Extreme Teamwork: Solving the Coordination Problem at 400 Miles Per Hour


The Canadian Snowbirds Demonstration Team has been thrilling audiences at high-performance air shows across North America since 1978.  A branch of the Canadian Air Force, one would think such a group would be rigidly hierarchical—but it’s not.  It’s really quite self-managed.

One of the joys of working with the Morning Star Self-Management Institute is scouring the world for examples of self-management in action.  Frequently, we find self-management in unlikely places.

One question that arises: how important is coordination (a.k.a. teamwork) in a self-managed environment?  The answer: it’s everything!  A core traditional management function, coordination (or the lack thereof) among team members can make or break an organization.  Self-management is unlike Peter Drucker’s famous metaphor of organization as conducted symphony.  To continue with the music metaphors, it’s much more like a cluster of jazz bands roaming around Bourbon Street.  The trick is not to direct them, but just to make sure that each band is relatively harmonious and doesn’t clash with all the other bands.

In an organization with multiple geographic locations, one can speculate about the myriad levels of coordination that have to occur: between locations, between functions, between businesses, and between domains like sales, strategy and human resources.  Pretty complex, right?  Now imagine an organization of self-managed professionals in an unlikely organization, creating scores of high-risk public performances for six months out of every year—where coordination is (and, tragically, has been) literally a matter of life or death.

A few quick facts about this Canadian icon, the Snowbirds Demonstration Team:

  • The Snowbirds (431 Air Demonstration Squadron) consist of approximately 88 people based in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, consisting mostly of mechanics and support staff.
  • The team includes 11 pilots, two of whom serve as ground controllers and nine of whom fly the nine Canadian-built Tutor jets.
  • The air show season lasts from May through October, taking the team throughout North America.
  • The jets are circa 1964, making them older than the pilots.
  • The team is somewhat low-tech, moving equipment around the continent in a semi truck and trailer.
  • The Snowbirds are eminently accessible: anyone can call up public affairs officer Captain Marc Velasco and seek information at any time.
  • The pilots fly in tight formations at up to 600 kph/400 mph, are incredibly athletic, and pull up to 6 G’s during performances.  The first female Snowbird pilot, Maryse Carmichael, is now the Commanding Officer.  There have been six fatalities over the years.  It’s not a job for the faint-hearted.
  • There is a two-foot-square box of vertical space above and below each Snowbird jet flying in formation.  Pilots cannot see above and below—they must trust their fellow pilots to avoid catastrophe.
  • Snowbird jets fly horizontally about six to eight feet apart, wingtip to wingtip.  This may seem like plenty of room, but not when they’re flying at four hundred miles per hour.
  • Pilots debrief after each show and each practice.  There is a lead pilot in the #1 plane, referred to as the “Boss.”  The Boss is not called the Boss because he or she gets to boss everyone else around.  The title carries with it enhanced decision rights and responsibilities, accepted by everyone (i.e. whether to fly in particular weather conditions, etc.).  Even a flock of geese flying in formation needs a lead bird to follow.  That is one function of the Boss—to be the #1 lead bird.
  • The team engages in six months of intensive preparation, and includes more than fifty different formations and maneuvers.
  • Finding new recruits is not a problem: being a Snowbird pilot is considered one of the most prestigious jobs in the Canadian Air Force.  Making the final selection cutdown is challenging, especially since there are so many talented pilots available.
  • Turnover is deliberate: the Snowbirds intentionally replace one-third of their nine pilots every year (how would that work in most organizations?).

Some critical success factors emerge from the Snowbirds preparation and execution:

  • There is an extremely high sense of mission focus.  The Snowbirds represent not only the Canadian Armed Forces, but the entire nation.  As  ambassadors for their country, they carry a sharp sense of responsibility to achieve excellence in every performance.
  • The pilots engage in highly effective time-compressed group visualization before every practice and performance.  The exercise allows them to imprint a vision of a perfect performance in their brains before executing it in real time—leading to continuous improvement.
  • Hierarchy melts on the road, since the Snowbird pilots live out of suitcases in hotels across North America for six months out of the year.  Yes, there are different military ranks among the pilots.  They become like a family, however, developing trust and camaraderie.
  • Trust is paramount: since pilots can’t see directly above or below their own planes, there is simply no way to perform without trust.
  • Feedback is a constant—visual, cockpit instruments, voice communication, etc.   And every practice and performance is videotaped and debriefed.  The Snowbirds are committed to a relentless pursuit of perfection.  They engage in unemotional, unvarnished critiques of themselves and each other—again contributing to continuous improvement.
  • The particular role played by each Snowbird pilot (i.e., piloting the #7 plane, for example) is conducted for each show according to a specific written plan for that show.  If a pilot has to break off a formation to avoid a flock of birds, for example, it’s referred to as a “missed contract.”  Each pilot has an overall mission (i.e., be the #7 pilot), and a mission for a particular practice or performance (i.e., perform X maneuvers in Y formations).  And all guided by an oath to the Canadian Armed Forces and the nation.  Before a pilot takes off for a performance, it’s pretty clear what his or her job is at that moment.

Check out the video at the link below, and turn on the sound, to see how self-managed professionals coordinate like their lives depend on it:





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