7 Business Lessons From Military Special Operations Officers (Special Ops)

They are the best of the best. Every country deploys them to the hottest battle zones. While we know that these highly trained military units are prepared for battle, the same skills can also be applied in the modern day business and career field, which is a battle zone in itself. I’ll examine 7 aspects of their training and operations that can be used in the corporate world with positive results.

1) Intense Training – The navy seals have an adage that says the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat. All Special ops training programs are designed to weed out the average recruits. The US Navy Seal, for example, weeds out 70% of participants. This training is toughened to ensure only the officers who are physically fit and mentally capable of planning and executing gruesome missions in hostile environments make it.

In business – Every firm or individual must undergo rigorous training before being deployed to work in the corporate field. Training toughens one’s mind and helps him prepare for what he’s about to face. It also helps one know what to do in different scenarios.

2) Reconnaissance – Intelligence gathering. No mission can hope to be successful without gathering information about the enemy ,terrain and the population in the mission field. Most special operations officers are trained in the language and culture of the regions they are to be deployed to.

In business – Firms regularly gather “intel” about the market they are operating in to know consumer behaviour, crucial cultural and environmental aspects, strengths and weaknesses of the competition, best distribution channels and most effective modes of advertising. A firm that has been widely successful in using the market intelligence they’ve gathered to be dominant in all the countries they operate in is The Coca Cola company.

3) Commander’s Intent Commander’s Intent is the description and definition of what a successful mission will look like. Whenever the mission doesn’t follow the same steps as rehearsed, the officers are allowed to improvise but not forget the overall objective.  For example in the Zero Dark 30 mission, the intent was simple, to neutralize Osama Bin Laden. Anything else was a sideshow. The SEALS in this mission lost a chopper in the process, meaning the mission didn’t go as rehearsed but, they focused on the main goal and achieved it.

In business – Once the goals have been clearly communicated to the team members, it doesn’t matter what they do, as long as they deliver their intended results. This will prevent them being sidetracked by unnecessary side-shows and focus their energy on the most important deliverable. Keep the main thing, the main thing.

4) War Games – The special ops officers rehearse for every mission while anticipating the enemy’s reactions. They rehearse and refine their strategies before going out on a mission so as to know the best possible plan of attack.

In business – No firm operates in a vacuum. It’s important to know what the competition is doing and anticipate their reaction once you step out into any market to prepare your counter measures. Plan for the worst.

5) Adaptability and Flexibility – No matter how the special ops rehearse and prepare, the real battle field usually presents twists and turns they were not prepared for. They must therefore use their intellect and training to quickly adapt to be able to ensure they stay on course to achieve the Commander’s objective. This is why they are trained in all forms of unconventional combat and basic life support skills functional in different kinds of environments.

In business – Don’t stick to a business plan that isn’t working. You should be quick to adapt to the prevailing mood of the market. This is how Samsung has been able to be the market leader in Smartphone technology, overtaking firms like Nokia and Blackberry who thought that their phone reign would never end. Samsung was able quickly read the mood of the market, which was set when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, forever changing the way phones would be made.

6) Surprise execution – Special ops must be able to carry out quick and unexpected attacks. The SEALS have employed this strategy with great success in their pre-dawn raids. The Kenyans were also able to take over the Somali port city of Kismayu from the Al Shabaab by employing smoke and mirror tactics to make the enemy think their army is invading them through the main road from the Kenyan border only for them to find out that they had planned the invasion through a beach landing from the sea.

In business – Firms like Safaricom stay ahead of the game by pulling out rabbits from hats like the innovative M-Shwari. These never anticipated innovative moves are the reason why the competition always plays catch up. They never know what new product Safaricom will unveil next.

7) After Action Review Every mission, successful or unsuccessful, has to be reviewed. The strengths and weaknesses of the mission are critically analyzed for improvement of the team. A good example is during the Nairobi Westage Mall hostage crisis. The whole scenario was caught on camera. As the operation was going on, the different military units present in the scene drawn from various countries had already started reviewing what went wrong and looking at ways to seal the loopholes that led to the crisis.

In business- No matter how successful (or unsuccessful) you have been, always review and see what part of your process or product need to be refined. Define the areas of improvement and act on it. Always remember, today’s innovation is tomorrow’s relic. Don’t be relegated to the relics.

Let your plans be dark and as impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt – Sun Tzu, The Art of War


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