Success from above: How to run your business like a Red Arrows pilot

Justin Hughes
Justin Hughes sees similarities between business and his time as a Red Arrows Pilot (Source: Getty)

Fighter pilots may have an unusual office, sitting strapped to an ejection seat breathing oxygen through a tube, but they actually work in matrix teams in an environment characterised by ambiguity, imperfect information and time pressure.

Many variables are outside their control; failure is not an option and mistakes have real consequences.

Much of the above will sound familiar to business executives. There is no perfect solution to this combination of challenges. The fighter pilot’s approach has evolved through hard-won experience which means that you have to reverse engineer “the model”. However, the advantage is that the keys to success are not a hypothesis – they work and have been tested in the most demanding of operating environments. The language might be different but the latest in-vogue management issues have often been a routine part of a fighter pilot’s whole career.

Lessons on decision-making

In dynamic environments, decisions are often required quickly with no time for detailed analysis or a meeting. It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong. Consider three scenarios:

A “Known Known” situation. For reasonably predictable scenarios, fighter pilots produce standard operating procedures to effectively script decision-making and thereby retain mental capacity for situations requiring original thought.

A “Known Unknown” situation. Scenarios that can be foreseen as a possibility, but without detailed definition, are dealt with through variations on scenario planning. Make the high-pressure decisions in low-pressure environments.

An “Unknown Unknown” situation. The real problems are the ones that we simply don’t see coming. Faced with increasing complexity and reducing time, our best-ever decision will be “about right, now”. We need clear simple priorities to fall back on. What’s the ball you can’t afford to drop?

The right people

Knowing how to deal with making snap decisions in high-pressure environments will give you a strong base to work from. But what about your team? From ground crew to air traffic controllers, when you’re in the air you need back-up you can trust if it all goes wrong. High performance teams and individuals have common characteristics, identified below:

People: Require a focus on skills and attitude. It is always tempting to focus primarily on functional competence. However, high-performance teams from the Red Arrows to the All Blacks to Netflix, place an equal emphasis on skills and attitude.

Capability: Set your team up for success. To paraphrase Warren Buffet: “when a great team meets a flawed business, the business emerges with its reputation intact”. Capability is not about efficiency but effectiveness: clarity, alignment, empowerment.

Delivery: You are measured on results. High-performance teams focus on outcomes and close “the execution gap” between what gets talked about and what gets delivered.

Learning: The single biggest differentiator in high-performance organisations is their ability to maximise the rate of applied learning: fail fast and fix.

The above implicitly includes some implications for the individual. I think that most of us have it in us to be part of a high-performance team, but it’s not something you achieve by association or membership. It’s about the person you see in the mirror. What standards are you prepared to hold yourself to? Are you up for it? Anything is possible.

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