High Performance Teamwork – A Day with the Reds


What makes for a successful team? The Red Arrows provides an interesting case study. I recently spent a day with “the Reds” and spotted three things that make them special:

Added on 01 October 2014 by Stephen Bungay

Arial view from the perspective of the Red Arrows

The first was the relentlessness of the practice. The team does not reach a plateau and stay there. It works at it, constantly. I was reminded of the time I took a passenger flight in a Hawk from 19 Squadron based at RAF Valley, where they do fast jet training. My pilot was an instructor with about 3,000 hours experience. At the end of the sortie, he did three ‘circuits and bumps’ – practice landings and take-offs – which is one of the most basic things trainee pilots learn. He had done thousands of them before. I asked why someone like him still had to practice doing this. He answered in two words: ‘perishable skill’. No matter how good you are you have to keep working at the basics.  If neglected, the foundations of your flying skills can weaken.

By the time of my visit ‘the Reds’ had all flown the formations hundreds of times before. But the foundations had to be kept rock solid and so they spent much of their day going through basic patterns. As the basic components of any display they were standard operating procedures. Each pilot has to learn to play their part automatically, but remain alert. While each formation becomes routine, every display is slightly different. The weather may change.  Honing the routine creates spare mental energy to deal with the non-routine and the unpredictable. Though the manoeuvres look thrillingly dangerous, the risk variables are known.  They worry more about things like unfamiliar display sites. One of them told me that the ‘hairy bits’ are re-forming in bad weather and flying from one display location to another.  For them, the more complex risks lie in what the public does not see.

The second was the debrief. It is based on complete openness and unsparing self-criticism.  It came from everyone, starting with the leader. Although general comments were invited, no-one in fact criticised anyone other than themselves. Sometimes the less experienced first years do not notice their errors, at which point a third year or the Boss would point it out.  Jas, a former Red 1, told me that his ideal debrief was one in which he said nothing because everyone had the acuity as well as the honesty to criticise themselves. A symptom of the cultural preconditions for this process is the way they refer to themselves and each other by their number. For the purposes of the debrief that is who they are. There are no personalities. The foundation of learning is self-criticism.

In his book Outliers – The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell popularised the idea that high levels of achievement in specific domains require 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell emphasises the hours. Others who have written on the same subject emphasise the practice.  This gets closer to the point. None of the Reds have spent 10,000 hours flying.  Hours in the air matter less than what is done in those hours. In Talent is Overrated, Geoffrey Colvin claims that world class performance comes from ‘deliberate practice’. Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot but is also designed to improve performance, based on feedback and is mentally demanding. That captures more accurately what is going on inside the Red Arrows. What happens on the ground in the debrief is as important as what the Reds do in the air, for that is what turns mere repetition into learning. Conscious perception on the ground is translated into a deliberate change in what a pilot does in the air, until it becomes an automatic motor response. The self-criticism creates individual learning which is directed solely at allowing the individuals to perfect the performance of the team. They can feel when they get it – it is safe, mellow and controlled.

Which brings us to the final point, a curious paradox. In the Reds, the individual is everything and nothing.  Individuals work at their own performance, but the sole purpose of that work is to optimise the team.  A single pilot’s failure to get spacing and timing right will spoil the whole team’s formation, but there is no such thing as an outstanding individual performance.  In the debrief, no-one was singled out for criticism, but equally, no-one was given special praise.  Everyone depends on everyone else for the result and indeed for his life, and the standard is absolute.  An air display is often compared to ballet, but there are no prima ballerinas.  Other performing arts and sports cultivate individuals, even within teams.  Such individuals make up a good proportion of the celebrities who seem now to hold a fawning world in thrall.   As individuals, the Reds are unknown to the general public.

In business, there is no standard of absolute perfection we can aim at. However, there are a lot of teams who have to turn in a great performance every day when every day is different but contains the same basic elements. Some are delivering a service in restaurants or airlines; others are producing a product in a factory or software in an office; others are providing support for internal customers. They perform for real every day.  Because real performance delivery is not classified as training, they often forget that each performance is a learning opportunity. It is relatively rare to use ‘real’ experiences for deliberate learning, carrying out something like a debrief at the end of a day or a shift. The Army carry out After Action Reviews after any event, be it real or an exercise. In business, that opportunity is often lost. Perhaps we should try to seize it.

Business teams might also try to cultivate the ethos which is so critical – making self-criticism a mechanism for improvement rather than an admission of weakness, and developing individuals to feel they are there to make a great team. Business organisations might want to ask themselves whether they might in fact be undermining the foundations of great teams by focussing their reward and development systems too much on individuals. Ultimately, the Reds fly for the personal reward of being part of a great team. That reward is considerable.

Stephen Bungay is a Director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre

For a longer version of this article, go to Stephen’s blog ‘High Performance Teamwork’ at   www.stephenbungay.com/news/Bungay97398.ink