Ronald Steed

Think you can't measure Team Resilience? Think again...

The Submarine Team Behaviors Tool: A framework for measuring Team Resilience.

I love paradox, and I love the tension of trying to hold contradictions together… its a hobby. One of the paradoxes the world seems to struggle with is whether measurement is all that its cracked up to be. All leaders have a stake in this struggle somewhere between the McKinsey Maxim "What you can measure you can manage" and its corollary; the things that are really important, cannot be measured.

A significant part of my last years in the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Force was spent wrestling with this issue, particularly with regard to measuring teams. Submarine culture loves measurement as any “bubblehead" will tell you.

Measurement has been a love/hate relationship. While I was deeply immersed in the “self-assessment" part of submarine culture, it seemed to me that we missed the mark sometimes by measuring the things that were easy to measure while not really looking at the things that mattered the most. Its one thing for the navigator to fix the ship’s position within 10 yards of the track; its another to measure whether or the Captain has a detached perspective about a tactical problem. The one is interesting, but not always important (though, sometimes it IS!). The other makes all the difference in a developing situation where uncertainty and ambiguity abound.

I have worked on the problem of Team Resilience for several years with colleagues at the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory in Groton, CT. We’ve looked with others at the growing complexity of submarine operations1, and wanted a practical and useful way to help teams build operational resilience in the face of those complexities. It seemed to us that resilience was one of those things that was really important. The question was though… could it be measured?

The answer is yes. Submarine Team Resilience can be measured, and those measurements can be used to improve the resilience of tactical teams.

The Submarine Team Behaviors Tool2 is an effective framework for measuring Team Resilience across four levels of achievement by looking markers of resilience within five team practices. For readers who are active duty submariners, you can find this handy tool in the Force Operating Notes. Although it is relatively new, you may have already seen it in use by some of the “Gray Beards" at your training facilities or by other command-experienced assessors.

The key to this framework is that the markers of resilience are based on observable team behaviors and outcomes3. These are markers that can be seen or heard. There is no attempt in the tool to psychologize the team or second guess their motivations. The observers using this tool just need to see what they see and hear what they hear. Another key point is that we consider that behaviors are different than skills. Skills needed to operate a submarine are not part of this tool, although the line between these skills and behaviors might not be very strong sometimes. So, knowing how to execute a tactic or maneuver your ship is a skill that is measured in other ways. Whether the leader is relying solely on a couple favorite operators or an “A team" is an observable behavior, and that is measured with this tool.

The tool has four levels of resilience, and each of these is regarded as a team achievement. In order of increasing resilience, they are:
  • Unstressed Battle Rhythm: this is a novice team that is just learning the common language and processes of their profession and are capable of working together in an unstressed environment. Under stress, these teams tend to break down or “get into trouble". Even though this is a very brittle team, it is an achievement to be at this level; it is a positive development. That is very important to remember, and the hope is that they will soon transition to the next level.
  • Leader-Dependent Battle Rhythm: this team is very much like the unstressed team above, except that there are one or two expert leaders who are capable of driving this team through stressful situations. These leaders can make an incredible difference in the capacity of the team, and teams at this level can be very, very effective. At the same time though, they are also very brittle (there’s a paradox for you to ponder!) because it all depends on the leader. If the leader has a bad day, the entire team suffers. The hope is that the team will transition to the next level, but some leaders let their teams to get “stuck" here.
  • Team-Based Resilience: at this level of achievement a miracle occurs! The team as a whole is capable enough that the leader can assume a “detached perspective"4 from the problem. That’s a big deal. With detachment, the leader can monitor “the big picture" and see things from an overarching perspective - such as the team’s performance, or the trend of the problem over time, or a developing situation that others cannot see. It is the leader’s personal competence and years of experience in the details of tactical problems, that makes it possible for the leader to accept a certain vulnerability with detached perspective. I’ll have much more to say about this in the future.
  • Advanced Team Resilience: this team is at the pinnicle of their capability. At this level they are managing complexity… making tradeoffs between risks or between risks and opportunities. They have several time horizons running in parallel from the problem-of-the-moment to the problem they may see a week from now (this is a tactical achievement, not necessarily a strategic one). It is a joy to watch teams at this level. They are firing on all cylinders.

“Battle Rhythm" is an odd but useful term in the tool. Military people, particularly those who serve on operational staffs, will recognize that what we mean by that term is not quite the same as the staff-context. By battle rhythm, we mean “rhythm" of the team… the rhythm of orders and reports… the rhythm of the team’s processes. Experienced leaders have seen this and Commanding Officers deliberately look for this rhythm while the team is operating under benign conditions and before they decide to move into more stressful situations. There is a certain back and fourth that occurs when teams are “in the groove". It can be measured objectively by recording the time that processes occur, but in general, it is measured qualitatively by the experience of senior observers. That’s perfectly OK… experience counts for something! Note that the real achievement of the two most brittle levels is “Battle Rhythm" while the achievement of the highest level teams is “Resilience". There is a big difference between the two terms and it is not enough just to have a good team rhythm.

For businesses or other organizations that might adapt this tool to their own context, I think “battle rhythm" probably needs a different name. It might just be “rhythm"! Or the levels might be just “Unstressed Teamwork" and Leader-Dependent Teamwork". It depends on the organization. For surgical teams and other High Reliability Organizations, I’m thinking that there is a very similar sense of rhythm to their communications and processes. Other organizations might not operate under quite the same time or situational stress, so “rhythm" might not quite capture what it is these teams are achieving exactly. Nevertheless, I’m willing to bet that many of you recognize these four levels of achievement in your own experience. If you are not in the military, I would love to have your thoughts on this.

For submarine tactical teams, there are five resilient practices that make up the tool. I’m going to write about these practices on another day, but I do want to make a major point about the practices. I think these practices differ between "domains". Submarining is a particular discipline that operates in very unique ways under data-starved, ambiguous, and uncertain environments. Of course, all teams need teamwork and there is more to teamwork than just five things, but the five practices for THIS team are the ones that rise to the top. They are the ones most needed for resilient operation under the conditions that they experience. The Boston Red Sox might need some critical thinking (Boston fans can debate below!), but it might not rise quite to top five practices that THEY need. Even on submarines, I think an engineering team may need different practices. If I were designing a Team Behavior Tool for another team, I would start with these five practices and talk to experts in that domain to see how we might need to depart from them. In some cases, the practices might be radically different.

Finally, what about that paradox? Where does the Submarine Team Behaviors Tool fit between "What you can measure you can manage" and “The things that are really important, cannot be measured". Well, I think we’ve made some inroads in the measurement of something important. If you can measure Team Resilience, you can do something about it, and we really need that in a complex world. Nevertheless, resilience is not the only important thing going on within teams, and it would be a mistake to think we have all the measurements needed. Plus, like any measurement tool, it is subject to the subjective opinion of the evaluators and no matter how talented, they get it wrong from time to time (and I have the scars to validate that opinion!).

What are your thoughts?

1. Steed, Ronald, Robert Armbruster, and L. David Marquet. "Complexity as the Forcing Function for Submarine Operations." Proceedings of the American Society of Naval Engineers Undersea Human Systems Integration Symposium, 2010.
2. 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.
3. Note: Here, I have to be careful, especially about the idea of using outcomes as a measurement tool. We know that whether a torpedo hits a target is dependent on factors other than resilient team processes. In the case of the STBT, the Problem Solving Capacity practice is a set of team outcomes that are behavior-driven. It provides the observer a behavior-outcome: a short-hand way of knowing “what resilience at this level" looks like.
4. Note: “Detached" does NOT mean “Disengaged". I’ll write more about detached perspective in the future.

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