Ronald Steed

How do you build Team Resilience? Practice, Practice, Practice...

In my previous post about measuring Resilience I talked about the framework of the Submarine Team Behaviors Tool1 and the four levels of resilience. I want to turn now to the practices that are characteristic of resilient teams.

For submarine tactical teams, there are five resilient practices:
  1. Problem Solving Capacity
  2. Critical Thinking
  3. Decision Making
  4. Bench Strength
  5. Dialog


Be careful! Your milage may vary...

Generally, I think all teams everywhere need these five practices, but here we have to be careful. The things that teams need most, vary quite a bit as you look from team to team. “Form follows function" so the practices that are MOST important to any team (say, a surgical team or a space shuttle crew) will depend on the things they need to achieve and the environment in which they work.

For tactical teams on submarines, the work that they have to achieve operates in a data-starved, ambiguous, and uncertain environment. So these five practices are the ones that rise to the top of THEIR needs: the ones most necessary for resilient operation. Still, I don’t think many High Reliability Organizations would not be far off the mark to start with these five and see if they resonate. Many HROs operate under similar conditions.


Each of the practices below is organized by several “threads" that help the observer find the common ideas within each practice. There are 17 threads in the tool, divided among the five practices. I’m not going to dive into these threads very much in this article, but you’ll hear me discuss the idea from time to time.

1. Problem Solving Capacity… what resilience enables the team to do!

A resilient team deliberately broadens the scope of its problem-solving and applies a broad range of different skill sets in its work. They can do a lot of things AND they can do them in a variety of ways. The “variety of ways" is actually pretty important because it is what enables members to adjust their methods as the situation develops AND as resources become constrained or equipment fails.



Teams with more brittle problem-solving capacity tend to do what is most familiar and comfortable, rather than dealing with harder and more complex problems, AND they only know one or a couple ways to do their work. They get stymied when things break or go to hell… that’s why they’re brittle!

Since Problem Solving Capacity is a behavior outcome, an observer will use this practice as a check: “Does the team I am watching look like THIS?" Each cell in the tool contains a verbal description about what a team at each level of resilience looks like. The descriptions contain the “markers" that the observer should be looking for. So this practice, along with the preponderance of the evidence in the other practices, is what helps the observer discern the level of team resilience.

For a team at the Advanced Team Resilience level, the markers include: "multiple dynamic problems", "unexpected situations", "reserve capacity for mission-level work", “big picture", and “anticipation". A major outcome is that they "recognize danger and seize opportunity when present". For teams at the most brittle level, the markers are: “simple", “routine", “basic", "safety-level", and “unable". That’s quite a different set of markers!
2. Critical Thinking; the team’s active engagement with the problems at hand...

This is the extent to which alternative explanations are actively sought or discrepant data is questioned. This describes thinking that is ACTIVELY engaged with the developing situation and operates within the tension that exists between “believe your indications" and “have a questioning attitude." (Submarine friends will recognize those terms!). This practice depends on both analytic and intuitive modes of decision-making and require members to give voice to their intuitive thoughts so the rest of the team can scrutinize those intuitions. (There’s a little risk-taking in that idea, isn’t there?).

How on earth do you measure critical thinking? After all, the observer can’t get into the heads of the team members to examine their thinking! It’s done by looking for the behavior markers at each level of resilience. Critical thinking is one of the most extensive practices in the tool. There are 22 descriptions for critical thinking organized by six “threads" across the four levels of resilience. So actually, there’s quite a lot to look for in the Critical Thinking department!

One of the keys to measuring critical thought is to listen to the CONTENT of the dialog (the communication of the team). A lot of markers for critical thought are found in this content. So quiet teams can be hard to measure, but as it turns out there are really only two teams that are quiet: the ones that don’t know what to say (very brittle), and the ones that are very resilient and not very challenged. There are plenty of other markers to distinguish between these two. Just about everybody else is pretty chatty when they are engaged with the problem (and they NEED to be)!

3. Decision Making… there has to be one… and the resilient one is DETACHED!

Frankly, in our research about resilience, we didn’t discover any new earthshaking things to say about decision-making. There just needs to BE one.

There was ONE blazing new insight though: one of the key differences between “Leader-Dependent Battle Rhythm" team and “Team-Based Resilience" is that the leader is deeply engaged in the problem in the first case, and is DETACHED from the problem in the second. I will have much more to say about this in the future because it is a key finding in our work. I know the idea of detachment might send up a lot of red flares in some people’s minds, but I think when you come to understand the idea, you will see the wisdom of it.

4. Bench Strength… use the whole bench and develop it for the future!

Bench Strength is the extent to which the team includes ALL members (FULL use of bench strength) and works to develop the long-term capacity of the entire team (building future bench strength). After critical thinking, this the second most extensive practice in the tool. There are five threads that make up this practice.

Bench strength helps create flexibility and redundancy for the team. Executing this practice specifically defends against senior leaders who only develop an “A-team" to the exclusion of less proficient teams and team members. Resilient teams are especially on the lookout for situations when the senior leader (commanding officer in the case of submarines) is tempted to act alone (with allowance for rare situations when only the CO can and must act). This practice tries to keep the senior leader in the position of “backup provider" rather than placing the team in the position of having to defend against the leaders’s human error.

I will have a lot to say about this practice in the future.

5. Dialogue… the absence of EITHER formal communication OR freeform discussion is a bell ringer of trouble!

This is the extent to which the team members verbally engage with each other, both formally through reports and orders (obviously, a military idea), and with free-form discussion while evaluating the situation. BOTH forms of communications are essential: the absence of either is a “red flag." Communication behaviors go way beyond the unique language and formal structure of the Submarine Interior Communications Manual. During complex tactical operations, dialogue is often the most revealing indicator of team performance.

This is one practice in the tool that has some pretty submarine-unique aspects to it. But my sense is that ALL teams have unique forms of formal communications that flow between members; its just a matter of understanding those formal methods. In all cases, I’m convinced that it is the free-form discussion that might be most important.



One of the oddities of submarine culture is that we rarely talk about team or individual behaviors (we hope to improve that with this tool), EXCEPT when it comes to the FORMAL aspects of sub speak. And then we’re ALL OVER IT! I hate to break it to my colleagues, but the formal part of resilient team dialog is mastered at the Team-Based resilience level, and there is so much more that needs to be said about dialog than just compliance with our manual! For example, the “tone" of conversation, the “professional constructive conflict" of discussions, the “buzz" in the control room; all of these and other markers are much more important (and aren’t in that manual!). There is a lot said about this and I hope the tool will give observers some fresh ideas to explore in this area.

Are you developing systems that teams will use? You should know what practices make teams resilient!

One of the practical purposes of the Submarine Team Behaviors Tool is the implications it has for system design. If you are building a system that a team will use, I think it make a lot of sense to understand these behaviors in depth; it will influence your design. Wouldn’t it make an incredible difference to the outcome of your project if you were about to say to your customer “and this, this and this will enhance the team’s critical thinking, and critical thinking is one of the most important practices among resilient teams!" You bet it would!


What are your thoughts?

1. Steed, R., J. Lamb, R. Armbruster, R. Severinghouse, E. Jones, C. Lamb, A. Caras, and & others. Submarine Team Behaviors Tool Instruction Manual. : COMSUBLANT/COMSUBPAC N7, 2013.

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