Technical and Non-Technical Capability: which lever are you reaching for?

With thanks to Paul Larkin today … 

If you’ve read the news recently, you may well have been struck by the tragic absurdity of TransAsia flight GE235, which crashed shortly after take off.

42 people died after Captain Liao Jian-Zong accidentally shut down the plane’s sole remaining engine after the other engine failed on take off – an occurrence common enough to be specifically trained and tested for at regular pilot certification. Black box records reveal the pilot’s last words to have been: ‘Wow. I pulled back the wrong side of the throttle’.

Contrast this with 2009’s flight US1549, where Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger successfully ditched a much larger aircraft in the Hudson River, with no loss of life.

Both pilots had extensive military experience and technical training in the skills to safely respond to the emergencies facing them – so what went wrong?

Let’s go back to basics. What is performance, and how does it come about? And what levers do we have available to improve performance?

At its simplest, performance is the product of an individual’s skills and behaviour; in an organisational context, it’s the aggregation of many individuals’ contributions to a common outcome. Let’s remember though that the outcomes produced are not always the goals sought.

In breaking this down further, it’s necessary to consider how individuals ‘perform’. Performance is the result of technical factors resourcing, trained skills and rule-based functions (the use of protocols, checklists and strategies) – and also non-technical/ human factors: individual mindset, traits and preferences.

These non-technical factors underpin the technical factors, much as the computer operating system underpins the applications installed on a device. Whereas the acquisition of technical skills can be a lifelong process, the non-technical or human factors are comparatively stable over time.

Whether recruiting, training, evaluating or intervening, leaders and consultants must carefully assess performance in light of both these sets of factors. It is common for less technically resourced groups to outperform their better resourced competition, just as ‘super teams’ selected on potential often fail to live up to expectation. Research conducted recently at MIT’s renowned Human Dynamics lab has shown that 50% of the observed variance between high performing and low performing teams can be attributed to non-technical factors. This statistic starkly illustrates why technical interventions often fail to deliver; it’s the non-technical factors that can lead to increasing staff turnover, absenteeism and conflict.

Each individual team member possesses their own operating system – predicting their strengths and motivational and communicational preferences, and therefore how distress will be shown. The leader who is able to observe, understand and authentically engage at a non-technical level is able to optimise the functioning of each individual, and the production of technical factors (skills) that result in performance.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has extensively researched this understanding of non-technical factors in order to deliver on the potential of ground and shuttle crew. After abandoning now discredited psychometrics such as Myers-Briggs (MBTi), NASA came to validate a body of science showing that non-technical factors are observable, measurable and predictable, which is to say: trainableDubbed the Process Communication Model, this suite of tools and theory allows non-technical/human factors to be understood and better managed quickly and effectively – a prerequisite to technical training.

Many industries are now training personnel to individualise communication and leadership in order to optimise performance. In Australia, the Colleges of Paediatricians, Surgeons and Anaesthetists accredit and use this training; it is also being used in education, law enforcement and sports.

In applying this knowledge to the tragic deaths of 43 people, it must be observed that flight 235’s captain had exhibited concerning deficits on both technical and non-technical assessments, yet only the technical failing was addressed, establishing a dynamic where an underlying root cause remained at best unaddressed, at worst left to deepen. Many organisations face similar risk when ‘change management’ is addressed on a technical level, or when non-technical factors are taught using technical rules instead of skills-based methods. It will not be surprising if the final GE235 incident report reveals a pilot whose mindset was unable to support remedial technical training, let alone performance in an emergency.  I expect too that those responsible for Captain Liao’s certification lacked the non-technical skills to engage in the necessary constructive conflict that would have prevented this tragedy.

If we, as leaders, managers and consultants are to effectively communicate, motivate and optimise performance, especially with the addition of costly technical utilities and processes, it is crucial to understand the role of non-technical factors and then ask ourselves: Which lever are we reaching for?

Next time: What role do non-technical factors play in organisational culture?

Get in touch if you are interested in learning more about Paul’s PCM practice, as well as understanding how this fits into a systems thinker’s world.

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June 3, 1965, Edward H. White II became the first American to step outside his spacecraft. (via NASA)

Today NASA is celebrating 50 years of space walks and has published this beautiful gallery of images – One reason we love Space so much here at Luna HQ is the sense of scale and perspective it provides.  Imagine how it must have felt for Edward White to float in space, outside the cramped confines of a Gemini capsule for the first time.


Apollo 15 lunar roving with Mount Hadley in the background.


Almost 20 years later on Feb 12, 1984, astronaut Bruce McCandless, ventured further away from the confines and safety of his ship than any previous astronaut had ever been using a nitrogen jet propelled backpack.

Now imagine being Bruce McCandleuss floating in space, untethered, further away from safety than any human in history looking down at the whole earth.  How do we dig ourselves out of the every day details and find this kinda of perspective for ourselves, for our projects and for our world ?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Einstein

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Hasten Slowly

“Hasten Slowly.”

Early in my life someone told me this, and I wish I could remember who – I’ve always been naturally impatient. When we teach people who want to mountain bike fast we give them a  similar paradox: “Slow down, slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. You get faster by first learning to go slow.

This week the Luna HQ has been rather enraptured by the ESA Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Seeing live images (well only delayed by 28 mins; speed of light reality) of Philae detaching and then eventually landing with a couple of bounces on a comet 500,000,000km away from Earth is genuinely remarkable. Sending back images, taking samples and drilling on a comet! It was hard not to feel some emotion when the little guy’s batteries ran out last night.


A few glorious days of science experiments which took over 20 years to prepare for. The mission had been discussed since the late 70s and was formally kicked off in 1993; 11 years later it lauched in 2004. One of the great joys for me watching the footage was seeing a number of old men sitting the background at the ESA watching the separation and landing live just like us. I like to think they made or designed parts perhaps some 20 years earlier and were finally seeing the fruits of their labour. Many great and hard problems are like this – contributions from many people, often world class in their own particular field, building up to remarkable achievements as a whole.


Big problems, worthwhile problems, take teams, and they take time. Perhaps one person can climb Mt Everest alone, but I know that one person can’t get to the moon alone. How does this fit into our contemporary world driven by instant gratification, tweets, likes and ever shorter product lifecycles? The irony is not lost on me that I was able to follow a range of real time comentary from the ESA, NASA, Rosetta and Philae directly via Twitter, an application only created in 2006 – a few years after the mission had launched.


In our Agile and Lean environments we are obsessed about shorter and shorter iterations. How can we deliver customer value sooner? When will we see business value? … Sometimes I fear that in our efforts to build customer-centric and responsive orgnisations we limit our horizons and constrain our thinking to problems we can imagine solving in a few short iterations. Yes Rosetta was based on all the things we have learned from other missions, it reused a standard launch platform and so on, and yet it’s still a 20 year bet to see if it worked or not.

Sidney_Hall_-_Urania's_Mirror_-_Lacerta,_Cygnus,_Lyra,_Vulpecula_and_Anser In 1610, in a letter to Galileo, Johannes Kepler said:

“Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies – I shall do it for the moon, you, Galileo, for Jupiter.”

Sometimes the most important work we can do is to be like Kepler and Galileo, preparing for future adventurers, creating maps and signposts. Building the right environment, systems and leadership to allow other greatness in the future.

Even in Luna Tractor’s short 4-year life we are already seeing this pattern emerge. Often we work with organisations right at the start of change and it can feel pretty hard. Always slower than we’d like… and yet we look back at these same places years on and marvel at how far and how fast they have traveled.

Hasten Slowly.

(images via ESA and Randal (xkcd))

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The Luna MBA 2014 Update

Two topics remain consistently popular on our little LT site… Agile Workplaces and the Luna MBA.  Just as we encourage all our clients and friends to keep reading and learning so we do ourselves and so we present some new reccomended additions to the MBA… If you’ve finished the current list then consider this extra credit for your degree.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure – Tim Hardford

A remarkable, if slightly repetitive set of stories showing us the unpredictable path to true innovation. He starts with the story of Palchinsky at the turn of the 20th century who may have just invented Agile approaches analysing the Russian ecconomy even before the ship building yards of the first world war; Of course he was exiled to Siberia for his efforts. He also explores our aversion to variation and experimentation – the tendency for governments and corporate bosses to love large and grandiose projects instead. As Hardford points out the proliferation of iPhone and Android apps has hidden the uncomfortable truth which is innovation is harder, slower and costlier than ever before. All the easy problems have already been solved. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book to inspire you to buy and read it.

‘Return on investment is simply not a useful way of thinking about new ideas and new technologies. It is impossible to estimate a percentage return on blue-sky research, and it is delusional even to try. Most new technologies fail completely. Most original ideas turnout either to be not original after all, or original for the very good reason that they are useless. And when a original idea does work, the returns can be too high to be sensibly measured.’

Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age – Michael A Hiltzik

UnknownI recently wrote about one story from this book, but there is so much more there. It is quite hard to imagine a world without so many of the things invented at the PARC labs. So often we talk about wanting innovation in our organisation, but I think without really appreciating the investment, genius and insanity it really takes. Don’t even talk about building an innovation lab in your organisation until you’ve read and appreciated these stories. Personally my pick of this list – but I’m a nerd at heart.

The Essential Deming: Leadership Principles from the Father of Quality

Deming like Fredrick Taylor was obsessed with measurement and statistics, but also the more human side of leadership. He wrote hundreds of articles, gave speeches and wrote many books over his life – often repeating himself or retelling the same experiences different ways. This book brings together and rationalises a life time of work by probably the most significant thinker in our field to one book which is quite readable, though insulting if you run a transitional command and control system of work.

Kaizen Express: Fundamentals for Your Lean JourneyUnknown-1

So Jeff Liker wrote about the 14 management principles from Toyota in the Toyota Way (a book we have previously recommended) – It is excellent, but to be honest hard to read and hard to digest at times. Then Nigel and I had the chance to read a TPS manual from the source – A beautiful and small book – Japanese on one page, english on the next. It distills the system down into a much simpler 4 themes – unfortunately money can’t buy you a copy of this once mythical book. John Shook has now written the Kaizen Express – a guide to understanding the TPS, which both bears a strong resemblance to the real TPS manual as well as providing a bit more context and explanation rather than being a reference manual for those already deeply immersed in the system day to day.

Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems, Gain Agreement, Mentor and Lead

John Shook backs it up with a double billing in this update. Imagine for a moment you didn’t want to or can’t actually embrace the fundamentals of Agile and Lean at a philosophical level for your project or organisation but still wanted things to be less awful, there are a bunch of techniques which can really help any group. Visual management, stand ups and retrospectives will help the most waterfall of projects. In the same boat using A3’s as your method of reporting or business case process rather than 400 slide powerpoint decks or heavy documents which nobody reads anyway is a great improvement for any organisation. Of course they have extra potency in an adaptive and learning culture. Great book, practical examples, even some nice folded up cheat sheets in the back… There is even an awesome cheat guide for the iPhone – but we will only tell you about that once you’ve read the book first.

How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know – Byron Sharp

coverBeing scientists at heart we loved this book.  Sharp questions the basic assumptions and wisdom which has been driving your marketing department’s strategy for decades, putting it under the lens of data and experimentation rather than following conventional best practice from text books, HBR articles and folk law.  Assumptions like customer retention being cheaper than acquisition, our consumers being a distinct (and special) kind of person and mass marketing being dead all don’t hold up to scrutiny.  I’m not sure yet how some of the lessons in the book apply to small companies or very niche markets; but if you are in business in any large segment then this book is a must read for everyone in marketing, product and strategy.

Forty Years of Teams: Tim Lister

Ok, ok – So it’s not a book – I tweeted a link to this video of Tim Lister (author of PeopleWare) and it’s really not one to miss.  It’s wonderful, humbling and inspiring all at once.

As always our personal book WIP queues are too long, but please do keep telling us what you’re reading and what we need to read too.




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Evolution of the Spacesuit

Lest you our loyal readers think things have gotten too serious here at Luna HQ with a lack of amazing space related content here’s a snippet of beautiful series of images showing the evolution of the space suit via






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Weddings, Parties and Agile!

Do you think Agile is just an IT thing? Well you’d be surprised!  

It’s the 24th February 2013, and my girlfriend and I just got engaged.

I’m sure many couples planning a wedding can relate to the
“OMG moments” when realising that they have agreed to get married, but also agreed to plan this once-in-a-lifetime event, where everything will be beautiful and run more smoothly than a precision racing team.

Having run many projects and led large teams across multiple timezones – I seem less than puzzled by the thought of arranging everything. After all it’s just another project isn’t it? Wrong! At least that’s what my fiancé reminded me :)

I’ve spent the past 12 months myself on an Agile journey, learning the ways of visual management, lean and flow. With much gusto I pulled together a Trello board. I was excited, but not sure that my fiancé shared in my enthusiasm. None-the-less we pushed on and started to plan our wedding.

Wedding Trello Board

Our MVP?

This was the fun bit – we really didn’t know exactly all the details of the wedding, but what we did know was our brief : “A modern, low-fuss affair with a mix of tradition and an opportunity to party with our families and friends”. What did this mean in specifics? We had no idea.

After numerous coffee chats we managed to pull together a list of Must have’s and Nice to haves –


  • Great ceremony venue
  • Great reception venue
  • Good food and drinks
  • Small bridal party
  • Melbourne CBD locations
  • Photographer
  • Great band
  • Celebrant
  • 100 guests
  • Stick within our budget
  • Our mate Dan as MC
  • A civil celebrant
  • Speeches
  • Modern and simple
  • All our guests to have great time


  • Wedding cake
  • Wedding cars
  • Throwing of garter or bouquet
  • Bonboniere
  • Seating plans
  • Videographer

Our Must Haves did change over time, but never too dramatically. Our budget and desire to keep the wedding modern and simple meant when we wanted to add something to the Must Haves list we really challenged ourselves. Will it really make the wedding better or us happier? In most cases we canned the idea – and were happy that we did.

Added Value

I love it when teams come up with something extra in a sprint. Something you deemed as Nice To Have is picked up and delivered. We had a couple of moments like this, my nephew offered to take some video footage with his fancy new digital SLR and friends of ours offering up the use of their shiny new Audi to get my fiancé and her father to the ceremony on time. These were little hidden surprises that made our wedding that little bit extra special.

Trade off Sliders

When I was writing this post I thought about what levers we pulled when trying to make decisions. We hadn’t actually put in place a set of trade off sliders, but subconsciously we did – there were 4 key attributes that regularly came up in conversation:

  • Budget: Least Negotiable
  • Guests numbers: Somewhat Negotiable
  • Date: Somewhat Negotiable
  • Location: Least Negotiable

The Customer and Product Owner?

Every Agile team has a Product Owner and an identified Customer – in our case my fiancé and I were both. Quite a unique position to be in as at the end of the day we are prioritising and making decisions to keep ourselves happy.

Our rhythm?

After a couple of ad hoc “wedding chats” early on, my fiancé and I soon realised that we need to lock in every Sunday night after dinner to review our plan, check in on the design of our wedding and then replan for the week ahead.


We did our retro, informally, on the flight to our honeymoon destination. We asked ourselves one question – “Did we have any regrets on our wedding day?” –  we both said “No” – we both got the wedding we  anted.

Very happy newlyeds.

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Self-Selecting teams – tales from WW2 Lancaster bomber crews

ePredix Office, Minneapolis, MN in 2001

ePredix Office, Minneapolis, MN in 2001

Back in the day, when I worked in the USA in a fascinating startup (then called ePredix, who were rolled into Previsor and are now part of SHL), I was regularly set on my chuff by one of our amazing technical advisory board members for thinking that anything at all under our digital sun was NEW, or that any of our 21st century science of Industrial-Organisational Psychology (in simple terms, big data about people, for hiring and development) could be viewed as a sure thing.

Our tech advisory board had every right to proffer those kind of opinions to a young economist whippersnapper, as between them they had invented several of the things the science was founded on!

The tools we were building at ePredix were online selection tests, delivered in short form on the web. We had patented ways (don’t get me started on patents by the way…) of serving up a couple of dozen multi-choice questions and then stack-ranking the applicants in their suitability in the role. Bloody clever, big data, but a PhD required to do the maths.

Lancaster crew WW2

One of my most memorable moments was at dinner one night when one advisory board member quietly advised me “you know, it’s all baloney really, you might as well just let teams self-select – they’ll be just as successful”. He went on to tell me of the Lancaster bomber crews of the RAF in the early 1940s, where after short training periods, Bomber Command were stuck with terrible problem of selecting the crews.

Their creative solution? Jam them all (several different flying disciplines, from multiple countries around the world) in a hangar or mess hall, and tell them they had 10 minutes to join a crew.

The result was some of the bravest, effective, well put-together teams in the history of the war. That said, the odds were against them surviving as a team – at the final tally, half the 125,000 young men had been killed or wounded in action, and nearly 10,000 became POWs. The crews had a fair idea of what they were in for – in some cases, 25% of intakes were killed in training.

With a lot of discussion at present about team self-selection in the agile world, it occurred to me the Lancaster bomber story was worth looking into again. Here’s Sandy Mamoli’s recent blog post on squadification at Trademe in New Zealand for example.

Lancaster by Leo McKinstry 2009I found this book by Leo McKinstry from 2009. Here’s the key quote that validates what I heard way back in 2001:

“Once all the initial course had been finally completed, the recruits were sent to an Operational Training Unit, where they began their real preparation for bomber combat. It was at the OTUs that the individual trainees formed themselves into crews for the first time. After all the formality of the previous selection procedures and examinations, the nature of ‘crewing up’ seemed strangely haphazard, even anarchic.

“There was no involvement from the senior commanders, no direction, no regimentation. Instead, the trainees were all taken to a large hangar or mess room, and just told to choose their colleagues to make up the 5 man crew: pilot, bomb-aimer, gunner, wireless operator and navigator. The engineer, who had to undergo specialised training, and the second gunner, would join at a later stage. Without any guidance or rules, the trainees had to rely entirely on their own gut instincts in selecting which group to join.”

Location 4295 of 12152 in Leo McKinstry, Lancaster, 2009 (Kindle Edition).

The book goes on to discuss the kind of people who made up the trainee group of Bomber Command – aged between 17 and 27, self-selected into the jobs (not conscripted), intelligent, inwardly motivated, with broad-based educations.

“They did not need leaders or formal structures” concluded Frank Musgrove in 2005 (Dresden and the Heavy Bombers).

This story sounds a lot like the thinking at Zappos at the moment around Holacracy, and other innovative organisations like Valve and Spotify.

As someone deeply involved in my own day job experimenting with REA-Group’s organisation with new ideas that change traditional leadership roles and formal reporting structures, I’m excited to find these kind of references. I see similar patterns in the world of rock bands and music – but that’s another blog post!

Let me be the first to concede that RAF Bomber Command is a horrific story, for both the crews and the millions of civilians who bore the brunt of this brutal military strategy on both sides of the war. But the extreme nature of the situation called for unusual methods to be applied – we should not ignore them today as we find old ways of running things coming up short and wasting time and money.

And as a grandson of a UK war veteran, I offer a moment of thanks for their sacrifice.

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