Introducing Flex – The Origins of Flex
Flex is Afterburner's label for a way of thinking and a framework for action. Though the term is not used in the military, its DNA stems from the disciplines and mindsets of special military teams: U.S. Navy SEALs, Australian SAS, U.S. Army Rangers and, of course, jet fighter pilots in Navy, Marine, and Air Force Squadrons.
These teams are geared to act as tight, effective units in hostile, complex, and dynamic environments, where the conseqence of their performance is…..obvious. All of these teams would recognize and use the principles outlined in the book On Time On Target, though they may have their own terms for them. These are the principles that we learned as fighter pilots, and they are common to all air forces. Any fighter pilot on the planet would recognize these principles and be able to work together using them. They are how fighter pilots think, act and make an impact. They are the techniques that deliver deep performance.
Flex in the U.S.
These common principles were developed first in the U.S. Air Force. Granted its independence from the U.S. Army in 1947, the air force flew into a decade of new technology and experimentation. Jets replaced piston engines and, with better radar and airframes, pilots were flying faster and higher than anyone ever thought possible. They just weren’t doing it safely. In 1952, accidental deaths in the U.S. Air Force peaked at 1214—between three and four airmen killed every day. It was a disaster.
The U.S. Air Force started on a journey to limit that damage. They began to focus as much on human capabilities as on the aircraft. How many G-forces1 could a pilot stand before he blacks out, or worse, ‘G-LOCs’ a phenomenon where the pilot loses consciousness? What could prevent that from happening? How much data could a single pilot handle from scanning instruments and radio? How much did he need? How could a pilot, wingman, co-pilot, navigator or WSO (Weapons system Officer) share and absorb that information to track and complete a mission? How rational were those mission plans given all these human factors? Gradually, these questions were answered. Slowly, in U.S.-based maneuvers and through the Korean War, accident rates fell.
Yet when it came to the crucible of the Vietnam War, it seemed the learning didn’t count for much. If the answers were known, they weren’t being taught to young pilots. Against the North Vietnamese, the U.S. Navy and Air Force were losing one aircraft for every 2.5 enemy planes shot down. That ratio may sound good but, given the superiority in technology and training, it was another disaster. In World War II and Korea, with more evenly matched technology, the ratio had been closer to one lost for every 10 shot down. Now they were losing two state-of-the-art multimillion-dollar F-4 Phantoms for five cheap old MiG-17 and MiG-21 Soviet planes.
Yet if a pilot survived their first few flights—a big if—they would survive for a very long time. Whatever they learned through experiencing those first flights made all the difference. So the challenge was clear: how could they transfer that learning to new pilots before they went into combat? The U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School, founded in 1949, was rapidly upgrading everything it could to meet that challenge, but more was needed for the Navy. In 1968, the Ault Report called for an institution that would intensively drill its pilots in everything they needed for aerial combat. It came in the form of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, dubbed ‘Top Gun’, and it rigorously taught mission planning and execution, briefing and debriefing, strategy and tactics. By the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the combat kill ratio had been restored to 13 to 1.
Over the next 50 years, the U.S. fighter pilot schools drummed the principles of mission planning into their training, to improve their training, and to make flying in training and in combat safer. Eventually, the pilots of the U.S. Air Force could do what others could not, no matter the technical abilities of their planes. In 2002, the air force lost just nine airmen in accidents: 1214 down to just nine deaths, despite the variance in the types of plane, types of mission, and types of pilot.
These fighter pilot principles had no universally-accepted name, but they worked. These are the principles that Murph learned when first stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, and were taught at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. They are the principles that the U.S. Marine Corps Weapons and Tactics Instructor course teaches at Yuma, Arizona, and that the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program teaches its TOPGUN aspirants and graduates.
Murph hadn’t planned to be a fighter pilot. Like many young kids he was aiming to be a professional athlete and, like most, just missed making the grade. His dad was a salesman, based in rural Kentucky selling IBM typewriters and then sets of World Book encyclopedias the old way, door-to-door. Every night, Murph listened to the day’s personalities, conversations, and sales over the dinner table. So when professional baseball didn’t make its long-awaited call after college, Murph started selling too, selling photocopiers with his dad. But two years later, he met a fighter pilot, and couldn’t believe how keen that guy was to be what he was. That was a new course in life well worth charting.
Murph went all in too, for eight and a half years flying F-15s with the USAF, learning to think, to prepare, to fly, and then to teach other fighter pilots at Dobbins Air Force Base, Georgia, and later with the Florida Air National Guard. The whole time, he kept turning his mind to how those principles would translate to his old world, in sales and business. Four years in, he was asked to take business executives up in the air on incentives flights. One particularly rainy day the flight was called off and a group of executives were given a tour of the grounded F-15, a run in a flight simulator, and a talk from Murph on how his squadron pushed for flawless execution in their missions.
That was the first time Murph gave such a talk, and it made quite an impression. The CEO of the Conco Paint Company said he could use that sort of thinking, and would call in a year. A year later to the week the CEO called, and interviewed Murph to help run his sales division using the principles of flawless execution. To that time, the division’s annual record was just over U.S.$5 million in sales. Two years later, they hit U.S.$52 million. Murph confirmed that everything he’d learned as a fighter pilot could be applied equally to his everyday business missions, and as much to his long-term plans. And Murph realized that his greatest asset was not what he was selling, nor even who he was. It was the way that he worked: the only way he knew how—using principles he began to call Flex.
Murph set up the consulting firm Afterburner Inc. in 1996 to share Flex with the business world. He used Flex every step of the journey, and continues to do so in ways that we’ll discover in this book. Since then, Afterburner and its 70 fighter pilots and other elite military professionals have worked with over a thousand corporations and over 1.5 million people. Many of those pilots have launched their own businesses, and many more of Afterburner’s clients have done the same. Flex works.
Flex in Australia
Just as Murph was entering civilian life, the RAAF began to take a more serious interest in the principles that underpinned his training with the U.S. Air Force. There was much in common between the cultures of the two air forces—the openness, honesty, and accountability—but they were quite different in the way pilots operated and learned. The Australians were more like their UK Royal Air Force (RAF) colleagues. Yes, there were procedures, but they were more guidelines than orders. Yes, there was training, but that was more the school of hard knocks than rigorous, systematic induction.
The early 1990s changed all that. Put simply, too many pilots were losing their lives unnecessarily. Five Australian F/A-18A Hornet pilots died in the five years to 1992, the first years of the new plane’s operation. For six years in a row the top-of-class U.S. fighter pilot who was selected to fly with the RAF on exchange, died by flying into low British hills. Both tragic and embarrassing, that record highlighted unacceptable training and combat safety in a period of higher than usual risks, including the use of Harrier jump jets that were four times more accident-prone than the Hornet.
Though forced now to look harder at the U.S. Air Force methods, the Royal Air Force still resisted. They looked at the USAF Fighter Weapons School approach, and were sceptical. It was too structured, with too much reliance on strict protocols and procedures for weapons engagement and communication which, the RAF believed, were too rigid and restrictive.
The Australians were less sceptical, more willing to learn from the best overseas. They understood that the standards and protocols just calmed down the pilots, took the pressure off thinking about the simple things, so that they could concentrate on the more dangerous things, their immediate mission, and risks. So the RAAF took on what they learned. Having to do better with their new Hornets, the RAAF’s Fighter Combat Instructor (FCI) course adopted the principles of the U.S. Fighter Weapons School. Only they took them further. While the U.S. training was for nine weeks, the RAAF’s spanned six months. It piled individual awareness and decision-making on top of regimented standards. Each week both of these schools pushed the pilots harder: more rapid planning, under more stressful conditions, on more complex missions, with more resources, and more threats. Each stage of planning and execution was ramped up until the FCI pilots could lead fighter squadrons with any air force, in any circumstances.
It also helped that these fighter pilot operational principles were consistent with those being used throughout the Australian military. The Joint Military Appreciation Process (JMAP) is used for joint campaign and operational planning within and across the Australian Defence Force. What is true for JMAP is true for Flex: ‘Foremost in the minds of commanders should be that JMAP simply assists and promotes critical thinking rather than being an end in itself. It is not supposed to be used as a formulaic checklist that, once completed, will automatically provide the best solution to a problem. Creativity and flexibility of thought lie at the center, with the JMAP framework providing guidance and a measure of structure.’2
By the turn of the century, fighter pilots trained in the RAAF took on the operational cycle of plan–brief–execute–debrief, and all of the mission alignment, awareness, and execution principles that went with it. By that time also, the RAF was thinking the same way. So that in 2001, when Christian ‘Boo’ Boucousis became one of the few RAAF pilots accepted into an RAF Tornado fighter squadron, he found the operational approach as common as it could be to what he had learned in the RAAF.
In 2005 Boo returned from a relatively uneventful mission, and was unable to move his head. At all. His neck had frozen, and took over a month to slowly remobilize. A series of tests revealed he had a rare degenerative medical condition: ankylosing spondylitis and osteoporosis. Stiff and softening bones weren’t what the air force wanted in the front seat of a combat aircraft. Boo’s fighter pilot career was over.
With that grim news, Boo spent months in a deep, dark space. It wasn’t until he met a South African in similar circumstances in Britain, someone who knew what he was going through, that the first lights were turned on again. Boo was badly disillusioned by the fate of a non-combat injury dealing him out of the cockpit. Tom Naude was disillusioned with the British Army after a very challenging, heavy-combat tour in Iraq as a parachute regiment officer. They got to talking, and the talk led them to explore what they’d do next, and the decision to do whatever it was together. But what?3
Over the next eighteen months, Tom and Boo did little else but use their Flex-ability to plan the next phase in their lives. True to form, their initial thinking was simple and focussed: what business opportunities were they familiar with from their air force experience, and for which demand always outstripped supply? Anything, they reasoned, that supported military and humanitarian missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one of those two countries was too dangerous even for them.
To have a closer look at the options in Afghanistan, Tom took a position as security adviser to the United Nations for the 2004 national and provincial elections in Afghanistan. Western aid was pouring into the country, targeting essential infrastructure and services. Every piece of road, telecommunications, water, or energy works needed security. Tom and Boo decided that was the start they needed, and set up CTG Global. An American civil engineering firm needed protection for the headline Kabul to Kandahar road project, United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) number one Afghan project. Boo and Tom found twenty Gurkhas for the job. Gurkhas are the fearless Nepalese soldiers who have served with distinction in the Nepalese, British, Indian, and Singapore armies for centuries. Why Gurkhas? Because they understood military processes and character and the operating environment, and were willing, disciplined, and intelligent. It proved a great choice.
Soon after, CTG Global secured contracts with the UN donor program to protect school and medical clinic sites and manage their construction. The company began supplying people to other contractors—demand truly did outstrip supply in war-torn Afghanistan. It was dangerous work, and so the safety of their employees was paramount. CTG’s safety record was second to none, and their reputation for it grew.
Nonetheless, eventually and perhaps inevitably, one of their Gurkhas was killed on duty. For young entrepreneurs in a foreign land, this was a critical test of who they were. They had seen how other contractors handled this situation, a lead they didn’t want to follow. Rather, they wanted to demonstrate their respect for Sahi and his family to military standards, but without military or diplomatic support.
When Sahi died, Boo went to Kathmandu to personally visit the sixteen households who had lost a father, a brother, or a friend. As he did, Tom set about repatriating Sahi’s body to Nepal so that he could be cremated by his family on the banks of the holy Bagmati River. But the custom in Afghanistan was and is burial the day after death, so there was no call or resources for preserving and transporting bodies. Tom had to track down formaldehyde in a Kabul pharmacy, teach himself the undertaker’s crafts of embalmment and grooming, and make arrangements for preserving Sahi’s body for its return to Nepal.
Doing the right thing is its own reward, but often brings unexpectedly positive effects. Word spread of Tom’s efforts. Other contracting firms called on CTG to provide the same repatriation services for the many more workers who died on Afghan worksites. And many more Gurkhas sought out CTG Global for employment. Within a year of their first commission, CTG had 200 employees. Within three years, they had 1600 men and women supporting humanitarian and infrastructure projects in the Middle East.
By any measure, this was an extraordinary achievement for two young men in their late twenties with no prior business experience. Yet for Boo and Tom, it was just Flex as usual, with a little extra grit and determination. Every step of the way, they applied what they knew from their military experience. That they had never worked together before, and had been in two different forces, mattered not one jot. Both the Royal Australian Air Force and the UK’s Royal Air Force spoke the same language and operated in the same way—the same way as Murph’s U.S. Air Force. They didn’t call it Flex, but that’s what it was and is.
We’ll have a closer look at the CTG Global story throughout this book. We’ll also learn about how Flex assisted Boo in another business: building the world’s highest modular hotel, on time and on target.