Former US Top Gun fighter pilots tell IT directors: 'the answers are found within'

IT Directors' forum: Keynote speakers tell delegates to "push the envelope" to get results

Delegates at this year's IT Directors' Forum have been urged to apply principles developed at the Top Gun fighter pilot academy in the US to their IT departments.

The eight transferable principles outlined by speaker and Top Gun school graduate Gerry Gallop in the keynote speech included awareness of the value of training; using debriefs to help to avoid repeating mistakes; relentless preparation; creativity; "a disdain for mediocrity" and the need to get "total buy-in to excellence" from staff.

"The principles apply very closely to business - the parallels are very tight," said Gallop, who pointed to the similarities between the two environments.

Both IT directors and fighter pilots experience considerable pressure, high levels of risk and have low margins of error. Both environments are "highly complex and unpredictable" with a "full spectrum of competition" and the ultimate aim is also the same: to survive to fight another day, said Gallop.

To do this IT directors should not be afraid to think outside of the box or, to use fighter pilot terminology, "push the envelope".

However, they should always be prepared to go back to basics if something does not work: "back inside the envelope, the place where you know success is likely," added fellow speaker Mark Dahl, who was Gallop's Top Gun co-pilot.

According to Dahl, a key area where business falls down is in the briefing and debriefing surrounding IT projects. "It is a critical step. It is very simple but has a big impact on the business. Business does a very poor job of learning from its mistakes.

"Great debriefers become great briefers, who become great performers," he said.

Another key area is training. Gallop said companies should aim to use their own expertise where possible instead of looking elsewhere. "Training is a key factor and will fix most of your problems in your organisation if you do it right. It's the lynchpin for success," he said. "The answers are found within."

The speakers also stressed the need to get staff to identify with the needs of the group over the individual, as in the military.

Other similarities, said Dahl, between the IT department and the Top Gun academy are:

  • Both need to fight to defend their budgets, and
  • Are effectively small groups impacting on larger ones.

However, while most delegates found the presentation interesting not many were convinced.

"A lot of it is hot air and a lot of it is common sense," said Darren Sloan, systems and technical manager at Manor bakeries. "Saying it and doing it are two different things. It is interesting but the practicalities of making it work - that's a different thing."

Mark Lichtenhein, director of IT and new media at the PGA European Tour Group of companies, said, "There were a lot of interesting principles but the challenge is how do you take a lot of military ideas and instil them in a corporate environment.

"The briefing and debriefing stuff sounds very good. We are not very good at making use of our meetings, but we don't often have the luxury of the time. I work in a business where we have movable deadlines every week."

Another key difference is motivation. "People aren't about to die if they make a mistake," said Lichtenhein.

As a result they do not push the envelope enough and avoid creativity and taking risks. "IT people do tend to sit in the comfort zone," he said. "It all comes down to people."

The eight Top Gun principles you should apply       

Collect the expertise  

Identify "the best and the brightest" people internally with the attributes you need 

Commit to the core belief 

IT directors should aim to get "total buy-in to excellence" from staff, to instil belief in rewards beyond money and create identifiable core beliefs  

Train 

Training is a key factor and will fix most of problems. Start by teaching the teachers and aim to identify people with a special spark and a quest for excellence  

Unwavering professionalism  

To achieve this, organisations should create a tangible representation of their corporate ideals - this will also help define the organisation's brand and help to attract new staff  

Relentless preparation  

"You need a disdain for mediocrity," said Gerry Gallop. IT departments should also make training applicable and realistic so staff are prepared "for when the bullets start flying". The need to pre-plan threat responses to be prepared is true in combat and business  

Briefing and debriefing  

These are critical steps and this is where business often falls down, according to the speakers, who urged IT leaders to take more time on these areas to help to avoid repeating mistakes  

Standardisation  

Putting in place the standards you need, based on your internal expertise, creates a "springboard for creativity" and avoids duplication of effort, saving time and resources. But be careful what you standardise - sometimes there is more than one way of doing things  

Creativity  

Creativity is key quality for IT leaders. "Repeatable creativity creates new standards," said Mark Dahl. However, they should be wary of applying creativity for creativity's sake. "That can be as detrimental as productive," he said.

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