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Agile is Dead! The Rise of High-Performing Teams: 10 Lessons from Fighter Aviation

Software and hardware industry leaders are leveraging the lessons from fighter aviation to help their businesses navigate the speed of change and thrive in today’s complex and hostile environment. The emergence of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop—an empathy-based decision cycle created by John Boyd (fighter pilot)—in today’s business lexicon suggests that executives, academia, and the Agile community recognize that fighter pilots know something about agility.

For example, 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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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, connects the origins of Scrum to hardware manufacturing and fighter aviation (John Boyd’s OODA Loop) [3]. Conduct a quick Google book search on “Cyber Security OODA” and you will find over 760 results.

This fighter pilot “mindset” behind today’s agile innovation frameworks and cyber security approaches is being delivered to organizations by coaches and consultants who may have watched Top Gun once or twice but more than likely have never been part of a high-performing team [4].

So What?

According to Laszlo Block, “Having practitioners teaching is a far more effective than listening to academics, professional trainers, or consultants. Academics and professional trainers tend to have theoretical knowledge. They know how things ought to work, but haven’t lived them [5].” Unfortunately, most agile consultants’ toolboxes contain more processes and tools than human interaction knowhow. Why? They have not lived what they coach. And this is what is killing Agile.

Teaming Lessons from Fighter Aviation

To survive and thrive in their complex environment, fighter pilots learn to operate as a network of teams using the cognitive and social skills designed by industrial-organizational psychologists—there is actually real science behind building effective teams. It is the combination of inspect-and-adapt frameworks with human interactions skills developed out of the science of teamwork that ultimately build a high-performance culture and move organizational structures from traditional, functional models toward interconnected, flexible teams.

10 Reasons Why Your Next Agile High-Performance Teaming Coach Should Have a Fighter Aviation Background

OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide.-Act). According to Jeff Sutherland, “Fighter pilots have John Boyd’s OODA Loop burned into muscle memory. They know what agility really means and can teach it uncompromisingly to others.”

Empathy. A 1 v 1 dogfight is an exercise in empathy, according to the award-winning thinker, author, broadcaster, and speaker on today’s most significant trends in business, Geoff Colvin. In his 2015 book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff pens, “Even a fighter jet dogfight, in which neither pilot would ever speak to or even see the other, was above all a human interaction. Few people would call it an exercise in empathy, but that’s what it was—discerning what was in the mind of someone else and responding appropriately. Winning required getting really good at it [6]” Interestingly, empathy is baked-in Boyd’s OODA Loop.

Debriefing (Retrospective). The most important ceremony in any continuous improvement process is the retrospective (debrief). Your fleet average fighter pilot has more than 1000 debriefs under their belt before they leave their first tour at the five-year mark of service. In Agile iterations years, that is equal to 19 years of experience [7]. Moreover, when compared to other retrospective or debriefing techniques, “Debriefing with fighter pilot techniques offer more ‘bang for the buck’ in terms of learning value [8].” Why is this? There are no games in fighter pilot debriefs, no happy or sad faces to put up on the white board – just real human interactions, face-to-face conversations that focus on what’s right, not who’s right. Fighter pilots learn early that the key to an effective retrospective is establishing a psychologically safe environment.

Psychological Safety. Psychological safety “describes a climate in which people feel free to express relevant thoughts and feelings [9].” Fighter pilots learn to master this leadership skill the day they step in their first debrief where they observe their flight instructor stand up in front of the team and admit her own shortcomings (display fallibility), asks questions, and uses direct language. Interestingly, according to Google’s Project Aristotle, the most important characteristic to building a high-performing team is psychological safety [10]. Great job Google!

Teaming (Mindset and Practice of Teamwork) [11]. Although not ideal, fighter pilots often find themselves in “pickup games” where they find a wingman of opportunity from another squadron, service, or country—even during combat operations. Knowing how to coordinate and collaborate without the benefit of operating as a stable team is a skill fighter pilots develop from building nontechnical known stable interfaces. These stable interfaces include a common language; shared mental models of planning, briefing, and debriefing; and being aligned to shared and common goals. Yes, you do not need stable teams and you they do not need to be co-located if you have known stable interfaces of human interaction.

Empirical Process. The engine of agility is the empirical process and in tactical aviation we use a simple plan-brief-execute-debrief cycle that, when coupled with proven human interaction skills, builds a resilient and learning culture. The inspect and adapt execution rhythm is the same around every mission, whether it be a flight across country or 40-plane strike into enemy territory, we always planned, briefed, executed the mission, and held a debrief. There is no room for skipping steps—no exceptions.

Adaptability/Flexibility. 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 is what fighter pilots call adaptability or flexibility. Every tactical aviator who strapped on a $50M aircraft knows that flexibility is the key to airpower. Every flight does not go according to plan and sometimes the enemy gets a vote – disrupting the plan to the point where the mission looks like a pick-up game. 

Agility. Agility is adaptability with a timescale.

Practical Servant Leadership Experience. Fighter pilots have practical experience operating in complex environments and are recognized as servant leaders. But don’t take my word for it; watch this video by Simon Sinek to learn more.

Fun. Agility is about having fun. Two of my favorite sayings from my time in the cockpit are “You cannot plan fun” and “If you are not having fun, you are not doing it right.” If your organization is truly Agile, then you should be having fun.

So, who’s coaching your teams?

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering naval aviator, co-founder of AGLX Consulting, LLC, and co-creator of High-Performance Teaming™, an evidence-based approach to rapidly build and develop high-performing teams.

[1] “The idea of the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop owes a lot to ideas from maneuver warfare, especially John Boyd’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop.” Ries, E. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. (Crown Publishing, 2011)

[2] “…Customer Development model with its iterative loops/pivots may sound like a new idea for entrepreneurs, it shares many features with U.S. warfighting strategy known as the “OODA Loop” articulated by John Boyd.” Blank, S. The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Successful Strategies for products that win. (2013)

[3] “In the book I talk about the origins of Scrum in the Toyota Production Systems and the OODA loop of combat aviation.” Sutherland, J. Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. New York. Crown Business (2014).

[4] I do not recommend the movie Top Gun as an Agile Training Resource.

[5] Block, L. Work Rules! That will transform how you live and lead. (Hachette Book Group, 2015).

[6] Geoff Colvin. Humans are Underrated: What high achievers know that brilliant machines never will, 96, (Portfolio/Penguin, 2015).

[7] Assuming two teams with iteration length of two weeks. And 100% retrospective execution.

[8] McGreevy, J. M., MD, FACSS, & Otten, T. D., BS. Briefing and Debriefing in the Operating Room Using Fighter Pilot Crew Resource Management. (2007, July).

[9] Edmondson, A.C. Teaming. How organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Wiley. (2012)

[10] Duhigg, C. Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets to Being Productive in Life and Business. Random House. (2016).

[11] Edmondson, A.C. Teaming. How organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. Wiley. (2012)

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