What does a high performance team look like?

Written by
Stephen Bungay

11 Jan 2016

11 Jan 2016 • by Stephen Bungay

Understanding how a high performance team works

The Red Arrows were formed in 1964. They fly the aging Hawk trainer, which is not the most exciting aircraft the RAF has available, but the Reds always thrill the crowd. Many professionals consider them to be the best in the world at what they do.

Each of the nine pilots does a three year tour, flying in a different position each year. Every year, nine new applicants are shortlisted, and of those, three are selected to join the team after a week of flying tests and interviews. This means that every year, the team loses its three most experienced members and takes on three rookies. Yet there is no discernable fluctuation in performance either from year to year or between team members. The Reds are the Reds.

There is a system at work here. Step one is who gets selected. Given the basic level of technical competence required to even apply, most applicants have the flying ability to do the job. They are looking for people who want to be part of a top team rather than seek personal glory.  Step two is what happens when they are in. 

Each sortie consists of three elements: a pre-briefing; the flight, and the debrief.

The pre-briefing is given by the leader, Red 1, known as ‘the Boss’. He goes through the weather, use of smoke, fuel and the order of formations. Every formation has variations, and during the display he calls the variations actually to be flown. So although the elements are fine-tuned there is always some residual uncertainty about what precisely they will do in the air.  All the pilots are known not by their names but by the number they fly in the formation, from 1 to 9. Red 1 asks each pilot by number for questions and each comments on how it went last time. It is very fast. Not a word is wasted.

Perfection is required from the minute they get into the cockpit. They taxi in formation, take off in formation and land in formation. In the air they operate as nine, then divide into a five and a four, and then a seven and a two – the ‘synchro pair’, Reds 6 and 7, who race towards each other at a combined speed of 800 mph on what looked like a collision course, streaming smoke, and then pass each other in an upward curve.

After landing they get together in the crew room for the debrief. Red 1 begins by asking for safety points. Every aircraft has a ‘box’ within which it has to stay. ‘Safe’ means staying within their boxes, which are six feet apart. Straying outside it raises a safety issue. The Boss then goes  through an account of his own errors before asking for other points from each pilot in turn. All the points are about themselves. After this quick round, they turn to the video and comment on each element, stopping or running back the video at certain points. Each team member calls out his mistakes. This  is done with reference to a ‘perfect position’, so as each formation is  watched pilots call out: ‘deep/shallow’, ‘short/long’, and so on. The Boss then makes  some overall comments on things where the team as a whole needs  to tighten up.

On the day I was there, the Boss’ verdict was: ‘a bit rusty’. They had not been flying for a few days and they noticed the difference.  I did not, either when I watched them in the air or during the debrief.  Even when they stopped the video and discussed something, I found it hard to detect the points they were concerned about.  The team has reached such a level that they are the only ones even capable of criticising their performance.  The Boss summed up: ‘It was a bit disappointing, but a good effort’.

On the journey home I thought about the experience and three things struck me:

1. Relentlessness practice. The team does not reach a plateau and stay there. It works at it, constantly.  No matter how good you are you have to keep working at the basics.  If neglected, the foundations of your flying skills can weaken.

2. The debrief. It is based on complete openness and unsparing self-criticism.  It came from everyone, starting with the leader. Although general comments were invited, no-one in fact criticised anyone other than themselves. A symptom of the cultural preconditions for this process is the way they refer to themselves and each other by their number.  For the purposes of the debrief that is who they are. There are no personalities. The foundation of learning is self-criticism.

Learning is not just about accumulating Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice.  Hours in the air matter less than what is done in those hours.  In Talent is Overrated, Geoffrey Colvin claims that world class performance comes from ‘deliberate practice’.  Deliberate practice is designed to improve performance, based on feedback and is mentally demanding.  That captures more accurately what is going on inside the Red Arrows. It is akin to the continuous learning that the Japanese call kaizen, made famous by Toyota’s lean manufacturing method and now widely talked about and sometimes practised by other organisations. What happens on the ground in the debrief is what turns mere repetition into learning. Conscious perception on the ground is translated into a deliberate change in what a pilot does in the air, until it becomes an automatic motor response. The self-criticism creates individual learning which is directed solely at allowing the individuals to perfect the performance of the team. They can feel when they get it – it is safe, mellow and controlled. 

3. A curious paradox. In the Reds, the individual is everything and nothing.  Individuals work at their own performance, but the sole purpose of that work is to optimise the team.  A single pilot’s failure to get spacing and timing right will spoil the whole team’s formation, but there is no such thing as an outstanding individual performance.  In the debrief, no-one was singled out for criticism, but equally, no-one was given special praise. Everyone depends on everyone else for the result and indeed for his life, and the standard is absolute. An air display is often compared to ballet, but there are no prima ballerinas. Other performing arts and sports cultivate individuals, even within teams. Such individuals make up a good proportion of the celebrities who seem now to hold a fawning world in thrall.  As individuals, the Reds are unknown to the general public.

In business, there is no standard of absolute perfection we can aim at. However, there are a lot of teams who have to turn in a great performance every day when every day is different but contains the same basic elements. Some are delivering a service in restaurants or airlines; others are producing a product in a factory or software in an office; others are providing support for internal customers. They perform for real every day. Because real performance delivery is not classified as training, they often forget that each performance is a learning opportunity. It is relatively rare to use ‘real’ experiences for deliberate learning, carrying out something like a debrief at the end of a day or a shift. Perhaps we should try to seize the opportunity.

Business teams might also try to cultivate the ethos which is so critical – making self-criticism a mechanism for improvement rather than an admission of weakness, and developing individuals to feel they are there to make a great team. Business organisations might want to ask themselves whether they might in fact be undermining the foundations of great teams by focussing their reward and development systems too much on individuals. Ultimately, the Reds fly for the personal reward of being part of a great team. That reward is considerable.