Ronald Steed

The Most Brittle Team: Unstressed Battle Rhythm...

Seven officers training to become submarine department heads are formed into a piloting team for a day of practice in the submarine bridge trainer. Their class is early in the pipeline course and most of them have not been aboard a submarine for two years since they left their junior officer tours for shore duty. It has been a while since they have had to think about piloting down the river where the margins are thin and the consequences of error are high. Most of them have not had deep hands-on practice with the equipment for over two years, and none of them have had personal responsibility as the ship’s navigator. One third of those in this morning’s session will serve in that position in just a few short months.

As the simulated ship gets underway, the unique lingo of submarine life comes back easily… orders given and acknowledged… the rhythm of fixes and evaluations… the reports about other vessels ahead. The team starts to get into the grove. In the absence of any real stress, the team has achieved something important; they have a rhythm together. In the framework of the Submarine Team Behaviors Tool, they have achieved “Unstressed Battle Rhythm".

And yet… this is the most brittle of teams. Their instructor, a very experienced Senior Chief just off a waterfront tour as Assistant Navigator, sees all the tell-tail signs. The Senior Chief knows the scenario won’t end well; but it WILL end with some great lessons … lessons that will help this team get to the next level… the level where they preserve that rhythm under stress and with much greater capacity.

As I have posted previously, the Submarine Team Behaviors Tool is a framework for experienced observers to characterize a tactical team according to four levels of resilience by looking for the markers of observable behaviors across five practices. In this next series of posts, we'll examine some of the characteristics of those four levels of resilience starting with the most brittle team: Unstressed Battle Rhythm.

Teams operating with Unstressed Battle Rhythm are often novices who are just learning… or maybe re-learning... the common language, team processes, and “hard skills" of their profession. “Novice" can mean a lot of things, so here we have to be careful. It can mean people who are brand new to the profession. Getting to the point where they are even able to talk to one another is going to be huge! But novice can also mean a team of people who are really out of practice, like the students described above. It’s not that they are incapable… in fact quite the opposite; most of these officers will become Commanding Officers of submarines. Its just that teamwork itself, and particularly resilient teamwork, is a fragile thing, even for talented people. It decays quickly and it takes real effort in the hands of experienced leader-teachers to regain what was lost. So, just a warning to the wise: serving on a top team does not prevent degradation even to the most brittle levels in the absence of practice.

Teams at this level are capable of working together in an unstressed environment. They can manage simple maneuvers, contacts, and routine problems. For experienced teams who are out of practice, the fact that the team CAN achieve rhythm may mask important markers of embrittlement. Under the stress of bigger problems, these teams tend to break down or “get into trouble".

The Senior Chief notes some of the problems that characterize this team:
  • Most of its members tend to report “data" rather than “information". They just report that facts as they see them without including any of the context or analysis that facilitates good decision-making. In effect, each report shifts the burden of analysis and context onto the leader… and the leader of this team is going to get cognitively swamped with data… data divorced from meaning.
  • Also, the entire team seems to have just one “time horizon"; the problem-of-the-moment that is right in front of them. No one seems to be anticipating the problem that will be most important in thirty minutes, or for that matter even the problem that will begin to emerge in two minutes. Teams operating at "now" are easily surprised… they are reactive… they get driven by the problem rather than driving the circumstances themselves as more resilient teams do. Having more than one time horizon is something they will have to learn.
  • They “shed" tasks in a deliberate (but often unstated) strategy to simplify complexity. In this case, the piloting party has stopped counting down turns, and neither the Contact Manager nor the Officer of the Deck are using the Collision Regulations, the “rules of the road" that all mariners use to prevent collisions at sea. Its true that setting these tasks to one side DOES simplify the problem, but it makes the team incredibly vulnerable… almost defenseless really… against the hazards that these tasks are designed to prevent. These tasks will have to be learned and integrated into the team processes for them to get to a more resilient state.


As the simulated ship leaves the harbor entrance buoys for more open water, the Instructor has arranged for fog to set in. Now the team begins to break down under the stress of this new factor. The first thing to go is rhythm. Communication informalities creep in… reports stop being made… processes are missed or delayed. There are non-verbal personality conflicts evident… eye rolls… “tone"… side comments. One key leader, flustered and wanting to seem busy rushes around the room looking at screens and pressing buttons. (I’m convinced that bad situational awareness is measured by miles steamed around the command center!) In truth, the leader does not know what to look for; what is needed is right was right in front of him. The tension of the team rises higher and higher… it is palpable. A large vessel appears out of the fog right on the bow… the instructor stops the problem.

Stopping the problem is one of the best “interventions" that a teacher can make for a team at this brittle level. The chaos is fresh in everyone’s mind, and so are the lessons. Often, the problems that the instructor needs to solve are really a combination of both “hard skills" and “team skills". Hard skills in this case might involve a refresher on the collision avoidance rules or the process for preparing for a turn; some of the tasks that were shed by this team. But the team skills are just as important to cover. Learning to report with context and information rather than just data… leaders learning to look ahead to the next problem so that the team can be set up for success… setting aside the irritation we might feel for another member and learning to work with them under stress… learning a little humility maybe. All of these are fruitful areas for the instructor to cover, or better yet, guide the students to discover these lessons for themselves.

One of the things the Submarine Team Behaviors Tool provides for instructors is a simple, single page go-by to guide the discussion when great teaching moments arrive. The aim is to facilitate good discussions about teamwork. To help the team see where they are now and to give them useful and practical suggestions for getting to the next level.

When the lesson is complete, the instructor sets up the same problem for the students to do again. This time, the results are much better. The problem is stopped at the same point again to examine the better outcome... to re-enforce the good behaviors and hard skills they learned. For good measure, they go through it again, this time with the instructor coaching students in real time (another great intervention at this level)… helping them to think about the problem more broadly… suggesting ways the leader can get everyone on the same page and how operators can make reports that help everyone sort out the situation with a lot less effort. Now the team is really learning to do more under stress... to become more resilient….


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