The US Navy submarine force spends much of its time planning, training, and practicing for a wide variety of scenarios. Operating a giant, complex, steel tube under water for weeks and months at a time is similar to operating in space. The external environment is unforgiving, and a single equipment failure or error in judgement can be catastrophic. Utilizing some real world scenarios, here are three frameworks for crisis management based on my experience as Officer on Deck on the fast attack submarine, the USS Jacksonville.

Respond Quickly: “Jam Dive!

Jam Dive!” comes the announcement over the 1MC (a sub’s public address system.) 

A “Jam dive” was a very scary emergency. It was caused when the stern planes — the controls that change the angle of the boat — jammed in a down position forcing the sub towards the bottom of the ocean. When traveling at high speed, a submarine could quickly fall below crush depth in a matter of minutes.

COVID-19 feels like we have just been put in a “Jam Dive.” Restaurants and schools are closed, colleges are all remote, my daughter’s foreign exchange program was cut four months short, and my favorite Irish Pub just posted a GoFundMe page for its employees asking for donations. The ripples are only just now being felt by all of us.

In a Jam Dive situation, immediate and rapid response is required to ensure a safe recovery. While the details of submarine operations are generally classified, let’s just say that the response to a Jam Dive is immediate and drastic. There is no time to debate the options, and once the decision is made, you are fully committed to the outcome

Faced with a Jam Dive situation, how do you typically react?

  • Do you respond quickly or wait to see what happens?
  • Do you feel as if there is more or less risk in responding quickly?
  • Do you consistently want more information before making a decision?

Consider the risks associated with either fast or slow decision making. Some possible scenarios are:

  • You respond quickly, and it was the right decision
    • Excellent – problem solved
  • You respond quickly, and it was the wrong decision
    • Lesson learned. Fail fast, pivot and try again in the next sprint
  • You respond slowly, and things get worse
    • Now you’re in damage control trying to minimize the consequences
  • You respond slowly, and nothing bad happens
    • It wasn’t a problem in the first place

So how does this apply to Scrum?

  • Sometimes decisions must be made quickly. If required, don’t be afraid to make a decision quickly. Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis.
  • If you make a wrong decision, learn from it, and fix it in the next Sprint.
  • Develop a plan before you need it. Build out your backlog, plan your releases, but be prepared to make changes when necessary.

Proper Preparation: “Rig for Red!

Chief of the Watch, Rig for Red!”

That was the order I used to give when we would prepare to bring the ship to periscope depth at night. Periscope depth is when the sub is submerged to a depth equal to the length of the periscope. We needed to get prepared so that when we poked our periscope up from below the surface, our eyes would already be adjusted to the darkness, ready to observe and eventually react to whatever might be happening on the surface.

After “Rig for Red” came the order “Rig for Black!” This signaled it was time to actually come to periscope depth. It was the final step before surfacing. The only remaining light in the Control Room came from the various control dials and switches. 

These preparations were absolutely necessary because coming to periscope depth is one of the most dangerous maneuvers a submarine performs — you are never 100% certain that it’s all clear above.

These preparatory steps on the submarine came to mind as I considered the world’s response to this generation’s first global pandemic. The impact of this virus will die down, and we will return to some sort of normal. What we will see on the “surface” when the pandemic is over is a mystery, but here are some thoughts about how to get ready — how you can “Rig for Red.”

  • How does your work align to the mission and vision of your company? This is a time to check your roadmap and backlog for what is truly aligned to your company’s mandate. Get rid of items that you could afford to do a month ago but now can’t.
  • Have the goals changed? If so, how? And how does your work align to it? Do you have new goals, KPIs? How do you verify them?
  • What might you see when you surface from this pandemic? How might the future be different? Look ahead to what kind of future scenarios could play out and what preparations need to be made in anticipation. 
  • Are you keeping in touch with your customers? Ask them how they are doing and offer them help if needed.
  • Are you trying to keep things moving along? For example, have you switched to virtual meetings and have you begun shifting your Program Increment planning to virtual interactions?  

This pandemic has been sudden, and the end of the current situation may be just as sudden. Now is the time to create plans that allow for either remote or in person work and adjust as needed when the crisis is over. 

Break the Monotony: Pizza for Midrats

Saturday night and it’s “Pizza for Midrats.”   

Let me translate. You’re on a submarine, and it’s Saturday night. With a six hour watch rotation, food is served every six hours, and the meal at 2300 (11:00 pm) is called midrats. Saturday is pizza night, hence, “Pizza for Midrats.”

Why was pizza for midrats such a big hit? Food on a submarine is one way to break up the monotony. As an officer, I ate in the Wardroom, and pizza night was the one night of the week we could break out one bottle of non-alcoholic beer and have beer and pizza just like at home. We also didn’t run drills on Sunday mornings, so you could be generally assured not to be awoken early the next day by some sort of alarm.

While we worked an 18 hour day on a submarine, Scrum Teams are typically working on two week sprints. Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, Retrospective… rinse, lather, repeat. Scrum Teams still need to break the monotony. So consider: 

  • How is your Scrum Team keeping things fun?
  • How do you break up the monotony of the Daily Scrum event?
  • What are you doing to bring surprise and delight to your Scrum Team?

Some suggestions for how to break the monotony on your teams:

  • Have a different person start the Daily Scrum each day. 
  • Choose a different framework for your Retrospectives, not just “what went well, what didn’t, and what can we improve.”
  • End your Daily Scrum with a Fact of the Day, Moment in History, or a joke.
  • Don’t sit or stand in the same place every day, or use a different virtual background, or wear a different hat each day when meeting online. This is especially true for the retrospective. Sitting on the opposite side of a team room offers a different mental perspective.

In Conclusion…

Sometimes decisions must be made quickly in Jam Dive situations. Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis, and if you do make a wrong decision, learn from it and fix it in the next Sprint. Rig for Red shows us the value of becoming, and staying, prepared for what’s coming, even when what’s coming is uncertain. Lastly, pizza for midrats reminds us that we’ve got to break up the monotony to keep sharp.  

If we can use these frameworks to navigate situations in our daily work with Scrum Teams, we can, and will, get through the present crisis posed by Covid-19, and future crises that surely will challenge us. 

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