The crew of the USS Vincennes was particularly edgy that morning. Early in the morning hours, one of the Vincennes helicopters had been deployed to investigate some boats trafficking in their area of the Persian Gulf. The helicopter pilot reported receiving small arms fire from the boats. Captain Rogers retaliated by firing upon the small vessels, which heightened the tension in the darkened “Combat Information Center,” a small war room inside the USS Vincennes lit up with control panels and computer screens. Much of war these days is done staring at computer screens.
On the morning of July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes was stationed in Iranian waters and captained by William Rogers. The Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser had been hastily deployed from San Diego, CA only a month earlier and rushed to the Persian Gulf to increase security. It had also been outfitted with the new state-of-the art Aegis surveillance system. More on that later.
Meanwhile, at 10:17am Iran Flight 655, a civilian Airbus carrying 290 passengers and crew, took off from Bandar Abbas Airport to fly a short 25 minute flight across the Strait of Hormuz and land in Dubai. Many of the civilians on board were making a sacred journey to Mecca.
Shortly thereafter, tacticians on board the Vincennes started tracking flight 655 as it approached their location. At that moment, the sophisticated Aegis surveillance system provided a critical piece of misinformation. Even though the airliner was accurately broadcasting an identifier as Mode III, or civilian, the system falsely identified the Airbus as instead Mode II, a military combat F-14, a plane more than two-thirds smaller.
The second error was human. A tactician monitoring the plane’s approach toward them incorrectly stated that the plane was descending toward the Vincennes, possibly as an act of aggression, when in fact the plane was ascending to a cruising altitude of 14,000 feet. Strangely, the fancy system was not designed to provide information on changes in altitude, so to compute altitude changes of aircraft being monitored operators had to “compare data taken at different times and make the calculation in their heads, on scratch pads, or on a calculator — and all this during combat.”
Captain Rogers radioed the nearby friendly frigate USS Sides Captain Robert Hattan, and asked him to confirm what they identified as an approaching F-14. Captain Hattan disagreed. All operators and monitoring systems on board the USS Sides correctly identified the airplane as a commercial jet ascending, not descending, in a standard commercial flightpath.
Captain Rogers listened to the conflicting identification coming from the USS Sides, and decided that the superior technology and monitoring system of the Aegis outclassed the information from the USS Sides. The fancy Aegis technology gave Rogers a superior sense of confidence, and the willingness to disregard Captain’s Hattan’s warning.
At 10:24am that morning Captain William Rogers ordered two missiles to be deployed. One hit the airliner which killed all 290 passengers on board. The USS Sides and crew were later awarded a Meritorious Commendation for “outstanding service, heroic deeds, or valorous actions,” in part, for their efforts to dissuade the attack.
“Cooperation increases when the roles of individual team members are sharply defined yet the team is given latitude on how to achieve the task.”
– Tammy Erickson, Harvard Business School
There are many mitigating human factors, technology factors, and situational factors. There were lengthy congressional hearings and investigations. But let me point out just one decision-making factor that contributed to this disaster. Team performance and team decision-making can often be flawed, particularly under pressure situations, when there is lack of role clarity. Had the two crews built redundancies or decision-making processes to question or confirm the information from different angles, the disaster might have been avoided.
It’s hip to talk about flattening companies, destroying hierarchies, and that large-scale holacracy experiment going on over at Zappos. But here’s the thing: whatever the team situation, or project you’re trying to solve, role clarity is critical. You don’t necessarily need a “boss” but you do need a decision-making process, and you need understood roles of expertise on each team.
It’s true on soccer teams, and it’s true on high-performing expert teams like media crews or Emergency Response Teams. And certainly true of those ad-hoc innovation teams that come together in your company to be the “Voice of the Customer” or whatever you may call it.
I had an interview with Tammy Erickson of Harvard, and regarding teams she said role clarity was often the most overlooked characteristic in building high-performing teams. Often the team, or the boss, makes the assumption that if they put super talented people together, they will change the world.
They will, but only if they know who is doing what.
Shawn Hunter is the Founder of Mindscaling and author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes. It’s about how to lead joyfully in life, and also to lead cultures in your company to drive great results.