Tag Archives: Aviation

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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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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Leading Agile Organizations: Lessons from the Flight Deck

Have you ever been part of an organization where the product owner, manager, or CEO failed to accept input from a junior or rookie team member and the project or initiative failed? Imagine being part of a team where either failing to share information or not acting on critical information is found to be the root cause behind flying an actual project, an aircraft, into the ground.

In the cockpits of today’s commercial airliners and military aircraft, open communication and the ability to respectfully question authority(perceived or explicit) are essential cognitive and interpersonal skills every crew member must learn so as a team, make that a high-performing team, they can mitigate the unforgiving risks inherent in their complex environment. However, thirty years ago cockpit culture was the poster child for management 1.0 (control) — the very problem impeding agile transformations around the globe.

In the 1970s a rash of commercial airline accidents led NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate how to fix the complex aviation system. The tipping point in commercial aviation came on December 28, 1978 when United Airlines Flight 173 (UA-173) crashed in a Portland suburb, killing 10 passengers.

UA-173, a DC-8 with 181 passengers on board, circled near the Portland, Oregon airport for an hour as the crew tried to troubleshoot a landing gear problem. The flight engineer, the crew member responsible for monitoring the aircraft systems, unsuccessfully warned the captain (the flying pilot) of the rapidly diminishing fuel supply. The captain—later described by one investigator as “an arrogant S.O.B.” –waited too long to begin his final approach and as a result UA-173 ran out of fuel and crashed.

United-173-e1404804178495

Following the UA-173 investigation, NASA discovered that 60-80% of airline accidents were caused by human error. Digging deeper, and not just settling on human error as a singular cause, NASA identified failures in alignment, leadership, interpersonal communication, and decisiveness as root causes behind several commercial airline disasters including UA-173.

The hierarchical, command and control culture commonly found in the front office (flight decks) of 1970s era commercial airliners including that of UA-173 were no different than those cultures found in many of today’s legacy companies. Following the crash of UA-173, the aviation industry with the help of NASA realized through deep retrospection that the top-down predict-and-control paradigm of managing in complex environments needed to change.

The hierarchical “chain of command” system in place at the time of the accident [UA-173] did not always provide for effective flight crew resource management. Additional training was identified as being needed to ensure the flight crews recognized the value and merits of flight crews breaking down the more formal hierarchical structure. This approach leads to a more participative and collaborative process to ensure that all members of the flight crew feel free to speak up and provide the captain with all relevant information relating to the safety of the aircraft [1].

This change came in the form of Crew Resource Management (CRM), a leadership training system that “encompasses a wide range of knowledge, skills and attitudes including communications, situation awareness, problem solving, decision making, and teamwork,” according to CrewResourceManagement.net. CRM liberated the cockpit environment so every member, regardless of rank, position, skills set, age, time with the company, etc., was empowered to truly collaborate around a shared objective or explicit purpose.

In today’s turbulent markets business leaders are desperately trying to become more “Agile” yet most fail because traditional company cultures—hierarchical, command and control bureaucracies—do not provide knowledge workers the support needed to innovate, adapt, and ultimately delight customers with valued, rapid product releases. Applying aviation lessons learned to Agile transformational challenges is not new; for those of you who have read my posts you are aware that commercial and military aviation have profoundly influenced Agile, Scrum, The Lean Start Up, and elements of design thinking.

Adding leadership patterns from CRM to your Agile toolbox will help transform managers into Agile leaders and coaches–rather than the perceived or actual impediments to organizational agility. In part 2 of this post, I will share more CRM information and provide ideas on how it can help remove the “S.O.B” from your cockpit before a project or your company crashes into the ground.

Warning: You may be the S.O.B.

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is a recovering Naval Aviator and current Enterprise Agile Coach and Executive Consultant based in Seattle, WA.

[1] FAA Website http://lessonslearned.faa.gov/ll_main.cfm?TabID=1&LLID=42&LLTypeID=7

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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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“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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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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