In the aerial combat arena, mistakes are costly - and sometimes deadly. In order to mitigate the risk inherent in such a dynamic environment, a fighter squadron has to create a culture of high performance that rises to the challenge. While lives may not be on the line, these same tactics can be applied to business in order to elicit the highest performance from teams. Here are five tactics that my business partner and I learned in the fighter squadron that we carried into the culture of our company.
Create Muscle Memory
In order to operate such a complex machine, aviators rely extensively on checklists and memorized procedures. Every aircraft has a list of emergency procedures that must be memorized and recited on demand. The reason behind this is so that when an actual emergency occurs, the appropriate procedure is second nature, which frees up cognitive load in order to make better decisions under stress. Beginning in flight school, we learn the value of doing things the same way every single time in order to create muscle memory. The benefit of this strict standardization is that when something is out of place, such as a position of a switch, it is immediately apparent. In a business, standard operating procedures are equally as valuable. We often like to say that if we are going to do something more than once, a standard procedure should be created so that everyone on the team can not only draw from previous experience, but can also create more efficient workflows. If your company doesn’t have an SOP, encourage your team to go through their routine tasks and write step-by-step instructions, and then store them on a company-wide wiki. Not only does this create redundancy if a team member leaves or is unavailable, it also becomes a centralized warehouse of knowledge for how the company runs.
Fly the Brief
One thing that many people don’t appreciate about flying fighters is that the amount of time spent planning missions is significantly more than the time actually spent in the air. Often an aviator will spend up to four or more hours planning for every flight hour. Because flight time is precious, squadrons must exercise tremendous discipline to ensure training objectives are met. To this end, aircrews must think through as many scenarios as possible prior to firing up the engines. We plan for as many possible outcomes as we can, so that when different scenarios arise on a mission, we have already considered the various courses of action. In business, planning is often overlooked as a critical part of the business cycle. For example, a sales team might have a good primary game plan for a sales call, but imagine how much more effective they could be if they played out all the various scenarios or objections ahead of time, rather than just the common ones. As things get busy, it is always easy to go heads down and focus on fires rather than making sure that a solid strategy is being adhered to.
Don’t Fall in Love with the Plan
Now that I’ve stressed the importance of a good plan, the next skill is to know when to cut losses. No matter how many scenarios we plan for, sometimes the unexpected happens. In these scenarios, adaptability and flexibility are king. Being able to assess when plan is no longer viable is a crucial skill for any aviator - or for any entrepreneur. Scrapping a plan and coming up with a solution on the fly has saved a mission more than once, especially in the ever-changing combat environment. All too often, doggedly adhering to procedures will be cited as a primary factor in a mishap report. As a leader in your organization, it is up to you to keep a critical eye open when the plan starts to fail - and don’t go down with a sinking ship.
Don’t Skip the Debrief
In the fighter squadron we often say that criticism keeps us alive. What we mean by this is that when our superiors, or even our peers, are able to give us constructive feedback, it allows us to improve our skills and ultimately become better aviators. In the squadron, we learn to thrive on criticism, always striving to be better with each flight. It’s a badge of honor to be able to take feedback with grace and accept responsibility. The key to constructive feedback is to ensure it’s procedural and not personal. After a flight, a debrief can often last several hours. Every learning point is brought out so that the team can benefit from lessons and mistakes that others have made, raising the collective performance of the squadron. Creating a culture in your company where feedback is welcomed is a key component to elevate your team’s performance. Set the example, own mistakes, and welcome feedback, and you’ll be amazed at how the team responds.
No Fast Hands in the Cockpit
This is perhaps the most important lesson of all. Especially in an emergency, it’s easy to lose your cool and start throwing switches in order to feel like we are doing something. However, the first step in any emergency procedure is to stop and assess the situation. Imagine this scenario: if an aircrew gets a left engine fire, in their haste, they shut down the right engine and lose all power. Especially in business, where lives are not on the line, slowing down and making methodical, controlled decisions can mean the difference between success and spectacular failure. It may sound like common sense, but rapid fire responses to problems can be more problematic than the original issue. Take a breath, assess the options, and let cooler heads prevail. You’ll be glad you did.