This is a useful concept that’s been written up in its original military context, but I wanted to write out how it’s also applicable in more mainstream settings.
Amy Labenz introduced “watch team backup” to the Centre for Effective Altruism where we both work; Amy learned it from a friend who’d worked on a nuclear submarine. On a nuclear submarine, it is extremely important that there not be mistakes, so there’s a culture of double- and triple-checking.
Here’s how one veteran of the nuclear Navy, Jared Chaffee, describes it:
“The concept of watchteam backup is about empowering all members of the team to speak up when they see something that doesn’t look right. . . If done incorrectly, people can take it as criticism or that they don’t know how to do things correctly. Frankly, it can hurt their egos. No one wants to look stupid or uninformed. But again, this is all about empowering the team and making sure they can make the best possible decisions. The ‘two heads are better than one’ concept applies here.”
Doing this kind of double-checking without evoking defensiveness or hurt feelings is really useful, even when you’re not in charge of any nuclear anything.
Examples from work, where we often call it WTBU:
- “You likely know this already, but just in case as WTBU: [info]”
- “I haven’t been sleeping well and I’d like to request extra WTBU: if you think I might be forgetting something or if you feel confused by something I say, please flag it.”
- “WTBU – wanted to check someone saw Gabriela’s email and replied if needed.”
- “WTBU – when you’ve been thinking about [scheduling an event in California], have you been remembering that this is during fire season?”
Especially when the backup is coming from another team – for example, someone outside the events team asking them if they’re remembered that fire season might be a problem for their event – it really helps to have a shared understanding that there’s no insult meant. It doesn’t carry an implication of “I don’t think you’re doing your job right.”
The second part of this is that the other person often replies with “Thanks for the WTBU!” or “Oh wow, I missed that, thanks for the WTBU.” Whether it turns out to be needed or not, it’s treated as helpful. And that means we’re all willing to provide WTBU again next time because it’s not seen as a big deal.
Examples from home:
- If Jeff asks me something like “Is the oven supposed to be on?” I now find it easier to take it as helpful watch team backup rather than him implying I’m incompetent. We both sometimes leave the oven on by mistake. We both really don’t want a fire. It’s better to check even though usually it didn’t turn out to be needed, because occasionally it was needed.
- This is especially needed in the early days of parenting when you’re exhausted and awash in hormones. On that new little team, I found it really helpful to have a culture that it’s ok to double-check if the carseat straps are buckled correctly, if the baby has space to breathe when they’re in a carrier, etc. Jeff has been especially gracious about this at times when I’m haunted by the idea that something might be wrong with the baby, as is common with new mothers. We do both make mistakes, and the baby’s safety is way more important than maintaining an image of ourselves as parents who get everything right all the time.
I’m sure it’s possible for this to go off the rails, perhaps in excessive checking of other people’s work or obsessive anxiety. But I’ve found it really helpful and would like to see it used in more spaces.