Creating Team Agility During a Crisis

Afterburner Team Written by:
Afterburner Team


When disaster strikes, the United States government is ready to deploy assistance where needed. What can your team learn about agility from this highly bureaucratic organization? Thor sits down with Afterburner team member Otis “Hoop” Hooper to discuss his recent deployment to the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria and the techniques corporate teams can learn from his experience in order to stay agile.

[Below is a transcript of the episode.]

Thor: This year, hurricanes rocked our part of the world and devastated islands in the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria, in particular, is remembered as the worst natural disaster on record for the region. Afterburner team member, Otis Hooper, was called upon to be on the senior leadership team for the relief effort on the island of Saint Croix and oversee the plan to bring the island’s infrastructure back to life. How does a highly bureaucratic organization like the US government quickly mobilize to ensure the safety of a population of an island in the Caribbean? How can you apply these same techniques to stay agile with your small team? We’ll learn about this and more today on the Business Thorcast.


Thor: This week, we’ve got Hoop back. And if you missed it the first time, Hoop was on talking about his individual pursuits. He was talking about being a Mr. Olympia athlete and competitor on the world stage for the men’s physique competition. And in the same year, competing on American Ninja Warrior. And in the same year, completing an Ironman Triathlon. And oh, by the way, he was in very bad shape about 18 months prior to doing all those things. So it’s an amazing story. If you haven’t heard that one, check that one out too, and hear about his individual journey that he took. But we brought him back because that was a really popular Thorcast. But on top of that, he’s done some amazing things since we last talked to him. Hoop, welcome back to the show.

Otis Hooper: Thanks for having me back. Appreciate it. Happy to come on.

Thor: Alright. We talked about four months ago. Tell us what transpired, almost immediately after that podcast was recorded.

OH: Yeah. Well, let’s see. As everybody remembers hurricanes Irma, Maria, and Harvey hit the United States in the Caribbean area in September, October. And I’m actually part of the DC Air National Guard. And we were activated. So that means that we were called in to provide help and assistance to get the islands back and start the recovery process. So I was activated and called down to Saint Croix, US Virgin Islands. September 23rd, for 30 days. And my time there ended October 23rd. So I spent 30 days in Saint Croix. Four days after Hurricane Maria, the second Cat 5 Hurricane hit that island.

Thor: Hoop’s one of the senior leaders on his island after it was just devastated by the storms. And coming there to try to help bring back some sense of normalcy. One of the individuals that is in charge of coordinating between the different services, both in the military as well as on the civilian side too, as quickly as possible, provide relief to the people down there. And it’s an amazing story. And there’s so many great takeaways for business teams and for how to lead through chaotic, dynamic environments that I wanted Hoop to tell us a little bit about it. So before we go into the techniques you guys use to the help in that situation, let’s first talk about what did it look like? So you land on Saint Croix. And what did you experience?

Hurricane Maria

OH: Yeah. We took off from Savannah, Georgia on a C130. And the reason we did that, the civilian airport was closed. So the only airplanes that could fly in there was military tactical airlift airplanes. So we flew in on a C130. C130 has propellers. It’s a great airplane. It’s loud and noisy. We landed there early in the morning. When we landed and opened the doors, it literally looked like a bomb went off. All of the leaves were gone. It was brown. All of the jungle, what was once a jungle, completely brown and devastated, logs were everywhere, telephone poles were snapped in half, boats were sank out in the harbor. It was really in bad shape. A lot of roads were impassable.

Thor: So you get there, it looks like a bomb went off. Every tree is stripped of limbs, leaves, everything. And there’s just stuff strewn everywhere. What about the people that you came in contact with? What struck you when you first encountered people on the island?

OH: To be honest… Now, remember this was their second Cat 5 hurricane that they had just withstood. And believe it or not, they were extremely positive and very upbeat. Even though most of them had sustained, their houses were completely devastated, roofs torn off. But they were positive, they were happy because their perspective was they were alive. And they had an opportunity to rebuild. So that was really reassuring. And it made us feel good to know that, even though they had just gone through this devastating experience, they were still in a positive mindset. That was important for us moving forward.

Thor: And I think another thing to think about that you told me in the past is that it’s not, you didn’t land and it was sunny skies, and we’re just cleaning up the big mess underneath the bright blue sky ’cause the storm had passed. Tell us about the weather conditions that persisted. The wind’s not blowing 100 miles an hour any longer. But what else are they dealing with now that the roofs are off their houses?

OH: Yeah. Remember. The first thing that went and the way they describe it is, it was just massive, massive noise. Obviously, the first thing that went was the roof. So the roof, boom is gone, they’re huddled in a corner. And remember, they’re with their families and the roofs are gone. And a lot of times, their walls completely separated from their homes. So it was massive complete devastation, and that devastation lasted for a long time. So as the storm, the main part of the storm left, it was still raining and when it wasn’t raining it was hot. It was 90, 95 degrees out there. So the sun was baking down through the devastation. So they had no protective cover overhead, all of their belongings were scattered all over the place. And a lot of the neighborhoods were almost trapped. They didn’t have any way of getting out because the roads were closed. They were really isolated. So they were in a bad shape. Those of them that could move about were able to pass information, but it was only through word of mouth.

Thor: So you’re landing in an environment where there’s obviously no electricity. There is no way to communicate via cell phone. You can’t send somebody an email. Like you just said everything’s passing word of mouth. How do you take stock in that type of situation, with all of the comforts that we’re used to, in terms of communication, how did your team have to adapt immediately to this tragedy that was unfolding in front of you?

Organization During a Natural Disaster

OH: Well first of all, it was shocking because none of us had ever really been in that situation. No one. So we had to kinda overcome the initial shock of, “Wow, I don’t have email. I can’t text. I can’t make a phone call. So we had to figure out and adapt quickly. Obviously we had CB radios and radios that we brought from the military. But, our customers on the receiving end did not have those. So we had to find a way to get them what they needed. So it was literally, get in the Humvees and in the trucks that we brought, chop our way through the forest.

Thor: With machetes.

OH: With machetes, with bulldozers. And these are the things that we flew in on our military airplanes. Paved a way, through the roads and jungles, to the people that needed the help. Once we did that, then we were able to do what we call battle damage assessment and really start to get the communication flowing. But it was word of mouth, it was figuring out a path to get to the person that needed it, which essentially was our customer.

Thor: We talk a lot in the military, and even in the business world about known unknowns and unknown unknowns. So known unknowns for your team sounded like, things you need to figure out, get the answer to. Where you knew a neighborhood existed, you don’t know what the status is of the people there. You don’t know what the statuses of the buildings and how much they’re in need of help at this moment, but that’s what you are trying to figure out. That’s a known unknown that you’re pursuing. What were some of the unknown unknowns that you came upon just as you were exploring and taking stock of this island?

OH: What we’ve always trained for in these kind of domestic operations, for instance if you take Hurricane Harvey which hit Houston, is that we always had access from other states. And the rest of the country could roll in with an 18 wheeler, full of water, full of food and supplies, people, nurses, just things that we needed to bring back the city or the state back to life. In this situation, we never really trained… We trained for it but it’s different when you’re actually executing it.

OH: So in that situation what we realized was we only had a limited amount of resources, ie airplanes, that could get from, and boats, that could get from the mainland, over to the island. So we had to figure out the best way to efficiently use those resources. Now we have Puerto Rico that was hit, we had St. Thomas that was hit, also part of the Virgin Islands, and then we had St. Croix and St. Johns. We had four different islands that we were all responsible for, all of us. We had a small cell of military folks on each island talking back to DC and back down to Florida and Colorado. So the unknown was really maximizing the best use of our airplanes and resources to get the people, equipment, and supplies to the folks that needed the most.

Thor: Yeah, ’cause it’s not… We think about something like Katrina, which is probably the most well-known recovery effort in the past decade and we look at that and there’s so many ways that, that was a cookie cutter approach. I mean you just drive the 18 wheelers downs there, filled with ice, filled with supplies. You park them in one place that’s accessible to the rest of community. They drive those out, they just have a transportation system that’s highway-based, as much as possible. And you have a plan that you can just replicate when Houston is hit, a couple of months ago.

Lessons Learned

Thor: But now here you are in a situation where it’s not highways, it’s obviously gotta be airlifted in, and runways were destroyed and who knows what’s available. And so you have a lot of unknown unknowns to figure out, very quickly. So it’s a lot of pain points to address. Not the least of which is the fact that you first taking stock of the situation and making sure that the people are able to survive. And then working towards a sense of normalcy after that. So, as you look at the approach that the military took, I think a lot of our listeners would be interested to hear, with a big bureaucracy that’s responding to devastation and a big massive effort like this, what was the biggest take away you had from a positive perspective? What’s a lesson learned that they can apply to their teams when they need to respond very quickly.

OH: Okay. We had a lot of lessons learned in this situation. But one of the important things to kinda set that up is to understand that, the people that you saw, the military folks that you saw in Virgin Islands, in Puerto Rico, that was National Guard members. And there’s a difference between National Guard Members and Active Duty military. So I think I have written a couple articles on the difference between the two. But essentially, the National Guard, each state has a guard unit and they have a state mission and then they have a federal mission. So in times of emergencies and national disasters, the Governor of each state can activate their guard unit. Let’s say it’s Tennessee and say, “Hey, Tennessee we’re gonna go help the Virgin Islands.” Or, “Tennessee, we’re gonna go help Louisiana.”

OH: So essentially, all of the National Guard units, they pushed down to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to assist. So it made it a little more complicated as all of these states started pushing to the one island. We were getting requests from the host islands, Puerto Rico, who they have their own National Guard. Virgin Islands, they have their own National Guard. They sent out a flag and said, “Hey, we need help. We got hit by a hurricane. Please send X, Y and Z.” And because they knew they needed things flown in, some of the requests were more specific to a title. “We need pilots to come in and help with coordinating air lift.” One of the lessons learned was instead of asking for a specific, maybe person, was to more specifically ask for a capability. So, “Hey, we need this to be moved. You guys figure out who you send, but we need this capability to come to the island.” That would have really changed, I think, the dynamic of the team that I was sent on or that some of us arrived with.

Thor: Yeah. And to fill the listeners in on some of the details that Hoop is alluding to here. So he lands on his island. They ask for a pilot and he gets there, and the Army basically says what to you, that’s already there?

OH: Oh, thank God, the Air Force is here. So the Air Force is here…

Thor: It’s a common phrase we hear. [laughter]

OH: You guys figure out how are we gonna get all these people, supplies, airplanes in and off the island. And there’s only a few of us in Air Force flight suits that were there, and we’re like, that’s not really what we do. We fly the planes. So we had to figure out very quickly how to figure out the logistics of getting things on planes, getting them off planes, dispersing them. So one of the things that I did was I pivoted quickly to a different role, and I went down to the airport where the guys were loading the airplanes, and I went and found the highest enlisted member and a chief master sergeant. I told him what capability I needed to plan, and he helped me pick a team from his team that could fill that capability. So where I was one pilot in the planning cell, I ended up having a team of five, including myself. So a total of six of us in the planning cell that actually planned some of these air lifts between the different islands and back home in the mainland.

Thor: So you’re coordinating to have all these things shipped to you guys via airplanes and get the resources that you need on the ground. And it’s important to know that when you say a pilot showed up, the Army says, “Thank goodness the Air Force is here,” is because they assumed, “Oh, this pilot’s gonna figure out how to coordinate airlift.” We are good at picking the plane and getting in the plane and flying it once it’s loaded, but we have nothing to do with the airlift portion of it or coordinating that. Then this is a great take away for the business teams we work in as well, because when we support missions for corporate teams, when we get to the debrief, where we look backwards and we figure out what worked and what didn’t, the number one debriefing comment is the following:

Thor: “We didn’t bring the right people into the original planning session.” In other words, we had some key stakeholders that weren’t identified, some key functional responsibilities that weren’t accounted for in the planning session, and I can’t tell you how much that slows down teams. And the largest, the single largest take away we get from these debriefs is to spend a little bit up front time figuring out who are gonna be the key stakeholders. I’d rather have more in the room during the planning stages than I actually need in terms of functional representation so that we can have that level of responsibility and accountability baked into the plan, because it is hard. They’re lucky to have had somebody that was intuitive and innovative like you to step up and say, “Hey, I’m just a pilot. I can’t coordinate this air lift, but I’ll go find somebody who will be able to.”

OH: That’s right. And I’ll tell you, it’s not the Air Force or Army’s fault or the Navy’s fault, because the Army has a specific language that they use when they’re working with domestic operations, ’cause they’re typically the lead. When a flood hits, let’s say Georgia, the Army kind of takes a lead with domestic operations and then the Air Force comes in and fills the gaps. Same as the Navy. So the Army was taking the lead and they were using language that was specific or central to Army. And so they sent out what’s called an RFA, a Request for Assistance. Well, the Air Force doesn’t necessarily speak RFA language, so they weren’t even looking for RFAs. So we had to, once we figured that out that they were sending it in French and we speak Spanish, we had to come up with a common language to actually go out and have my folks that were there in the Virgin Islands talking Army to translate it to Air Force.

Thor: Yeah, and this is once again, another really important point for corporate teams. We’ll very, very often be asked to come in and support two teams speaking different languages and it’s as innocuous that the Army and the Navy speaking different languages. It’s marketing and sales speaking a different language. It’s operations speaking a different language. And what it comes down to is not having a common mental model. A common mental model lends itself to having itself a common vocabulary. But the way you create that common mental model is you align on what success looks like as a team and you build the plan collaboratively together. So when you do find your key stakeholders and your functional representation that needs to be in the room for the planning stages, get them together, put a little bit of extra effort into the planning portion of it so that you don’t have to go backwards and slow down your progress when you determine that you were missing somebody in that equation.

Thor: So that’s a good debrief point to discuss from a lesson learned in a negative perspective, something the military could’ve done better as they’re leading this relief effort. Talk to me about what’s the best takeaway? What’s something that you think all corporations could learn from in terms of the positive that came out of this?

Identify What Success Looks Like

OH: Let’s see. I think for us, we had, we determined what does success look like very early on. And it was actually right in the middle of my time there. I was there for 30 days. About two weeks in, we realized that one of the keys to success in bringing the island back to life and having them sustain their own survival, was opening the airport, opening the civilian airport. So we pivoted and really focused, after about a week or two of getting the airport open and turning it back over to civilian authority. Because when we are able to do that now, the commercial airlines can fly in folks that had evacuated before. Those folks that had left their homes, they could come in, do a battle damage assessment, if you will, of their homes, what did they need. Other airlines could fly in supplies, help us fly in supplies, generators, to bring back electricity to the airport. Or to their homes.

OH: So that was something we focused a lot of our energy on early on, to get the airport open. And we were able to successfully open the airport about two weeks into my time there. But it was the collective effort of everyone down at the airport, all the folks working together to get that airport open. And once that happened, then we were able to really put the folks back in, Virgin Islands back into play and get them operating the airport independently of military assistance.

Thor: There’s a really important takeaway there, that you had a clear definition of what success looked like for your team in somewhat long term. So a month into this, you said, “Success is that airport open, a sense of normalcy brought back here where people can come back into the island, leave the island if they need to via these airplanes, and that’s our line in the sand that says what success looks like.” But you weren’t only working towards that, and this is another important point, too. Tell me what the day to day option, what’s taking place, you’re saying hacking through the jungles with a machete. How’s that eating up your time?

OH: Right. What we realized was the mission objective for my team, specifically my team which was the planning cell, was to get that airport open. And that was something we focused on. But tactically, the folks that were on the ground, the day to day, they were focused on getting the PODs, what we call PODs, points of distribution, to the right places in order to get the supplies that we would have flown into the people that needed it. And there was a problem that they encountered early on, is that these PODs that had all this water and food and shelter, we would bring them to a specific neighborhood, but the neighborhood wouldn’t hear that we were there. And so it wasn’t being communicated. And they had to figure out a fast way to get the customer, to really communicate to the customer, that they were there. And they came up with a pretty creative way to do that.

Thor: So you have misalignment challenges galore, because now you’re dealing with the mainland, you’re dealing with multiple islands, trying to communicate with whatever little communication tools that you have. You’re trying to put your PODs, your points of distribution, with these resources, with water and food and shelter items, in the places where people can access them. How do you communicate in that type of environment? And tell our corporate teams who deal with remotely as first teams all the time, how do you have still maintain effective communication and adapt and iterate and stay agile.

Effective Communication

OH: They may not like hearing this, but because we knew that survival was critical, we had to increase our communication rhythm. And what we ended up doing once we got phone lines up, email up, we started having synchronization calls. We ended up doing four of them a day. So we would have them once in the morning, at noon, at 4:00, and then at night, at around 9:00 PM at night before we went to bed. We always had one person leading that, and then we had a representative from each island chime in, give a quick one-minute battle damage assessment, or what has happened so far throughout the day. Everyone would listen to that information, and then if they had added input they would need, or they felt was of value to the team, they would add it in at that point, and then if it needed to pontificate or talk offline, they would do so afterwards. But it was only 20 to 30 minutes of conversation. It would keep all of us on speed and all in line. And then what we found was, the more we did it, the more efficient we got at it, and we were able to start to shift resources way faster and really become more agile, as my time went on.

Thor: And this is a really important concept because, and he said, “You might not like this because you’re adding an additional meeting to your day,” and we know that. We hate meetings, too. And the challenge is you have to have enough touchpoints where you can communicate updates to the plan, updates to the environment, so that you can adapt and react and stay agile, but as few meetings and as few of those update points as possible so that you can get busy about the execution piece. And if you listen to the things that Hoop said there, 20 to 30 minutes for all these people. Five different remotely-dispersed locations. They’re in Washington DC, they’re in Georgia, they’re in each of these islands. And you’re talking on the same web conference. You’re getting a minute to talk each. You’re giving out the key information, what’s changed since our last conversation? What new needs do you have? The leader makes a decision and tells you what direction they’re gonna go, and they don’t pontificate on it. They don’t debate on it. They move, because they have a sense of urgency and bias towards action knowing that they won’t get every decision right, but they will revisit and stay agile as they continue to progress towards the next call.

Thor: And then if they do need something discussed at a little bit longer length than a minute, well, then we take that offline. So when you’re dealing with your teams, we do the same thing when we support corporate teams. They’re called x-gap meetings: Execution gap meetings. We identify where are the execution gaps? How do we stay aligned as a team to keep moving forward and adjust the plan via the leader’s input, to keep marching towards that mission objective? It’s a critical piece, it’s the cadence, it’s the heartbeat of execution that you have to establish with your teams. Well, fantastic shares, Hoop, on all this. What a tragedy unfolding in front of you. Contaminated water, lack of food, lack of supplies, a people, a population that was happy to see you and upbeat. But they were upbeat and happy to see you and were able to keep their positive attitudes, I’m sure, no doubt, due to the fact that you and your teams were so effective at providing them the resources they needed, in an extremely short period of time.

Thor: Think about how bureaucratic the military and government is to our listeners. And I know a lot of you think, well, my team’s under the weight of bureaucracy and all the challenges we’ve had. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve watched the government in action. But you still have groups and teams who are able to operate in that same environment, stay elite, stay agile, stay effective. Not only did they open up this runway on time, but on a day to day basis, they were able to operate with their triage mentality of finding the neighborhoods that needed help, opening up these places of distribution to give out resources. They met short-term goals with clear, long-term mission objectives defined and met as well. I’ll give you the last word on anything else in your experience, Hoop.

OH: Yeah, I’ll tell you. Learning, or coming in four days after that second Cat 5 hurricane hit was… Just seeing it all was really shocking to the system. You never see anything like that. I didn’t have to go through the experience but seeing it was an experience enough. And I just felt really fortunate to be able to help in a small way. But what was great was, as my time was starting to come to a close, I was about a week out from my 30 days. I was able to reach back to my unit, back in DC, and some of the other guard units and find the right person to replace me based on what I learned. We already had built the team and now I knew that person would have a new mission objective. Now his mission objective wasn’t to open the airplane or open up the airfield. It was going to be something completely else which would now define his success. So I was able to find the right guy to come in and replace me, to do something completely different. And I think that’s the beauty of accelerated learning and having a standard model to work around, which will define success.

Thor: I love that. That’s a great last thought because you’re once again reinforcing that it’s about having a common mental model with your team. So it doesn’t just rely on one hero to beat their chest and show up and save the day. Because you can’t remove that hero from the system and still have success on the other side of it. You guys created a system with clearly defined metrics for success, with clearly defined rules of operation, with communication. And because of that system you created, you were able to remove yourself, and the system still functioned effectively. That is the single best sign of a leader that I can think of, when you can take yourself out of the equation, and the system you created still operates almost as effectively or as effectively as it did with you. Thanks again, Hoop, for your time. Fantastic talking with you. I had a blast with you in Panama last week. Looking forward to being in Silicon Valley with you this week.

OH: Absolutely. See you there.