Top-Gun program for startups

In 1968, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Thomas Hinman Moorer ordered a captain to find out why US Air-to-air combat over the North Vietnam was not exactly going to plan.

The US lost around 1,000 aircraft in roughly a year.

The Airforce concluded that the air losses were, in essence, a technical problem. They responded by upgrading the Phantom aircraft, putting in new canons, better radar and improved targeting for air to air missiles. Better Piew Piew. Better reversing cameras.

But it didn’t help.

Finally the Navy published a report saying, maybe, the issue was training, specifically with the flight crew in combat manoeuvring.

The suggestion was to establish the Advanced Fighter Weapons School to revive and distribute top quality expertise throughout the navy. Train other teachers, so they could go and teach others.

The program become known in popular lingo as the Top Gun program and is basis of the movie.

So what?

The program consisted of drills; pilots went up, simulated dog fights, presumably played volleyball. You’ve seen the movie.

But what happened in the sky wasn’t exactly the point.

The real improvements happened on the ground. Fighter pilots and instructors broke apart air manoeuvres, got into the details, why turn left not right. Why guns, not missiles. Endless feedback, every day.

The goal was to retrospectively review the pilots choices, provide feedback, so that over time, in the moment, the behaviour would change.

Before the top gun program, US Navy pilots were losing planes at a ratio of 3:1. Thats one lost US Navy Plane for every 3 they shot down. After the program, 13:1.

A story about Westpoint Academy.

I was thinking about how I could take the Top-Gun program and launch it at the startup I work for. In addition to the Product Development function, I look after the support team and I wanted to train up the team just like Top-Gun fighter pilots.

The idea stuck with me after listening to a story Sheryl Sandberg told about a trip her and Mark Zuckerberg made. They attended an executive training program at Westpoint military academy. While on campus, the Facebook executive team performed drills like turning a faucet on and off, over and over. What struck her was that after such a mundane exercise, the instructors and the cadets would break down how they could have performed the task better next time around. The idea of feedback is baked into the military so much so that even turning off light switches demands an assessment to improve.

Retros are common parlance in startups these days, but how they are run can often mean improvements don’t exactly eventuate. The thing that motivated me to try the Top-gun program in the support team was after reading Peak, but Anders Ericsson, arguably the best book from which all other books about personal performance derive their content. Ericsson’s book is also where the term 10,000 hours of practice was discovered, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell’s New York times best seller, Outliers.

When you study high performers as much as Ericsson has, you discover there are no born stars. Genetic advantages do exist, but their assistance is dwarfed by a method of learning present in all areas of excellence.

What is Deliberate Practice?

The best performers use something that Ericsson calls Deliberate Practice. In order for something to be deliberate practice, it must have the following traits.

  • Deliberate practice requires the setting of deliberate goals for the session. If you are learning the violin, think of setting yourself a goal of playing scales pitch perfect 20 times in a row.
  • It requires a teacher or a coach, with skills in the area which is being practiced, who can give continuous feedback, adjusting you back on track.
  • And it requires constantly pushing the student outside their comfort zone.

You see, Gladwell is often misquoted of Ericsson’s work. He was not saying that 10,000 hours makes you an expect. Its not how much you practice, but how you do it that counts.

The Top Gun fighter program is just one example of structured, continuous feedback, that can lead to improved performance. For US Navy pilots, the feedback happened right after the flights. It was run by instructors who knew their domain well and could walk pilots through their mistakes at the end of each program with credibility.

At the beginning of the flights, missions were established to give the pilots something to aim towards. Again, meeting the definitions of deliberate practice.

And finally, the pilots were pushed into uncomfortable situations by going up against better pilots and asked to perform more difficult manoeuvrs under increasingly more complex scenarios.

How does this work in a startup then?

I implemented a goal setting framework called OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) a few months back for my department. The idea was to set some goals for the next 3 months, and the next 12 months, some of which were just beyond the reach of most people, stretching people beyond their usual limits.

Then each Friday, we sit down for the Top-Gun session first thing in the morning. We walk through support conversations the team has had during the week in intercom and look at ways we can improve. I try and remove barriers (instead of creating incentives) to find ways to reduce support wait times and increase customer satisfaction scores across the board. If a team member (pilot) is struggling with something, or is missing some of their key results (From the OKRs), myself and other pilots make suggestions that they have seen work too.

Having the OKRs handy during this session, ensures that we are regularly checking in on the key results and adjusting course accordingly.

To push people outside their comfort zones I found the best way to do that is to give them ownership and authority over something they might not have done before. It might be working on a new process or procedure, or it might be changing a system we use for something else. For example, we moved from Zendesk to Intercom and it was a bit of a process, so one of the team wanted to try and tackle that project.

I’ve found that the regular feedback sessions have been really good for the team. It’s been nice getting everyone together and I think one of the unforeseen advantages of doing the sessions is that everyone feels like they are directing the outcomes into the right direction. When things don’t work, we can adjust the support structure quickly, and respond to new challenges we might be facing.

But in the end, what are the results. When we started, we had response times of somewhere between 1 and 2 hours.

Today, it’s less than 14 minutes.

Chief Product Officer @ Whispir (ASX:WSP) 🖥 Writer 📚 Tea nerd 🍵 Machine Learning Enthusiast 🤖