Ronald Steed

"Resilience"- You want some of that...

“Tuck! Shift your aim point to the tanker’s bow! Fire six torpedo spread! Dive! Rig ship for depth charge! All watertight doors locked!" 1 -Order from CDR Eugene Flucky to Lt Tuck Weaver & team, USS Barb (SS 220), 17 September 1944

That was a breathtaking order.

Its breathtaking to me because, as a submariner, I know what had to happen for that order to work. More than a dozen near-simultaneous and very dangerous actions had to go perfectly right… and by the hand of more than a dozen people. I know that this was a novel set of circumstances of this team, but they were able to respond boldly to a new situation by adapting what they had learned and experienced before. I know why the order was given and what the outcome was. Its breathtaking because for me, the story of that order is about what team resilience looks like.

One of the aims of this blog is to write about team resilience, both for submarine colleagues and for business colleagues as well. That’s a tall order. On the face of it, there are not many direct comparisons that can be made about submarines and business. The bottom line of the one is “readiness"; the bottom line of the other is profit.

But deeper down, I think there is a plenty of overlap. Submarine crews are High Reliability Organizations, "an organization that has succeeded in avoiding catastrophes in an environment where normal accidents can be expected due to risk factors and complexity." 2 The stakes are high when your team is submerged to 500 feet in the middle of the ocean a thousand miles from shore. Consequently, the culture of the Submarine Force is strong and brightly delineated. Good and bad performance are set far apart and there is not a lot of gray between them. For that reason, the submarine way is an excellent model for others to emulate. That doesn’t mean that every business should have a periscope, but it does mean that there is a lot to learn from this world-class organization that does its work every day in the middle of danger, uncertainty, and ambiguity. A lot of businesses work in an analogous environment. Dangerous competitors are everywhere, opportunity is fleeting, and its just not clear sometimes where the way ahead lies.

High Reliability Organizations like the U.S. Submarine Force share five traits: 3
  1. Preoccupation with failure
  2. Reluctance to simplify interpretations
  3. Sensitivity to operations
  4. Commitment to resilience
  5. Deference to expertise
The fourth characteristic is what this blog is all about: resilience.

“Resilience" is one of those terms that can carry a lot of load. Just google it… you’ll be hard pressed to find agreement on its definition. Much of my work at UpScope Consulting Group has been in support of the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory (NSMRL) in Groton, CT. There, we assembled a multi-disciplinary team of researchers, psychologists, and submarine subject matter experts who looked hard at issues of team resilience in a submarine context:

“Submarine Operational Resilience" is a team’s capacity to recognize, deep within the command structure, developing danger and opportunity under ambiguous and uncertain conditions. This term refers to a team’s achievements, requiring conscious and purposeful practices and behaviors. Once danger or opportunity is recognized, resilient teams are able to adapt and respond in ways that are safe in peacetime operations and bold in war. 4

There is a lot packed into this definition. Resilience is a team achievement, not an individual one (sorry, but this will disappoint a lot of leaders). It looks for action “deep within the command structure". On submarines, this means that we’re looking for resilient action at the Petty Officer and Lieutenant level, not just from Master Chiefs and Commanders. For businesses, this means looking for resilience among front line operators and junior managers (what does that imply about their authority and latitude?). It recognizes that danger and opportunity develop over time… they rarely drop into your lap, fully formed (unless you’re in combat of course!). This means the team is able to detect danger and opportunity while their early signals are still in the noise. Resilience is never achieved passively, but though deliberate and active practices and behaviors (what does that imply about leadership?). And resilient teams can adapt and respond.

That’s the bottom line about resilient teams: they can adapt and respond to the new and novel… to the never-seen-before event. And here, there is a little mystery. To the outside observer, resilient teams seem to have this uncanny sense of timing. There is a certain wu wei about them… they seem to act "without doing"… they have “minds like water". They seem to step to one side and with a deft ninja move, danger gets turned on its head. This of course, is not what is going on at all. There is a tremendous effort going on in the resilient team. There are a lot of wheels turning… it’s hard work! They just make it LOOK easy.

This is what resilience looks like:

The USS BARB, in company with USS QUEENFISH, was driving into worsening seas at 19 knots when radar detected a large enemy convoy traveling north at twelve knots.

On the Bridge, Fluckey moved in to attack, seeing several large, deeply laden tankers, and lined up bow tubes. But, from below, a shout, “Captain, there’s a flattop in the middle overlapping the bow of the tanker. We’ll have to change our firing setup!" Almost simultaneously, the Quartermaster nudged the Captain, “Destroyer, six hundred yards coming in to ram!" Fluckey’s response was immediate, decisive, and bold: “Tuck! Shift your point of aim to the tanker’s bow! Fire six torpedo spread! Dive! Rig ship for depth charge! All watertight doors shut!"

The tanker - carrying aviation gasoline - blew up and sank. Seven hours later the Japanese carrier Unyo, 20,000 tons, also sank. In a two-minute span, Fluckey changed his attack plan, changed the spread of his torpedoes, attacked two ships, and took evasive action to avoid a charging destroyer, all relying on a combination of experience, teamwork, problem solving, and boldness. He and his crew demonstrated all 5 essential practices of dialogue, critical thinking (believing his indications - in this case, his lookout’s observation through binoculars), use of Bench Strength (immediate and forceful input from members of his team), Decision-Making deep in the organization (a Lieutenant saw the opportunity, a Quartermaster saw the danger), and problem solving capacity (responding to both problems (charging destroyer) and opportunities (flattop in the sights)).5

You want some of that.

Notes & Citations:
1. LaVO, Carl. The Galloping Ghost: the Extraordinary Life of Submarine Legend Eugene Fluckey. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2007.
2. Wikipedia contributors, "High reliability organization," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed July 29, 2014).
3. Wikipedia contributors, "High reliability organization," see “Characteristics"
4. Steed, Ronald, Cynthia Lamb, Richard Severinghaus, Jerry Lamb, Erin Fields, and Abaigeal Caras. "Team Performance Behaviors during Underway Tactical Operations." Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory NSMRL//TR--2012-0001: 12.
5. Ibid. p. 57.
6. This team is another example of the Barb crew’s remarkable resilience and innovation. Members of USS Barb's demolition squad pose with her battle flag at the conclusion of her 12th war patrol. Taken at Pearl Harbor, August 1945. During the night of 22-23 July 1945 these men went ashore at Karafuto, Japan, and planted an explosive charge that subsequently wrecked a train. This raid is represented by the train symbol in the middle bottom of the battle flag.

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