What businesses can learn about agility from Navy Special Operations Teams

Apr 10, 2019

By Nick Horney

What are the characteristics that come to mind when you think of the Navy’s Special Operations Teams? Key aspects might include: agility, speed, elitism, focus, adaptability, awareness, confidence and stealth.   What can businesses learn from the agility of the Navy’s Special Operations Teams, faced with a highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business environment?

These units operate under conditions of great secrecy. But more is known about them as a result of the reporting of the Osama Bin Laden operation by Seal Team Six and the rescue of Jessica Buchanan, an American aid worker, and Danish man, Poul Hagen Thisted from Somali captors (Washington Post Link -- Spec Ops Operation).   Films such as Act of Valor (2012) and Men of Honor (2000) have added to the interest.

Special Operations is the Navy’s designation of special warfare and hazardous duty diving units – Seal Team, Diving & Salvage and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD).  The fundamental difference in Special Operations Teams from other teams is that they embody and demonstrate agility.   Special Operations Teams demonstrate agility by anticipating change, generating confidence, initiating action, liberating thinking and evaluating results (The AGILE Model®).

Appearing on CBS' "The Early Show," retired Army Major General James "Spider" Marks (who served as a senior intelligence officer during the war in Iraq) shared some information about the Bin Laden operation. It includes useful lessons for all of us:
Anticipate Change -- "What preceded all the action on the ground was an incredible amount of very difficult, often very boring but necessary, meticulous, intelligence work that brought us to this conclusion. There was a lot of hard work by a lot of agencies, and a lot of sharing in order to make this right."  
What happens when teams do not effectively anticipate change?  What and how is your team investing in trend and pattern analysis to identify shifts in the business environment that impact the team?  How is scenario planning used by the team?  Agile teams, whether in corporations or part of Special Operations, do not need everything to go perfectly.  They need the team to be ready when things do not go as planned due to the turbulence in the world we live in.  Teams have to be able to make immediate adjustments for the team member who injures himself during a diving operation or work around the analyst who quits her job at a critical stage of a project.  How do agile teams prepare for this kind of turbulence?  They use techniques such as environmental scanning, trend analysis and scenario planning to identify trends, events, shifts, etc.  and alternative actions to take in the event of the scenario occurring.

Generate Confidence -- "They've done this in advance, in their heads, and on the ground in secluded locations, so when they execute, it really is simply a matter of staying focused. It's like a machine going about the business. The heart rates don't go up. They stay very focused.”
Individual leader confidence spreads to the team.  Confidence builds with successes or wins.  Achieving wins and linking those wins to overall mission success through line-of-sight recognition and reinforcement are essential to generating confidence.  Special Operations teams generate confidence through accelerating the learning by after-action reviews.  These reviews are focused feedback and diagnosis sessions of what worked well and what did not work as well so that the planning for the next mission with similar characteristics can benefit from the after-action key learnings.   Businesses can learn from taking the time to do their own version of after-action reviews.  However, most organizations focus more on placing blame for what did not go so well as opposed to learning from the initiative. 

Initiate Action – “They do what needs to be done, and then they get it done. In fact, we're hearing that they were on the objective no more than 40 minutes. I would argue that they probably had the objective secured within about five to ten minutes.

Speed and sense of urgency exemplify special operations teams.   A focus on cycle time for a variety of different scenarios is practiced by Special Operations Teams.  Especially important are life-threatening evolutions that are practiced so that everyone on the team knows his/her role and is able to execute flawlessly.  Businesses can learn a great deal about speed from Special Operations Teams.  Although some teams in business measure cycle time, often it is only incremental improvements in speed that result.  Business teams, acting with speed, are often able to outmaneuver other teams represented by competitive organizations. 

Liberate Thinking – “A full-scale replica of the compound was erected in the special ops sector of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, allowing Seal Team Six to practice their assault under multiple scenarios - with many guards, few guards, with/without explosives, etc.”
How do Special Operations Teams build a culture that embraces out-of-the-box thinking?  Although Special Ops Teams plan every evolution, every member of the team is encouraged to identify opportunities for improvement and creative solutions.  In addition, during the evolution, Special Ops Team members are trained to think creatively based on the situation, past experience, safety and other key factors.  Successful business teams also exhibit innovation and creativity, especially if they are formed or chartered to come up with creative solutions.   Departmental teams, project teams and others require proactive direction by the team leader who encourages innovation and creativity by his/her questions, actions and expectations. 

Evaluate Results -- They had to do some cleanup operations to make sure they were at the right place, they had the right guys, and then they evacuated."
Special Operations Teams rely on key metrics and feedback mechanisms to continuously learn and improve.  Businesses often feel they can either have systems like this, or they can be agile. They believe that metrics and feedback impede performance and get in the way. But for Special Forces, both are necessary – they will confront similar situations again, and they need to internalize the lessons.

How can you gain additional first-hand knowledge about agility as practiced by the Navy’s Special Operations Teams without enlisting in the Navy to become a Seal Team member?    Agility Consulting offers organizations the opportunity of learning about agility from the Navy’s Special Operations Teams called Spec Ops Agility™ (Spec Ops Agility - Keynote).   Although you can’t expect to generate the same capabilities as a Special Operations Unit, it is possible to learn how to improve the key capabilities that those units have, and which we expect them to be ready to demonstrate every day.
Dr. Nick Horney is a Principal and founder of Agility Consulting and specializes in providing products and services that enable individuals, teams and organizations to effectively anticipate and respond to change in the business environment. Nick works with Agility Spec Ops Affiliates (former Navy Special Operations Team members) to deliver keynote presentations and seminars focused on the application of Spec Ops Agility™ to companies in all business sectors.  Find more information about Spec Ops Agility™ seminars on the Agility Consulting website Spec Ops Agility - Seminar.

About the Author(s)

Nick Horney, Ph.D. (Retired Navy Captain, Special Operations. Dr. Horney founded Agility Consulting and Training in 2001and has been recognized for innovations in the fields of leadership and organizational development. Prior to forming Agility Consulting, he served on the Executive Committee of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) as Vice President of Client and Constituency Relations.

His first-hand knowledge of agility and change management was developed during his 23 years as a Navy Special Operations officer leading diving and explosive ordnance disposal teams, where change was daily event.

He serves on McKinsey’s Online Executive Panel, the Chief Learning Officer Magazine's Business Intelligence Board, and the Advisory Board for the Business School of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

He received his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of South Florida.