Military-grade team building: 6 Special Ops skills that drive success

by | Feb 4, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

People inside and outside the military are constantly fascinated with Special Operations Forces (SOF). People love the high-tech equipment, silent weapons, dangerous scenarios, and thrilling missions. Any military force can have great weapons, great equipment, and great physical fitness and remain unsuccessful.

What makes SOF soldiers successful is their teamwork, planning, and leadership skills that are augmented with great weapons, technology, and supporting systems. SOF soldiers pride themselves on their high levels of planning, performance, and their simultaneous dedication to mission accomplishment and team members. Importantly, SOF soldiers at all levels have an unquenchable zeal on learning, improving, and teaching other team members. SOF soldiers, through heavy participation in creating, improving, and approving their final mission plans, have high level of engagements in mission success.

Adopting these SOF planning and leadership skill sets for your organization drives employee performance, innovation, team work, and engagement.

1. Use the backward planning process for smooth plan implementation

The backward planning process is a core military planning sequence that STARTS at the completed project and works back to the present. The backward planning process aligns resources, different organizations, activities, and synchronizes everything to ensure the entire organization works together. If my project is to supply materials to help build a bridge, my project plan starts when the bridge is open and works back from the bridge opening to the present. The week before the bridge opens; I should be part of the final bridge inspection and clean up the construction site. This backward planning logic goes to the 1st week of the project where I inspect the construction site and complete the list of needed supplies. The simplicity of this process is that when you start with success and work back, you incorporate all the critical steps necessary to get you to the planned success.

2. The war game process adds the challenge of competition to perfect good plans

War gaming is the next step in creating a great plan. War gaming is the process that tests and adapts battle plans against the expected (and unexpected) actions and reactions of the enemy. As a battle plan is developed, military planners have a separate team role-play the “enemy” to ensure the plan is challenged against the full range of what the enemy will and can do. Once the war game is complete, the initial plan is updated and re-written to ensure all the predicted enemy actions are mitigated. The war game process is when you put a draft plan against expected challenges and potential problems to ensure that your plan will be successful. From a store opening to a new product launch to the hiring process, the war game process works everywhere.

3. Rehearsals make good plans great

Innovation for any type of improvement in any industry needs constant testing, improving, followed by reevaluation. This ability to perform, test, and improve is a critical aspect of the innovation mindset and one that SOF soldiers excel. SOF excel at this process because the act of perfecting individual skills is a critical aspect of military excellence. The setting up of a machine gun by a weapon’s team quickly and under all weather conditions is a key aspect of success. Military convoy teams constantly rehearse and re-rehearse how to react to an enemy attack, treat an injured team member, or recover a stuck vehicle. The ability to know how to practice, improve, and practice again that SOF soldiers know at a fundamental level is critical to innovation and plan success.

4. A post event review captures and implements lessons learned

SOF uses the US Army’s After-Action Review (AAR) to review, capture, and learn from mistakes. The purpose of the AAR is to help an organization and individuals understand what happened, what worked, what did not work & why. Once the team understands and agree on what needs to be fixed, then the team acts together to discuss, experiment, find, and agree upon a solution. In the military, the AAR process is used daily and it is used in the same manner from unit’s sized 3-5 people to units consisting of thousands of people. One of the most valuable areas for the AAR is that a well-run AAR creates engagement by participants because it asks and listens to feedback from ALL team members regardless of rank, position, or experience.

5. Never expect a perfect plan—create back-up plans

Another Special Operations planning process is the P-A-C-E plan. P-A-C-E stands for Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency and its used to create four independent and effective ways to carry out critical battlefield processes such as casualty evacuation, ammunition resupply, or leaving an objective area. With P-A-C-E, Special Operations ensure success because they plan and expect problems and find ways to surmount obstacles to ensure the mission is a success even if the first three plans fail. Success is not by accident and success is never guaranteed.  PACE is a critical SOF planning process to make back up plans a key element of success.

6. Create team members that can both follow and lead

Does an innovation process need leaders or team members? The answer is yes to both. On great teams that foster innovation, a team member must be able to perform as both a leader and as a follower. The ability to know when to jump in front to lead, gather information, and take the initiative is just as important to know when to support the current leader, help the leader succeed, and help the leader be successful. A vast majority of people think of themselves as either a leader or a follower. SOF members know how to be both leader and follower. The ability to jump back and forth between leader and follower makes a SOF soldiers a dual asset because they can contribute 100% in either capacity.

Military SOF teams succeed through hard work, rehearsals, extensive training, extensive planning, thorough use of intelligence, and technology. However, the greatest asset to any team is the individual skill sets working together to enhance, train, teach, and lead the team to ever-higher levels of performance.

Chad Storlie
Chad Storlie is a retired US Army Special Forces officer and an adjunct Professor of Marketing at Flagler College. He is a mid-level B2B marketing executive and a widely published author on leadership, business, military and technology topics.


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