Discover, Lead

The Delicate Face of Operational Resilience

 

Do you ever wonder how your team will respond when faced with something they don't expect or didn't prepare for?

Or maybe you already know and want to understand why. The answer may not be where you expect to look; your formal processes and performance dashboards may not be telling you the whole story. The answer lies deep in the web of informal networks, relationships, and mindset inside your organization.

Unfortunately, this discovery typically happens as leaders sift through an incident trying to make sense out of why crews did what they did or didn’t do what they should have. In nearly every case, an individual or team was caught off guard by unfamiliar, rapidly unfolding circumstances. The indictors were there but didn’t convey critical information because it required a mindfulness of a broader team to piece the puzzle together.

Wouldn’t it be better to improve this sense-making ability before it becomes an incident? Let’s look at an interesting real-world example from military aviation to illustrate the point.

In January of 2005, four Marine F/A-18D “Hornet” crews from Beaufort, SC approached a programmed stopover at Lajes Airbase in the Azores, a small Portuguese archipelago in the Norther Atlantic. The formation was the second cell (Cell #2) of two enroute to augment forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. What the crews did not know was that an error had snuck into the system and would soon test the agility and resilience of the entire movement team.

Air movement plans are carefully detailed and typically involve a series of aerial refueling and decision points to provide crews with alternatives for all anticipated snags like aircraft malfunctions, weather deterioration, an airfield incursion, or delays in diplomatic flight clearance. For Cell #2, this involved a Go/ No-Go decision at a point-of-no-return (PNR) near Newfoundland where if they continue, there is no suitable alternative to landing at Lajes, they are committed. Thus, judgment involves a thorough set of criteria and mutual support to aid in decision making. One of those critical information requirements is the current and forecasted weather in the islands.

Trans-Atlantic formations are led by the most experienced crews. Cell #2 was led by the unit’s executive officer, or second-in-command, joined by an equally qualified and experienced Weapons and Sensors Officer (WSO) in the cockpit. Information provided at the Go/ No-Go met the set criteria to continue and the crew elected to proceed. This decision will culminate in a scenario where after multiple failed attempts to land, the four crews operating more than 200 million dollars in equipment are high in the night wintertime sky over the Northern Atlantic with less fuel than instruments can reliably display, over water temperatures below survivable limits, where total loss of equipment and death is near certain.

Now rewind to just after Cell #2’s decision to continue; without any formal process or trigger another decision is made that will alter the course of history. A young Airman, the crew chief from the first cell (Cell #1) KC-10 tanker crew, far removed from management of this movement recognized the impending risk after watching crews from Cell #1 battle the weather to find the runway. He coupled that with his observation of deteriorating conditions at the field along with his understanding of the limitations of the plan. Drawing on his technical understanding of his own equipment and his role in mission success, he elected to refuel the Cell #1 KC-10 on the ground to provide a backup source of fuel for Cell #2.

As the ill-fated crews of Cell #2 began to prepare for an ejection into the freezing ocean and develop a game plan for locating each other in the water to improve their chances of survival and rescue, the Cell #1 KC-10 refueler lifted off Lajes to aid the F/A-18Ds overhead. After refueling the Hornets, Cell #2 was escorted over 1000 nautical miles east to Maron Airbase in Spain where they landed uneventfully and walked away from the disaster with nothing more than emotions.

Was this luck; was it a coincidence? A question for organizational leaders, is the Airman’s decision something we can purposefully reproduce in our organizations? The answer is definitively YES.

The system here was not set up to account for a misinformed decision because the probability is so low. In risk management, we call this a low probability, high impact event. What intercepted the error’s path to disaster in this scenario was a collective mindfulness shared across an empowered and psychologically safe team. More simply, this was an operation where everyone understood and felt personal ownership in success.

At Vetergy, we help our clients diagnose and enhance the health of this social capital within their operations. Leaders and teams are developed specifically in recognizing and dealing with group dynamics and diversity. Teams are built using experiential learning in unpredictable compounding scenarios focused on interpersonal communication and problem-solving.

Incidentally, the Airman was awarded a Commendation Medal for his insight and courage to act, a very proper recognition and example of a reward system that can incentivize innovative, agile thinking

To learn more about Vetergy Group and how we can help your organization diagnose and enhance operations, contact us at info@vetergy.com.  Or click here to learn more about our services.

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