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Be Daring and Win – Applying Military Special Operations Principles to Win In Business

“Before military SOF teams undertake high-risk operations, they slow the enthusiasm for a mission by conducting an emotionally detached, honest, and intelligence-driven assessment of the mission.”

The motto of the United Kingdom’s Special Air Service (SAS), probably one of the world’s best Special Operations Forces (SOF) is, “Who Dares Wins.”  The history of the UK SAS, founded during World War II, is one of daring and victory across the globe.  The UK SAS are the leaders in hostage rescue, desert warfare, and jungle fighting, to name only a few areas of their vast military specialties.  It is easy to see how a highly trained group of commandos can view risk and risk taking seemingly with ease, but how can businesses take more risk and still succeed?

The concept to take more business risk to succeed is a counter intuitive principle to most organizations.  Most businesses try to take less risk, not more.  There is a Risk Management industry as well as Risk Management departments, whose sole task is to understand, plan, and mitigate risk across the entire business enterprise.  So how can taking more risk be good for business?

When Apple created the iPod and iTunes, they took a great amount of business risk by launching a new device and entering an entirely new distribution channel for music.  What allowed Apple to be so successful was built upon their internal strengths of great technology and simple design principles, combined with a strong customer focus.  The introduction of the Apple iPod is a SOF-like adoption of the ‘daring to win’ principles that SOF teams employ.

Historical Example of SOF Risk Planning & Mitigation During World War II. 

During the final days of World War II, a US Army Ranger Battalion that was a skilled behind-the-lines commando force, was tasked to find and rescue Prisoners of War (POW) held in a Japanese camp in the Philippines.  American commanders feared that the POW’s would be moved or killed before conventional American forces reached them.  The Rangers conducted rapid mission planning and then set out immediately to rescue the POW’s.

Contingency plans and strong local relationships saved the day for the Rangers.

When the Rangers successfully seized the camp, they discovered far more POW’s that had to be moved to safety than they expected.  The Rangers had created some basic contingencies through prior coordination with friendly Philippine guerilla fighters which allowed them to solve the problem through extensive use of local ox carts to move the POW’s to safety.  Contingency plans and strong local relationships saved the day for the Rangers.

How Military Special Operations Teams Understand Risk.

Military Special Operations Forces (SOF) like the US Army Special Forces (Green Beret), The US Navy SEALS, the Air Force Pararescue (PJ’s), and the US Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance view and approach risk in two distinct segments: internal and external.

Internal risk is how the organization trains and operates to complete its missions. Just as in business, it is an area where there is an extensive risk mitigation process.  Individuals are put through an intense selection and training process to ensure they meet the unit standards.  Military operations are thoroughly rehearsed to ensure their success on the battlefield.  New technology is tested exhaustively without the rigors of combat to make sure it performs.  Finally, potentially dangerous activities such as parachuting and underwater operations have rigorous standard operating procedures to ensure they are conducted as safely as possible.

How Military Special Operations Teams Plan for Risk & Success. 

Before military SOF teams undertake high-risk operations, they slow the enthusiasm for a mission by conducting an emotionally detached, honest, and intelligence-driven assessment of the mission.  The SOF team fully explores the mission objectives and determines if they have the training, resources, and skills to accomplish the mission.

High risk and high reward operations is where military SOF creates the greatest impact to a successful military campaign.

One of the truly unique attributes of SOF mission planning is that personnel safety is one of the preeminent principles of a successful operation.  Why?  Because highly skilled, dedicated, and experienced operators are the resource in shortest supply.  You can get more helicopters, weapons, and ammunition easily.  Getting skilled crews to fly the helicopters and operate the weapons?  That can truly take years.

Finally, SOF mission planning lets intelligence and open discussion guide the final decision for a mission.  If the intelligence does not provide the details needed to achieve the desired outcome, then the mission is rarely approved.

SOF Planning Allows For More, Not Less, Risky Operations. 

Extensive internal Risk Mitigation procedures allow greater external risk for daring operations.  SOF units are employed for high-risk external operations, such as hostage rescue, but their internal risk mitigation practices of training, planning, intelligence operations, and contingency plans actually make them less risky in execution.

Examples of risky SOF operations that offer a high reward include the raid on Osama Bin Laden, and the use of Army Special Forces as the first military forces to invade Afghanistan shortly after 9/11.  All of these operations contained very high external risk that was mitigated by the personnel, training, planning, and intelligence analysis that eventually made the operations successful.  High risk and high reward operations is where military SOF creates the greatest impact to a successful military campaign.  By using strong internal risk mitigation and risk management principles, it allows greater success for externally risky operations.

SOF Risk Mitigation Works Well for Business Planning & Operations.

These internal and external risk frameworks apply equally well to business.  The internal risk mitigation measures that most businesses have today fall into the categories of quality programs, personnel training, safety enforcement, manufacturing excellence, strong cost controls, and rigorous accounting standards. These measures create organizations that can sustain and adapt to more risk.  Externally, a business with strong internal risk mitigation measures can look for greater opportunities that appear risky, because their internal risk controls actually mitigate much of the true risk to the enterprise.

It is entirely possible to have a successful mission without exercising a contingency plan but they still need to be in place.

To help businesses undertake greater risk to win, these three SOF risk techniques can be applied to business in a simple and straightforward fashion.

Three Risk Principles Special Operations Forces Employ to Win:

Principle 1 for External Risk Success – Identify, Anticipate, and React Early to Events Critical to Your Competitors Success.

In both business and the military, the classic question of “what will my competitor do” confronts both organizations at all times.  In the military, Intelligence and Operational leaders create a “most likely” enemy operational plan of what they believe the enemy will do, and then identify several critical and identifiable junctures in the estimated enemy plan.  The identification of these critical “action” points in a competitor’s plan then helps you create your own “action” points. When you see your competitor acting or about to act, you can implement a strategy to counter or mitigate your competitor’s success.

For example, if you expect a competitor to open a new restaurant location, you may examine your pricing, a frequent customer card, a menu redesign, or certain special menu items in the same geographic location.  When your competitor’s new restaurant is about to open, you then can launch the new menu, pricing, and specials to effectively mitigate your competitor’s new location opening.  This is a fantastic way to stay not just one, but three or more steps ahead of the competition.

Principle 2 for Internal Risk Mitigation – Train Well Beyond Your Comfort Zone. 

SOF training is incredibly physical and mentally demanding.  The goal of all SOF combat training is to make it as indistinguishable from combat as possible so people are as well prepared as possible to succeed when they enter combat.  The SOF training starts with identifying and recruiting great people and then testing them under a rigorous selection process to ensure they succeed in training.  Once the best have been recruited and selected, then a series of training events bring them to the level of a honed and skilled SOF operator.  Finally, personnel retention practices go together with training to ensure highly trained SOF personnel do not leave.

Principle 3 for External Risk Success – Create Contingency Plans to Solidify and Exploit Your Success.

Few businesses create plans and operational extensions to fully exploit their success.  One of the worst failures a business can have is to orchestrate a very successful product launch or a new service and then not be able to effectively expand or maintain the high levels of service that brought them the initial success.  SOF teams have multiple, highly elaborate contingency plans for all parts of a special operations mission from infiltration, to completing the mission objective, to exfiltration from the mission area back to base.  It is entirely possible to have a successful mission without exercising a contingency plan but they still need to be in place.

Summary – SOF Risk Planning Procedures Work Well For Business Success.

Being as successful as possible in risky situations is an absolute must for military SOF and business organizations alike.  How successful you are in a risky situation depends directly on how well you have trained and led your organization to mitigate internal risk so you can exploit external risk into success and long-term opportunity.  Businesses need to use the success they have created by having a strong internal risk mitigation strategy in order to identify and seize external opportunities to grow their company and grow their customer satisfaction.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Chad Storlie

Chad Storlie is a retired Lieutenant Colonel with 20-plus 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 Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. Chad is author of two books: "Combat Leader to Corporate Leader" and "Battlefield to Business Success." Both books teach how to translate and apply military skills to business. He has been published in The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and over 40 other publications. He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University. Follow Chad @Combattocorp.

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