane drifter lower until it was too late to recover. In other words, no one was focused on the ultimate goal, which was flying the plane.
We think someone else is responsible for triggering “Pull Up!” This isn’t about laziness. When people get so consumed by their part of the overall effort, or they aren’t clear on roles and responsibilities, things fall through the cracks or a lot of toes get stepped on. Either way, no one is asking the big questions needed to shape the journey.
- We’re afraid. It’s tough to acknowledge, but this is a big reason why no one hits the pause button. It’s hard to be the one to buck group thinking. We don’t want to rock the boat. The reality is you’re not the only one, and others will feel a sense of relief that finally, someone asked the question! Here’s the beautiful part: the more you use “Pull Up," the easier it gets.
So what makes a great “Pull Up” question? It’s usually an open-ended question designed to introduce clarity and start people thinking at a higher level. The right question can bring a team back into harmony when there’s been conflict. The right question also exposes gaps in the current plan.
Here’s how I do it. If I feel like we’re heading off course I’ll say, “Let’s pull up for a minute,” and ask one of the following questions:
“What is the most important thing that needs to happen?”
“What are the three key ideas we need to communicate?”
“What is the most important outcome?”
So here’s my challenge: At your next meeting, be prepared to say “Pull Up!” About 15 minutes into the meeting (or when you think the meeting is going off track), just say, “Let’s pull up for a minute. What one thing do we want to make sure we get done by the time we leave?”
You may get a few raised eyebrows, but I guarantee you’ll also get at least one ally who’s grateful you made the call.