Resources for Professional Firms

How to achieve performance excellence in a professional firm - military style

What can accountants and lawyers learn from America's military fighter pilots? Read on to find out about this extraordinary training session at the Worldwide Conference in Vancouver.

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Two former United States F-15 fighter pilots were on duty at our Worldwide Conference in Vancouver to explain how their methodology of Flawless ExecutionSM can make a rapid impact on a business’ future success. Read on below to find out more about what was shared in a session described by one delegate as “the best ever at any Alliott Group event”. Similar to many of the sessions in Vancouver, the lessons offered by Afterburner emphasised the need for action and raising the level of individual and team execution.

Operating in a fast, stressful and often hostile environment where there are “razor thin margins for error”, the work environment of an American fighter pilot shares some similarities with that of accountants and lawyers working at the top of their professions.

Over the course of a morning, ‘Finch’ and ‘Elroy’, pilots turned businessmen, explained how the techniques, systems and strategies of America’s Top Guns can benefit professional firms and the businesses they serve.

A winning methodology

The proprietary Flawless ExecutionSM methodology has been developed over a period of 50 years and Afterburner’s services have been engaged by 85% of Fortune 50 companies and two Superbowl-winning teams. This scalable and agile methodology enables organisations to leverage team experience, lessons learned, and a structured planning process to achieve new levels of success. Finch and Elroy described this as “common sense with a structure”.

The importance of the team

While mentioning that “great companies are built around extraordinary individual execution”, the Afterburner training emphasised that individuals rarely act alone and that that they are invariably part of a team whose members require leadership, missions and tasks.

To help Alliott Group’s members achieve more effective collaboration within their firms, but just as importantly, as member firms of our international alliance, Finch and Elroy explained the Plan-Brief-Execute-Debrief-Win cycle that comprises the Flawless Execution SM framework.

Above this mechanism sits what was described as the “Future Picture”, in other words a high definition image that shows in great detail the future that you want to achieve. Every task, mission and job should “contribute to the attainment of the overall Future Picture".


The first step in Flawless ExecutionSM is PLAN, which comprises the six steps below:

1. Determine the Mission Objective

These should be clear, measurable and achievable, aligned to the Future Picture or ‘High Definition Destination' and must drive action.

This should be aligned with the Future Picture or HDD which may be something along the lines of “to increase revenue by 30% by 2021". A mission objective might break down as e.g. “to develop or market three new client offerings by September 1, 2019".

2. Identify the Threats

The obstacles to success need to be identified, both internal and external, and controllable and uncontrollable.

Typical threats to accountants’ business were described as the commoditisation of compliance services or complacency among the staff.

3. Identify your Available and Required Resources

The resources to achieve the mission’s success need to be identified and threats mitigated or eliminated. Resources in the following categories should be considered: training, leadership, people, clients, fiscal resources, systems and technologies.

As an example, existing clients can give immediate feedback or be a very good source of referrals, or team members may have vast knowledge. In terms of Alliott Group, members were advised to draw on each other’s strengths and ideas to make their businesses stronger.

4. Evaluate Lessons Learned

At this stage, the experiences of the team need to be considered, available experts should be considered, and the documented lessons will need to be learned to make the team stronger next time. Then the decision needs to be made on whether to go or not go.

The importance of the Red Team is explained at Alliott Group's Worldwide Conference

The importance of the Red Team is explained by Elroy.

5. Develop a Course of Action

Team members now need to do something referred to as ‘TeamStorming’ where they brainstorm in separate planning teams to put together the battle plan. It should be decided who does what and by when. “You need to start at the end and put dominos in place so that everyone knows how they need to fall,” said Finch.

At this point, rather than just ‘go’, the concept of the Red Team was introduced as an extra step, with Finch and Elroy explaining how a team should be put together to try to find a way to defeat your plan, in effect “beat yourself”. The surviving courses of action then need to be incorporated into your tactics and allocated to who does what and when. Flexibility is the key to mission success, added Finch.

6. Plan for Contingencies

At this stage, you need to plan for what could go wrong and ask ‘What if?’ so that you are prepared and proactive. Any uncontrollable threats previously identified need to go into this section of your plan along with identifying the triggers and necessary action steps.


Next, the BRIEF step/mnemonic was described in detail:

Big Picture – Brief the scenario

Review the Mission Objective

Identify the Threats and resources

Execution – Courses of action/action steps

This comprises consideration of:

  • Roles/responsibilities
  • Risks and mitigation
  • Identification of leaders.

Flexibility – In other words, contingencies.

The EXECUTION stage of the framework is where you try to flawlessly execute the tactical plan you have developed.

The biggest stumbling block to execution is what was described as ‘Task Saturation’ – this is the “silent killer” suggested Finch. This is where you lose track of a key detail by becoming overloaded. As in a cockpit with its many dials, team members have to track many moving parts– when they fail to do this, the environment starts to get dangerous, they risk crashing and the mission failing. Sometimes, no-one knows a problem is building. Task saturation can also lead to ‘channel saturisation', a coping mechanism in which a team member becomes fixated on a target and ends up jeopardising the mission, or in the fighter pilot’s situation, flying the aircraft into the ground.

The correct action to take is to “acknowledge that it exists, acknowledge that it creates problems, identify the symptoms, and then work to eliminate it.”

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The next step in the Flawless ExecutionSM methodology is arguably the most important step, but one that organisations often neglect as they are too busy moving onto the next thing- the DEBRIEF. This is aimed at achieving a process of constant performance improvement through structured conservations and must be an important cultural trait in your business. Finch suggested that this should not be about “pointing fingers” and is “not about who’s right, but what’s right.” Rank and egos should be checked at the door.

Members were advised to use the STEALTH mnemonic to remember the steps:

Set the Time: Location, Duration, Prepare

Tone: Nameless and rankless: It is about events, not people and truth over harmony

Execution vs. Objectives: What was the mission objective? Was it clear, measurable, achievable and aligned with your High Definition Destination?

Analyse Execution – Focus on key events. What happened? How did it happen and why?

Lessons Learned – Identify the action steps for future planning

Transfer Lessons Learned – Transfer the lessons to your team/organisation. This will accelerate performance and improve future execution

High Note: Give a positive summation – celebrate the road to success.

The debrief session needs to be scheduled during the planning session to make sure it happens. Finch commented:

“The debrief culture needs to be created. When people don’t get feedback, it is worrying because they don’t care about you improving next time. Lessons need to be transferred to ensure we make each other better.”

During the debrief, specific details need to be given regarding how people can fix the root causes of a performance issue.

Key to the process is the belief that a leader has an obligation to “set up their firm for success for after he or she is gone.”

This was a hugely successful session.  Alliott Group will be looking at different ways to engage with Afterburner in the future– watch this space!

About Afterburner

Headquartered in Atlanta with offices in Australia and Brazil, Afterburner's team has trained thousands of today’s leading organizations over the course of nearly two decades, including 85% of the Fortune 50 and two Super Bowl Champions. The power of Flawless Execution is recognized by leading business management and leadership development scholars around the world and the company's Executive Consultants have spoken at notable business schools, including Harvard, Wharton, Cornell, Emory, MIT and Duke.

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