In 2002, a Russian airliner was flying to Barcelona.
It had a very experienced crew, plus 15 adult passengers and 45 children on board.
A DHL 757 cargo plane with an English and a Canadian pilot was also in the air.
They were at the same height and would crash at the same spot at exactly the same time.
There were two systems in place to prevent this: human and automatic.
The human system was Air Traffic Control (ATC) and consisted of a man watching a screen.
The automatic one was Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) with no humans involved.
That night, the human controller at Zurich was Peter Nielsen.
When he saw the planes were getting close, he told the Russian plane to descend.
He didn’t tell the DHL plane anything – if it carried on, the Russian plane would go under it.
But at that moment the automatic TCAS instructed the Russian plane to climb and the DHL plane to descend.
If both planes had obeyed the TCAS, everything would have been fine – the Russian plane would have gone over the DHL plane.
But the Russian pilot had been told to descend by the ground controller, so he obeyed him.
The DHL pilot had been told to descend by the TCAS, so he obeyed that.
The conflicting advice made sure that the planes arrived at exactly the same place at exactly the same time.
The tail of the DHL plane sliced through the body of the Russian plane – both planes crashed and all 71 people on board died.
The problem was communication: a lack of clarity concerning the two systems.
In the training manuals, it said: “TCAS is a back-up to the ATC system.”
Which suggested that human instructions should take precedence.
But elsewhere in the manuals, it states “TCAS is an additional aid”, then contradicts itself by forbidding any manoeuvres “contrary to TCAS”.
So who should the pilot obey: ATC or TCAS?
That lack of clarity in communication cost 71 lives.
Actually, it cost 72 lives.
One of the parents of the children tracked down the controller and stabbed him to death.
Vitaly Kaloyev was an architect who lost his wife Svetlana, his 10-year-old daughter Konstantin, and his four-year-old daughter Diana.
Air-traffic control offered him 60,000 Swiss Francs for his wife, and 50,000 for each child, as long as he kept quiet.
The callous way they dealt with the deaths was matched by the laziness and incompetence with which they had dealt with their jobs.
They weren’t sure which system should take priority, so they fudged it.
They hadn’t made a decision, so they couldn’t communicate one.
Consequently, no-one knew which system had priority so, in truth, neither did.
And that’s how most of us do our jobs: decisions are difficult, no-one wants to be held responsible, so we don’t make them.
We know in a crowded marketplace only a single, simple communication can work.
But that isn’t going to make us popular, so we pretend we can do everything.
Is it market share or market growth? Is it current users or triallists? Is it brand or product?
The answer is we want it all and we don’t want to take a decision between them.
So we ridicule clarity by calling it binary thinking.
And yet, as David Ogilvy said: “Strategy is sacrifice.”
We dodge responsibility by ignoring reality.
And by pretending we can do everything, we end up doing nothing.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three