Powered by Talent: Brian "Ponch" Rivera

Powered by Talent Brian

Originally published on October 20, 2022

Brian “Ponch” Rivera is the co-creator of The Flow System™, founder and CEO of AGLX Consulting, co-founder and co-owner of AGLX Holdings, and a founding member of The Flow Consortium.

He is the co-author of a FORBES-noted Top Ten Mind-Opening Business book for 2020, The Flow System-The Evolution of Agile and Lean Thinking in an Age of Complexity.  He is an Amazon International Best Selling author for his work on Strength and Gratitude and is currently working on his fourth book focused on connecting mental health and adaptive performance.. In 2020, prior to the pandemic, he delivered his TEDx talk, Design for Flow in Budapest, Hungary following an  engagement with NATO leaders where he spoke on  complexity thinking and flow.

He is the co-creator of High-Performance Teaming and the creator of ZONEFIVE—a behavioral marker system that objectively measures team effectiveness. 

You can learn more about Ponch’s work on several recent  podcasts including the Baptist Medical System’s Connecting the Dots Podcast,  The Salience Podcast, and The Economics for Business Podcast. 

Ponch, his callsign from naval aviation, served on active duty for 16 years before transferring to the Navy Reserve and now wears the rank of CAPTAIN as a part-time member of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU).

As an entrepreneur, Ponch leverages the leadership, teamwork, and lessons he learned throughout his diverse military career and civilian experience to help individuals and organizations create the agility, resilience, and safety they need to survive and thrive in this turbulent world. He is an avid options trader and is currently involved in an upcoming mental health documentary that features his work on flow and human performance.

Why were you interested in working at DIU?

Our nation needs the Department of Defense (DoD) to be agile and innovative or we risk losing the ability to survive and thrive on our own terms. DIU exists to solve these problems through acting as a broker with the commercial sector and creating the conditions for innovation to emerge.

Having served on active duty for 16 years and as a Government Service employee, I experienced what it is like to work around the system in a time of crisis, how  bureaucracy and ordered processes stifle innovation,  and how acquisition delays ensure our warfighters get “yesterday’s technology, tomorrow!”  This is unacceptable but is currently the norm.  

I couldn’t take the pain; so I left active duty and began working full-time in the government to become an Agile coach.

While working in industry, I learned that many of today’s Agile software development and Lean manufacturing practices were influenced by lessons from the military. For example, Scrum is influenced by the observe–orient–decide–act (OODA) loop of fighter aviation, as is The Lean Startup concept. Moreover, agility is an outcome of better quality OODA loops; similarly, innovation and safety are emergent properties of our interactions (better OODA loops). There are many more connections I can make but I think I should save those discussions for a later time. My point: The DoD knows how to innovate and deliver, we just added too much order to our complex system.

In 2018 I was working with Jeff Sutherland, the co-creator of Scrum when I was hand-picked to engage with industry and academia to help the U.S. Navy identify how to develop high-performance teams and leaders, change culture, improve safety, and capture leading indicators. It was the leading indicator work from DARPA and Dave Snowden that led me to DIU. I found out that the DIU director used a paradigm-shifting sensemaking tool to capture current culture. I knew then that I wanted to be part of this new organization.

What is your favorite DIU experience?

So far, my favorite DIU experience was working with a few of the National Security Innovation Network directors and DIU staff to help build strategic situational awareness using a mapping technique known as Wardley Mapping. The idea is we need to build a shared understanding of the landscape that includes the needs of users, customers, and stakeholders before we can develop a cohesive strategy.

If you could solve any DoD problem tomorrow, no matter how big, what would you tackle and why? 

Before I share my answer, I want to share a mantra and a trinity that I think many people in the business of defense forget.

Mantra: “Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds.”

Trinity: People first, ideas second, and things (technology) third.

Col. John Boyd, a real DoD maverick and innovator, promoted this mantra and trinity around the Pentagon in the 70s and 80s yet, today, it seems our defense ecosystem favors machines and technology over people. I think this is wrong!

We live in an era where 17-22 veterans, former warriors, take their lives each day. In 2021, 500 service members took their own lives. The ratio of suicides among active-duty personnel and veterans to deaths from military operations since 9-11 is four to one. Suicide is a visible outcome of the often invisible mental health challenges associated with serving our country. These challenges include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), anxiety, depression, and addiction.

Mental health is the number one DoD problem I would tackle as there are many commercial solutions that could be used immediately. The sooner we can solve the mental health crisis inside our ranks, the sooner our nation can heal from its unprecedented mental health crisis associated with the pandemic and our rapidly changing world. To make this connection stronger, I want to wrap this section up with a quote from Thích Nhất Hạnh:

“Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.

 What emerging commercial technologies are you most excited about?

I’m very excited about any biotech, entheogenic medicine, or human performance activity that (1) enables neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization (neuroplasticity) and/or (2) promotes the growth of new neurons in the brain (neurogenesis).

On the biotech side, sensory substitution (peripheral) devices such as wearable wristbands that capture sound and convert them to patterns of vibration on the skin for neurons in the brain to make new connections show tons of promise for helping the hearing impaired.

Through peripheral devices and the natural neuroplasticity process, I think there is an opportunity to rewire the brain so we can experience our umwelt (surrounding world) in ways that go beyond our normal senses—something that may provide our warriors an edge on the battlefield.

More importantly, when our warriors return from the battlefield, we must leverage what we know about neuroplasticity and neurogenesis to help our brothers and sisters deal with post-traumatic disorders associated with military service. To be clear, I’m talking about how we can tackle the biggest problem in the Department of Defense: mental health—this includes PTSD, TBI, anxiety, addiction, and stress.

There are two ways the commercial sector is more advanced than the DoD when it comes to tackling the growing mental health crisis. The first is an outside-in bottom-up approach that includes the medically supervised use of entheogens or psychedelics. The second is a top-down inside-out approach to include breathing exercises, yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. This second approach has some traction inside the DoD, so I will skip details of that here.

What are you reading right now?

 I’m reading five books at the moment, all of them are interconnected and related to mental health and adaptive performance.

  • An Immense World by Ed Yong, a book on how animals sense the world around them and was recommended to me by Anil Seth, author of Being You (Being You is a MUST READ)

  • Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst by  Robert Sapolsky

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hoftstadter

  • The Quantum Revelation by Paul Levy

The fifth book is Lean Leadership Basics by my friend and mentor, Charlie Protzman. Charlie is a Shingo Prize-winning author and a few years ago I worked with him on how to incorporate leadership and teamwork lessons from fighter aviation and the military into Lean. If you are looking for ways to improve manufacturing or understand Lean, Charlie’s book is a must read.