What Do Fighter Pilots and Incident Management Have in Common?

High stakes, extreme stress, and big consequences for failure—fighter pilots and incident management are more alike than you realized

Jessica Abelson, Director of Product Marketing
Oct 20th, 2020

What do fighter pilots and incident management have in common? A lot more than you realized, says seasoned fighter pilot, Anthony “AB” Bourke who recently spoke at Transposit’s Happy Hour at DevOps Enterprise Summit.

Imagine this: The best of the best at what you do, you’re recruited to fly in the Blue Angels. “So now we want you to fly your jet at very low altitude over large crowds of people traveling very high speeds and making a ton of noise. And then we want you to fly in formations where you will only have 18 inches of wingtip clearance between yourself and your leader. And there’s one other thing I should mention. Half the time we’d like you to be inverted—upside down. So much like in your business, the consequences for failure are very high.”

He’s right. How often does it, in fact, feel like “flying upside down” as an on-call engineer, being ushered through the revolving door of systems and under more pressure than ever during the pandemic? It can be a dizzying experience. And the consequences for failure and the expectation of a “perfect mission” have never been higher.

With so much at stake on solid ground working in incident management, what can we learn from fighter pilots that can help us run and keep our mission critical services safe?

Debriefing Is a Non-Negotiable

While we think of the epic flights pilots take as the most important part of their job, Bourke stressed that the debrief is as important as the mission itself.

After every mission—without exception—fighter pilots spend almost twice as long debriefing as they did flying. The fact of the matter is that “no matter how good we think we are, no matter how well we plan, no matter how good our technology is, no matter how good our people are, no fighter pilot has ever flown the perfect mission.” Most of our learning doesn’t happen during the mission or incident itself, it happens afterwards when we can recover and discuss with our peers, looking with clear heads at what happened.

We can, and should, take this discipline into our own incident management practices. “Don’t think about this concept of debrief as something that can only work in the military,” Bourke said. “Think about how you can raise the bar on how you’re giving and receiving feedback.” Not only will you accelerate the experience of your new hires faster, but you’ll also find that the experienced people on your team are able to break through the artificial glass ceiling that’s keeping them from getting better and adapting to inevitable change.

The Key to a Debrief: Transparency

Fly on this journey with us for a minute. You’re a mid-level officer, and you’ve just returned from a training mission with a group of officers, along with a two-star general. As you debrief the mission, you notice in the video that the general was a 100 miles off target coming home and still had the “Master Arm” switch in the arm position (meaning weapons are still live) when you’re supposed to go “Master Arm” safe 50 miles off target. Do you tell the general—who is in charge of your pay, promotions, and demotions—their misstep?

When Bourke asked this question, many of us cringed at the idea of telling an authority figure they’d made a mistake. But then he presented the potential consequences of keeping lips sealed. The F16s your squadron was flying has the capacity to drop 2,000 pound bombs and can shoot 6,000 rounds a minute. As you approach the base, one press of a button could be a deadly mistake that takes out your own troops. With this added information, the answer was obvious. Transparency is not optional.

The practice of debriefing makes teams stronger and more adaptable when the next mission (or incident) comes. But the special sauce of the debrief requires a not-so-secret but often hard to come by ingredient: full transparency.

During a debrief, hierarchy should be stripped away and egos set aside. “When the door to the debriefing room closes, something magical happens,” Bourke said. “Name tags come off our chest, and we hold the debrief where there is no hierarchy, and the sole purpose is to learn and get better.” Bourke urges teammates to be “their own worst enemy,” exposing their own mistakes and committing to make a change going forward. Rather than placing blame, teammates gain confidence in their fellows.

Creating this environment takes a conscious effort on the part to leadership to make a safe space for teammates of all rankings to be honest. “Our leaders must find a way to create an environment where their people can give them the honest, real-time feedback they need to help them make the right decisions that keep them ahead of the threats, ahead of the competition, and ahead of the inevitable change.”

Take Your Incident Management to New Heights With Post-Mortems

Take it from Bourke: “Debrief is the most powerful tool in the world to help accelerate experience of people in an organization, to help make everybody on your team wizards, and to drive better results.” If we truly want to practice continuous improvement, post-mortems should be consistent, thorough, and shared widely.

The first step is to make sure your team is doing post-mortems after every single incident. Second, post-mortems need to examine the details of what actually happened in the incident resolution process, not just what created the issue. In a safe environment, teammates will feel comfortable sharing what they could have done better and identify areas for improvement. Lastly, learnings should be shared across the organization so information isn’t siloed and you’re not adding to institutional knowledge. You never know who may need to jump into action during the next incident, and these learning will help them better prepare for that scenario.

Our missions may be different in altitude but very similar in principle. Extreme stress. High stakes. And the never-ending opportunity to learn. Taking a page from the book of fighter pilots, we can become the Mavericks in our own organization, taking our processes to new heights. Transparency, honesty, and a commitment to learning and improvement are the stuff that will make our incident management soar.