The Korean War, reincarnation and team learning

April 27th, 2010  |  Published in Performance

The F86 at work

Whether this is a sign that the coaching bandwagon has finally ground to a halt I’m not sure, and I know this is resurrecting an old joke, but it does seem as if team learning – like reincarnation – is making a big comeback at the moment.

The plane above is the American F-86 Sabre, used in combat in Korean War against the MiG-15. The MiG was considered the superior plane but the F-86 emerged the somewhat surprising winner in dogfights over Korea. John Boyd, a military strategist in the US Air Force, concluded that the reason pilots of the F-86 won more dogfights was structural: the plane had a bubble canopy and hydraulic controls. The bubble canopy allowed pilots to get a better appreciation of the battle as it unfolded and the hydraulic control system enabled manoeuvres to be executed swiftly enough to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Combining this insight with his Energy-Maneuverability theory Boyd created a concept that accounted for the superiority of the F-86: pilots manage dogfights in a four step cycle of observe, orient, decide and act.

Boyd's OODA loop

Observe – the impressions we gain as the interaction with our environment unfolds

Orient – using previous experience to filter, analyse and synthesise these impressions into an appreciation of the situation we are in

Decide – creating a hypotheses for action

Act – doing something to test out the hypothesis in the real world

He also concluded that the theory needn’t be confined to the skies of Korea, it could be applied to business – and life in general, where the perpetual challenge is to make sense of the world and respond to events as they unfold. Or, as Boyd put it: “In order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries–or, better yet, get inside [the] adversary’s Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action time cycle or loop. … Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries–since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns they are competing against.”

You can apply the steps in the OODA cycle to the process groups of people go through when they work in teams to reach decisions – we gather information, agree on the significance of the information, what it could mean and what we want to achieve, create a plan of action and finally execute the plan. And you can also use OODA as a guide to the four conversations of team learning:

When the focus of the review is on what we did we have the react conversation – the classic “if you could do that again what would you do differently?” question. Here the focus is on the action taken by the team and the outcomes resulting from the action. The benefit of this type of conversation is that it enables the team to reflect on their behaviours and reinforce what works and modify what doesn’t.

A redesign conversation is slightly riskier: the focus shifts to the strategy that informed the action: were the hypotheses that formed the foundation of our plan valid? To what extent did we take relevant factors into account? What parts of the plan worked? What parts didn’t? Did we select the best option? Did we generate any options?

Moving further along the continuum of risk we have a reorient conversation: this entails looking again at the way we made sense of our environment, re-examining our individual and shared goals and our ideas of how to achieve them. Opens the possibility of setting different and potentially more challenging goals.

A rethink conversation ups the ante still further: we focus attention on our collective observation and data gathering capability and our perceptions and interpretations of the task and team environment. What did we consider important? What factors held our attention? What is deemed relevant or irrelevant? A rethink conversation provides the potential for reassessing personal and shared values – as well as influencing goals, options and behaviours.

You may be wondering what determines the type of conversation a team is willing to entertain: it’s the willingness – bravery basically – of team members to dig a little deeper in search of insights and new thinking. It might even be worth unearthing the good old Johari Window for a reminder of the dynamics of risk, trust and bravery in teams.

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