5 Special Operations Skills That Enable Digital Business Innovation

digital-wallHighly skilled soldiers lurking through the pitch dark of night and a business creating better products and services for customers with digital tools appear to be completely unrelated.  When we look closer at the skills that Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel use to create mission success, we discover an amazing set of skills that can drive and inspire digital business innovation.

Special Operations Forces (SOF) are highly skilled, extensively trained, and deploy worldwide at a moment’s notice. These personnel come from across the United States and are part of highly capable, highly trained, and uniquely specialized units in the US Army, US Navy, US Air Force, and the US Marine Corps. SOF personnel are in the news daily, but their actual size is about 3% of all US Military personnel. Despite their small size, they are deployed in hundreds of countries and perform tasks such as training foreign military forces, conducting reconnaissance on enemy targets, attacking terrorist cells, and rescuing downed military aircraft crews.

Business digital innovation teams can learn and capitalize on the planning and operational excellence that US Military SOF teams embody.

  1. Hire for Personal Character and Train the Critical Skill Sets. SOF organizations have a highly specialized, lengthy, and demanding candidate selection process. During “selection” candidates are stressed with fatigue, physical challenges, mental challenges, and leadership problems all designed to make the SOF candidates reveal their true character. SOF units almost exclusively select (or “hire”) a candidate for their character and personal performance characteristics. It is only after a candidate’s character has been validated that they begin the unique and specialized training. Business can learn and understand that personal character, unique experiences, and diverse backgrounds are what generate true innovation. Unique skills can be taught – unique personal character can rarely be developed.
  2. Deeply Understand the Needs of Your Customer. Before a SOF team conducts a mission, they undergo a detailed, specialized, and physically isolated mission planning process. The entire purpose of the SOF mission planning process is to deeply understand the needs of the military commander ordering the mission and all the possible options the team can create to accomplish the mission. Business organizations must learn that understanding the customer, understanding their current needs, and anticipating their future needs are the true bedrock of innovation. Great technology matched with intimate understanding of customer needs are what fuels tangible innovation.
  3. Identify and Build Success from Data and Experiments. SOF teams use their own form of data and analytics to support decisions how to best accomplish a mission.  First, SOF teams use a collaborative and non-rank hierarchy to evaluate their own skill sets and the skill sets of fellow team members.  This style to an outsider appears highly “unmilitary,” but to a SOF team member every team member needs to call out on their shortcomings as well as what they need to improve.  The primary data that SOF teams use are the results of mission rehearsals.  For SOF teams, rehearsals are full up experiments, in business terms, that prove or disprove if they can accomplish the mission as planned.  Following a rehearsal, SOF teams do extensive reviews of their performance to improve short comings and maintain actions and techniques that performed well.  Organizations even if they do not have extensive data can use rehearsals, lesson learned sessions, and iterations of experiments to test their ideas.
  4. Share Information and Build a Large Set External Ideas. SOF teams share information as a central principle to all operations. SOF teams isolate themselves from other teams to prevent information loss outside their teams. Internally SOF teams share as much as they can on intelligence, operations, out of the box ideas, and contingency plans. SOF teams also create extensive idea sets and different ways to accomplish the mission in case timelines, resources, and conditions change. SOF teams believe in extensive equality regardless of rank, experience, and skill sets so they constantly work to share, update, and listen to new information and ideas. How SOF teams share information is an invaluable teaching point for non-military organizations that focus too heavily on position, roles, and hierarchy. Information needs to be set free to inspire and guide innovation.
  5. Once the Plan is Decided – Everyone is “All In” for Success. SOF teams disagree during planning, rehearsals, and mission preparation. During these stages, SOF team members know it is expected and agreed to allow everyone to provide input, suggestions, and ideas to improve the outcome of the mission and to help guarantee success. However, once a mission is decided, then all “new ideas” end and the entire team is “all in” to make the mission a success. This characteristic of SOF teams, to go from suggestion driven to mission driven in the space of minutes is incredibly compelling to the success of SOF. Non-military organizations need to have vibrant discussions to allow full input on ideas. These same organizations also need to fully support each other when the hard tasks of mission execution come about.

Digital innovation tends to have business leaders look to Jobs, Whitman, Bezos, Ma, and Gates.  Instead, look to The Army Night Stalkers, the Marine Raiders, the Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, and the Air Force Para-Rescuemen for inspiration how teams create, inspire, test, and execute digital innovation.

Chad Storlie

Chad Storlie

Chad Storlie is the author of two books: Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and Battlefield to Business Success. Chad’s brand message is that organizations and individuals need to translate and apply military skills to business because they immediately produce results and are cost effective. Chad is a retired US Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantry Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. Chad is an adjunct Lecturer of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management. In addition to teaching, he is a mid-level marketing executive and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including Union Pacific, General Electric, Comcast, and Manugistics. He has been published over 320 different articles in over 170 separate publications including The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Forbes, Christian Science Monitor, and USA Today. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.

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