Why Your Next Agile Coach Should be a Fighter Pilot

As technological adoption and innovation accelerate through Mach 3, more business leaders will turn to fighter pilots to help their businesses survive and thrive in today’s VUCA world. For example, the cognitive and social skills naval aviators developed in the cockpit are in high demand in industries where teamwork is essential and team failures costly (e.g. healthcare, oil and gas, mining, energy, and commercial aviation). As more companies adopt a team-based approach to product delivery, and product and companies’ lifecycles shorten, the demand for proven team performance training and coaching will accelerate.

The cognitive and social skills (nontechnical skills) fighter pilots learn are rooted in what is considered to be one of the success stories of modern psychology and cognitive engineering: Crew Resource Management (CRM). CRM training, affectionately known as “Charm School,” covers crucial aspects of resilience including the topics of situational awareness, mission planning, team dynamics, workload management, effective communication, and leadership. CRM was developed in response to the realization that the kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication (nontechnical skills).

A 50,000 foot view of CRM

  • CRM is the foundation of a human-systems approach, Threat and Error Management (TEM), designed by Human Factors engineers to help us understand and direct human performance within complex operating systems.
  • Human Factors is the applied science of how humans relate effectively and productively with one another in highly technological settings.
  • Crew Resource Management (CRM) is defined as the use of all available resources—information, equipment, and people—to achieve safe and efficient flight operations.

Fighter Pilots as Agile Coaches?

In the 1950s, John Boyd, a fighter pilot and military strategists, developed a decision cycle that changed the “The Art of War.” The decision cycle Boyd developed is known as the OODA Loop and refers to Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. In business, the speed at which the OODA Loop is executed allows the company to get “inside the decision cycle” of its competitors or valued customers. The OODA Loop is an exercise in empathy.

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup and entrepreneur, attributes the idea of the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop to John Boyd’s OODA Loop. At the core of Steve Blank’s Customer Development model and Pivot found in his book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, is once again OODA. In his new book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Dr. Jeff Sutherland, a former fighter pilot and the co-creator of Scrum, mentions that the origins of Scrum are Boyd’s OODA and the Toyota Production System.

Scrum is based on my experience flying F-4 Phantoms over North Vietnam… Fighter pilots have John Boyd’s OODA Loop burned into muscle memory. They know what Agility means and can teach it uncompromisingly to others.

-Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum

What’s missing from today’s Agile Coaching toolkit is the proven human-interaction skills (nontechnical) developed for technical teams who operate in complex environments, CRM. The Agile community is making the same assumptions fighter and commercial pilots made pre-CRM: That effective teams can be built without any formal guidance or instruction. “Leaving it up to the team” is a recipe for failure.

Fighter pilots, unlike some agilists, are horrible marketers. Crew Resource Management is not your DaD’s Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) nor does it tell you how to do more with LeSS; CRM is a proven approach to building agile at scale. CRM does not replace Scrum but provides the tools an enterprise needs to transition command-and-control managers into servant leaders and build effective and efficient teams. CRM is the “Science of Teamwork.”

9 Cognitive and Social Skills Fighter Pilots Bring to the Agile Fight

1. Adaptability. The ability to alter a course of action based on new information, maintain constructive behavior under pressure and adapt to internal and external environmental changes. The success of a mission depends upon the team’s ability to alter behavior and dynamically manage team resources to meet situational demands.

2. Empathy. Empathy? Fighter pilots and empathy? Yes. John Boyd’s OODA is really about empathy. According to Geoff Colvin, empathy is “discerning what some other person is thinking and feeling, and responding in some appropriate way [1].” OODA is an exercise in empathy. Moreover, according to Geoff Colvin, empathy is the foundation of all other abilities that increasingly make people valuable as technology advances [1].”

3. Assertiveness. One’s willingness to actively participate, state and maintain a position, until convinced by the facts that other options are better.

4. Decision Making. The ability to choose a course of action using logical and sound judgment based on available information.

5. Leadership. The ability to direct and coordinate the activities of other team members or wingman and to encourage the team to work together.

6. Mission Analysis. The ability to develop short-term, long-term and contingency plans and to coordinate, allocate and monitor team resources. Effective planning leads to execution that removes uncertainty and increases mission effectiveness.

7. Situational Awareness. The degree of accuracy by which one’s perception of the current environment mirrors reality. Maintaining a high level of situational awareness will better prepare teams to respond to unexpected situations.

8. Communication. The ability to clearly and accurately send and acknowledge information, instructions, or commands and provide useful feedback. Effective communication is vital to ensuring that all team members understand mission status.

9. Workload Management. The implementation of a strategy to balance the amount of work with the appropriate time and resources available. It includes making sure those people are alert and vigilant (preventing fatigue); figuring out who does what delegation; teaching people how to manage interruptions (and limit interruptions at critical moments; prioritizing tasks and avoiding task oversaturation; and avoiding pitfalls such as continuing a project, flight, or activity even when it’s becoming clearer and clearer that it is dangerous to do so. Workload management in high-reliability industries also means doing all of the above under stress.

While putting this list together I came up with more than 50 examples of why a fighter pilot should be your next Agile Coach. Please feel free to add more or comment on my choices for this article.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering naval aviator and co-founder of AGLX, LLC, a Seattle-based Agile consultancy that melds the proven principles of High Reliability Organizations with today’s Agile practices.

[1] Geoff Colvin. Humans are Underrated: What high achievers know that brilliant machines never will. (Portfolio/Penguin, 2015).

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