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U.S. SOF perform essential tasks like training, reconnaissance, rescue missions, and combating terrorists worldwide. Business leaders should consider SOF methods to innovate their own organizations.

Five Special Ops Skills to Motivate Digital Business Innovation

Dec. 1, 2018
Tactics and practices that should be recognized, learned from, and capitalized upon

You may see no comparison between highly skilled soldiers, waiting in darkness, prepared for action and a business using digital tools to create better products and services for customers. But look closer at the skills that Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel use to create mission success: there we discover an extraordinary set of capabilities that can drive and inspire digital business innovation.

U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marine Corps Special Ops soldiers represent only about 3% of all U.S. military personnel, but despite their small number they are deployed in hundreds of countries and perform essential tasks like training, conducting reconnaissance, attacking terrorist cells, and rescuing downed military aircraft crews.

It’s the tactical methods and operational standards that SOF teams embody which business digital innovation teams should recognize, learn from, and capitalize on for their own missions.

1. Select for Character, Train for Skill. 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 candidates reveal their true character. SOF units almost exclusively select (or “hire”) a candidate based on the character and personal performance characteristics they exhibit. 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, but personal character cannot.

2. Deep Understanding of Customers’ Needs. Before a SOF team conducts a mission, the members will undergo a detailed, specialized, and physically isolated mission planning process. The entire purpose of SOF mission planning is to develop a deep understanding of the military commander’s needs in ordering the mission, and all the possible options the team can create to accomplish the mission.

Business organizations must learn that understanding the customer and his current needs, and anticipating his future needs, are the bedrock of innovation. Great technology matched with intimate understanding of customer needs fuels tangible innovation.

3.  Build Success from Data, Experiments. SOF teams use their own form of data and analysis to support decisions on how best to accomplish a mission. First, a team will us a collaborative and non-rank hierarchy to evaluate its own skill sets and the skill sets of team members. To an outsider this appears “unmilitary” but to a SOF teams every team member needs to call out on their shortcomings as well as what they need to improve.

The primary data for SOF teams are the results of mission rehearsals — full-up experiments, in business terms, that prove or disprove if the team can accomplish the mission as planned. After a rehearsal, SOF teams do extensive performance reviews to improve shortcomings and maintain actions and techniques that performed well.

Even without extensive data organizations can use rehearsals, lesson-learned sessions, and iterations of experiments to test their ideas.

4. Share Information, Source External Ideas. Sharing information is a central principle to all SOF team operations. The teams isolate themselves to prevent information loss outside their teams. Internally, the 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 timeliness, resources, and conditions change. They believe in equality regardless of rank, experience, and skill, so they work constantly to share, update, and listen to new information and ideas.

How SOF teams share information is an invaluable point for teaching non-military organizations that focus too heavily on position, roles, and hierarchy. Information needs to be set free to inspire and guide innovation.

5. With a Plan, Everyone is “All In”. SOF teams disagree during planning, rehearsals, and mission preparation. During these stages, team members expect and agree 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,  “new ideas” stop and the entire team is “all in” to make the mission a success.

This characteristic — going from suggestion-driven to mission-driven in the space of minutes — is essential to the success of SOF. Non-military organizations need to have lively discussions to allow full input on ideas. The individuals and groups in these same organizations also need to support each other fully in the hard tasks of mission execution.

Business leaders frequently look to Jobs, Whitman, Bezos, Ma, and Gates for insight on digital innovation. Instead, look to the Army Night Stalkers, Marine Raiders, Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, and the Air Force Para-Rescuemen for inspiration on how teams should create, inspire, test, and execute digital innovation.
Chad Storlie is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel with 20+ years of active duty and reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He is an adjunct lecturer of marketing at Creighton University, a mid-level marketing executive, and the author of author of “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success.” Contact him at [email protected], or visit