High-Performing Teams: Four Lessons From the Blue Angels

What do Seattle area technology companies and the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron (Blue Angels) have in common? Aside from the fact that Seattle’s tech community and the Blue Angels continue to “Crush It” when it comes to delighting their customers, there is a deeper, relatively unknown bond that connects Seattle’s techies to the six Boeing F/A-18s they will see performing over Lake Washington this weekend.

Software and business teams including those at Capital One Investing, Alaska Airlines, Amazon, Tableau, Expedia, Nordstrom, Microsoft, T-Mobile, Qumulo, REI, Starbucks, Boeing, Getty Images,  and Wikispeed are using Scrum, the complexity-busting, productivity super weapon inspired by fighter aviation to help them rapidly deliver products to their customers in today’s turbulent market.

So how does Scrum connect to the Blue Angels? That’s easy. According to Dr. Jeff Sutherland, the co-creator of Scrum, “Scrum is based on [his] experience flying F-4 Phantoms over North Vietnam.” Furthermore, Scrum is not about software development but is a simple framework designed to fight complexity. Dr. Sutherland recognized the cognitive challenges faced in the technical and near chaotic environment of fighter aviation are the same as those faced by knowledge workers. Just as the Blue Angels plan, brief, execute, and debrief each performance and practice, Scrum teams in Seattle follow the same empirical process in each of their sprints.

So what else can Scrum and other small teams learn from the Blue Angels? The list is long but here are four lessons to consider over this airshow weekend.

1. Unstable Systems (Teams) are the Most Agile 

The Blue Angels are not an unstable bunch, as far as I know, but the Boeing F/A-18s they fly are inherently unstable. Unstable aircraft are highly maneuverable (agile) but require a skilled pilot and onboard flight computers (a management system) to coordinate the movement of the various flight control surfaces during routine and dynamic flight. Similarly, according to the authors of Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations, unstable or volatile teams (the central paradox of teams) are the most productive and successful when held together by a skilled leader [1].

Bottom Line: Diverse teams, when led by a skilled leader, are the most agile. 

2. Team Size

The two pizza rule made famous by Jeff Bezos is a nice heuristic to describe the ideal team size—usually around 6-8 people. The Blue Angels fly in a formation of six but have eight customer-facing core members whose combined appetite will break the Amazonian two pizza rule—naval aviators can eat a lot. The optimum team size, according to current research, is 5-7 members but effective teams have 4-9 members [2].

Bottom Line: The ideal team size is 4-9 members.

3. Pairing

Imagine losing 50% of your team each year…all at the same time. Will you be able to deliver at the same level your customers are used to?  At the end of this season, CAPT Tom Frosch, the current Blue Angel #1 and team leader will be replaced by CDR Ryan “Guido” Bernacchi.  In addition to having a new leader in 2016, the team will add a new #3 and #6 while the current #3 moves to #4 and current #6 moves to #5. So how does the team deal with this much change? They have smaller pizza parties.

Early in the season, before the team flies in a Diamond (four-ship) or Delta (six-ship) formation, the team will break into smaller teams, or pair-teams. Blue Angel #2 will coach his boss on how to lead the formation. Blue Angel #4 (the old #3) will coach his replacement while learning a new position. And Blue Angel #5 (the old #6) will train the incoming #6. By pairing, veteran team members serve as advisers and transfer knowledge to new members through open and honest criticism in and out of the debrief.

Bottom Line: Pairs are the “basic bricks from which the edifices of larger teams are built [2].”

4. The Power of Proper Debriefing

The most important event in any continuous improvement or innovation cycle is the debrief (retrospective).  At the end of each and every flight, the Blue Angels follow the same debrief process where they leave their rank and egos at the door and focus on what is right, not who is right. You will not find Post-it notes or a ScrumMaster facilitating their debrief. Instead, team members will follow the same proven debriefing process they have been using their entire careers. This complex team learning process (debrief) builds culture, team resiliency, and improves future execution.

Bottom Line: Learn how to conduct a debrief and stop playing retrospective games.

Conclusion

Fighter aviation has a profound influence on how Scrum and high-reliability organizations approach their day-to-day work. Unfortunately, some people who want to build high-performing teams using Scrum (or other agile frameworks) continue to deny or discount that the many lessons learned in fighter aviation can and should be applied to their practice. According to a recent BBC report, psychologists recognize that human behavior is the same across technical environments, and applying the lessons learned from aviation will help mitigate group cognitive biases in any organization.

Ready Break. Ready Roll.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering Naval Aviator, a 2003-2004 F-14 Demonstration Team Member, and Commander in the U.S Navy Reserve. He is the co-founder of AGLX, LLC, a Seattle-based Agile Leadership Consulting Team, and a ScrumTotal Advisory Board Member.

References:

[1] Rich Karlgaard & Michael  S. Malone. Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations (Harper Business, 2015).  Pg. 74

[2] Rich Karlgaard & Michael S. Malone. Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations (Harper Business, 2015).  Pg. 97

BBC report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02x3vwh

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