What Agile Teams Can Learn from Flight Crews

Small, cross-functional teams working together with devices, focused on a shared objective, surrounded by complexity and frequently changing conditions. Welcome to the world of software development. And commercial aviation. Think the similarities between software development and aviation end here? Think again.

Aviation continues to have a profound influence on software development, organizational agility, cyber security, and transforming managers into leaders. For example, the complexity-busting framework, Scrum, used by technology companies to build complex software, comes from fighter aviation and Lean manufacturing. The Lean Startup, a popular business-model framework used by today’s hottest Silicon Valley startups, is based on John Boyd’s OODA Loop, an empathy-driven decision cycle that captures how fighter pilots “get inside” their opponent’s decision cycle to gain a competitive advantage.  Similarly, OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is used to rapidly design products and in the burgeoning business of cyber security. On the management front, aviation is reported to be the inspiration behind the Holocracy movement, a social system where authority and decision-making are distributed throughout self-organizing teams. But you already knew all of this, right?

Next Time You Fly on a Commercial Carrier…

Commercial aviation flight deck and cabin crews follow the empirical process of plan, communicate, execute, and assess on each leg of their assigned trip (mission). Similarly, software developers around the globe follow the same empirical process found in Scrum—Sprint Planning (plan), Standups (communicate), Sprint Execution (execute), Review and Retrospective (assess). A sprint or iteration is a time-boxed mission (one to four weeks long) where potentially shippable software is delivered. With empowered team members and solid execution, Scrum builds a culture of continuous learning and innovation.

There’s more?

The human interaction skills needed on the flight deck and on software development and business teams are exactly the same; these cognitive and social skills include empathy, collaboration, discipline, communicationleadership, situation awareness and teamwork. Moreover, the silent killer found in the cockpit is also the top threat among software development and business teams.

Slow and insidious, poor Workload Management is the silent killer. However, software developers and Lean experts refer to Workload Management as Work in Progress (WIP). When business and software teams try to do too much (too much WIP), or do not have a shared purpose or objective, rapid value delivery (effective productivity) and quality decreases—detriments to business survival.

Prioritization of work in and out of the cockpit is an imperative but flight deck and cabin crews have a marked advantage over software and business teams: flight crews are trained on the effective use of all available resources needed to complete a safe and efficient flight; software and business teams are not. The non-technical skills training flight crews receive is called Crew Resource Management (CRM) and Threat and Error Management (TEM).

CRM, affectionately known as “Charm” school, teaches the cognitive and social skills individuals need to be part of high-performing teams in complex, rapidly changing environments. TEM is a human-system approach to building habits and skills team members need to manage threats and errors within complex operating environments.

What if technology teams applied the cognitive and social lessons learned from CRM and TEM to the world of software development?

Instead of “Scaling Agile,” what is needed is a Crew Resource Management- and Threat Error Management- influenced Agile Operating System–a system that builds leaders and empowers teams and individuals at every level. This operating system should enhance Scrum through a simple, repeatable, proven, and scalable set of interconnected and interdependent planning, communication, execution, and assessment processes that drive innovation, create leaders, and build a continuous learning culture. Think of this human operating system as the non-technical skills teams need to overcome complexity—those skills that flight crews have burned into muscle memory.

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.

(c) Can Stock Photo

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