“Charm School” – The 9th Reason Your Next Agile Coach Should Be a Fighter Pilot

It has been a year since I wrote my first LinkedIn article, 8 Reasons Why Your Next Agile Consultant/Coach Should be Fighter Pilot, and although I still stand behind the original article, I have to admit I overlooked the most the important reason why you should hire a former fighter pilot to lead your agile transformation: “Charm School.”

As I was reading From Command to Team, one of the best chapters in General Stanley McChrystal’s new book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, I realized the most important leadership practices I learned in tactical aviation—group dynamics, leadership, interpersonal communication, and decision making—were missing from my 2014 list. Fortunately, the special operators who wrote Team of Teams recognized the value aviation “Charm School” has in how small teams should operate in complex environments and, thankfully, included the lessons learned from aviation in how they operated, and still do, as high-performing teams in near chaotic conditions [1].

What is “Charm School?”

CRM aims to foster a climate or culture where the freedom to respectfully question authority is encouraged.

In the most general sense “Charm School” or Crew Resource Management, also known as Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), is a system of simple training procedures focused on the cognitive and interpersonal skills needed to lead in complex environments.  According to Wikipedia, “the primary goal of CRM is enhanced situational awareness, self-awareness, leadership, assertiveness, decision making, flexibility, adaptability, event and mission analysis, and communication. Specifically, CRM aims to foster a climate or culture where the freedom to respectfully question authority is encouraged. It recognizes that a discrepancy between what is happening and what should be happening is often the first indicator that an error is occurring.”

An Example: Applying CRM Lessons to Delivering Digital Products

The other day a project manager (PM) wanted to discuss with me why members of two teams were not aligned on a new approach to delivering a product—an approach which was disseminated 24 hours earlier via email, an email which “everyone should have read.” Putting this command and control approach aside, I mentioned to the PM that just because an email was sent and read, it does not mean it was understood. Using lessons learned from “Charm School” I explained what this fire and forget approach to communication would look like in a cockpit of a commercial airliner.

Imagine you are a passenger on a flight from San Diego to Hawaii and flying your 757 today is Pilot A, a crusty command and control, my-way-or-the-highway manager. If Pilot A is in control of the aircraft (flying the aircraft) and turns to Pilot B and says, “You have control of the aircraft,” and pilot B does not hear or respond to Pilot A’s communication,  who is flying the aircraft?

In the example above, would you want to be a passenger on this flight or any aircraft knowing this is how pilots communicate? (Unfortunately, this is probably how most people in your organization communicate.) The good news is all pilots are required to go through “Charm School” so they can learn how to communicate with internal and external team members in their technical and complex environment. However, even with CRM, human error remains the cause for around 80% of aircraft accidents—are you ready for autonomous flying vehicles now?

Back to your digital product. From the Agile Manifesto, we know “the most efficient and effective method of conveying communication to and within a team is face-to-face conversation.” However, leaving the team to “figure it out,” the organic approach to building self-organized teams, is absolutely absurd given what we know about human behavior. Instead of recreating the wheel, teams can accelerate their agile journey by incorporating leadership practices from aviation “Charm School.” These individual and team practices include how to:

  • Establish Team Goals
  • Monitor the internal and external environments for threats (to include poor teamwork)
  • Cooperate and communicate
  • Establish feedback practices
  • Learn from failure, rather than adopting a failure-avoidance culture
  • Build a shared mental model, organizing knowledge in meaningful patterns (adopt repeatable, self-similar processes in planning, stand-ups, & retrospectives)

Here are a few practical steps to get you started with better CRM today:

  • Communicate face-to-face, following-up with a email only when necessary.
  • Encourage discussion, questioning, and debate – you might learn something yourself.
  • Respect the thoughts and opinions of the other people on your team, even when you disagree – the stronger argument, not the person with the most authority, wins.
  • When in doubt, seek advice – everyone needs a skilled wingman.

Organizations that are adopting an Agile approach to combat complexity will find solutions to their networked teams’ communication, leadership, decision making and situational awareness challenges in aviation’s CRM, a.k.a. “Charm School.” After all, two of the most recognizable approaches or frameworks to becoming Agile have fighter aviation origins.

Your next Agile Coach should be a fighter pilot.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering Naval Aviator 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.

[1] McChrystal, S. A., Collins, T., Silverman, D., & Fussell, C. (2015). Team of teams: New rules of engagement for a complex world.

[2] Reynolds, R., Blickendderfer, E. (2009) Crew Resource Management and Shared Mental Models: A Proposal.  Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education & Research, 19(1), 15-24.  Downloaded from http://commons.erau.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1380&context=jaaer

Photo Courtesy of Team Oracle, 2004.

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