Combat Chaos and Win with the Fighter Pilot Debrief


The first step to surviving chaos is to assess your environment.

We’ve entered chaos, and you must assess you environment.

Chaos is defined as having “behavior so unpredictable as to appear random.” The leadership decision-making framework Cynefin describes it as an environment where “cause and effect cannot be determined.”

During chaos, our long-held assumptions and behaviors are invalid.

Our instincts will betray us.

What are the chaotic implications of this pandemic to our businesses? Quite simply, if we are articulating value based on January’s business model, our assumptions will be wrong, and we will fail.

If we have not adjusted our annual goals and shifted our strategy, our previously held assumptions will lead us to ruin.

In other words, we are all in startup mode again.

Here’s the hard part. We are creatures of habit, and it feels good to continue with a routine, particularly when the world around us is so unpredictable.

It will be very tempting to seek false security and just continue along the path that served us so well before.

So, what should we do?

As fighter pilots, we were taught that there was a difference between peacetime leadership and wartime leadership.

Wartime leadership is required during chaos. It’s extremely focused and highly prescriptive. Directions are “Sesame-Street Simple”.

Clarity, decisiveness, and simplicity are the keys to mitigating complexities in communication during chaos.

Think about the aftermath following 9/11. Bold, decisive leadership was required to align teams quickly to a common plan for action. You can’t wait for perfect information when you have very little time to assess your surroundings before moving.

Conduct a Fighter Pilot Debrief

How do we assess our environment in chaos?

Following every mission we flew, we conducted a Fighter Pilot Debrief to inspect the chaos of the mission we had just executed. We deconstructed the supersonic flightpaths of our aircraft and simulated missiles where we gathered lessons learned to apply to the future.

Your team needs to adopt a similar mentality to quickly and frequently debrief missions during times of chaos and continuously assess your environment.

At Afterburner, we have distilled the fighter pilot Debrief into a few key steps that we’ve utilized with thousands of corporate teams to help them rapidly iterate for success.

1. Determine the Win or Loss We will Inspect

First, identify a specific win or loss to focus on during the debrief. What was your Mission Objective? For a recent Afterburner partner, they had lost specific deals during the negotiation phase. Traditionally, this phase yielded a 90% close rate to a sale, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, that number had dropped below 50%. They decided that this would be their Debrief topic.

2. Analyze Execution for the Root Cause for Success/Failure

Assess your execution and honestly determine if the results yielded success towards your mission objective. Were we successful in achieving our goal? The company that we were supporting was not – a 50% close rate was far below their corporate average of 90% during the negotiation phase. At this point, we will conduct root cause analysis to determine the causal factors of our success or failure. Hint: the answer is not “because of coronavirus”. Dig deep! Continue asking, “why?” until you get to the real answer.

Here’s how that Debrief inspection played out in our client example:

Debrief Question: Why did so many customers walk away during the Negotiation phase of the sale?

Answer: They still wanted our services, but they suddenly did not have the funds to cover this expense.

Debrief Question: Why did they not have the funds to cover this expense?

Answer: Coronavirus had introduced fear, and massive budget cuts into their decision-making process.

Debrief Question: Why were they afraid?

Answer: They were concerned that they would not have enough cash to weather this crisis, and that a large purchase of our products would not be a wise decision given the level of global uncertainty and volatility.

That’s the root cause. The customer still wanted the products, but now they were not willing to sacrifice a large amount of cash expense to complete the purchase.

3. Identify and Disseminate the Lesson Learned

We can’t stop once we’ve identified the root cause. We need to determine the specific Lesson Learned to scale the success or avoid repeating the mistakes. The team in our example took things one step further and asked the question: Could we engineer a sale during the negotiation phase that mitigated the fear of not having enough cash? It turns out they could – the team constructed lease proposals that allowed their customers to pay a high lease premium in OPEX, still well below the proposed CAPEX that they were initially looking at, for a specified period of time.

If the Lesson Learned is valuable enough, we want to disseminate it to as many people as possible. As a fighter pilot, that meant a change to our checklists or standard operating procedures. In our customer example, the team quickly took their lesson learned and shifted practices for the entire sales group. From that point forward, a standard leasing proposal was created and used in every negotiation phase of the sale.

End the Debrief on a High Note

In our client example, the high note was simple – the entire company was able to quickly pivot with their new lesson learned to not just survive in the chaos but to thrive. Today, their close rates are near an all-time high, and while they don’t have the standard influx of cash, they have shifted their financial model to a highly profitable leasing structure quickly.

This group will have captured more of the market than they entered this crisis with because they acted quickly to identify patterns for success amidst the chaos.

Armed with Lessons Learned, we can equip our teams with a clear path to victory. But in order to scale that victory, we must Align our teams to a Plan.

Aligning your teams is the next step in leading through chaos.

If you missed our first article, “COVID-19 is Not a Snow Day,” you can find it here.