In some ways, dealing with disruption in business is akin to disruption on the battlefield. Plans and circumstances change all of the time, and the best teams adapt to that disruption and turn it to their advantage. The best way to make disruption your friend is to train, train, train.
That’s the advice of Captain Thomas Chaby, an active U.S. Navy SEAL and executive officer at the Naval Special Warfare Center that trains the elite soldiers.
Chaby spoke on the parallels between being a Navy Seal and succeeding in business in a talk at the Siggraph Business Symposium in Anaheim, Calif., on Sunday.
Business and war clearly aren’t the same thing. But they both involve hitting objectives, situational awareness, dealing with ambiguity, working in teams, and adapting to unpredictable conditions. Failing in business is one thing. But Chaby noted that no one wants to fail in combat because it means that somebody’s picture will go up on a memorial wall, and their kids will grow up without a parent.
Chaby was in charge of 550 Special Operations soldiers in Iraq in 2005. During that assignment, his teams located a huge cache of enemy weapons in a city. They were inspecting the ammunition and weaponry when an enemy combatant appeared on top of a building and aimed a rocket-propelled grenade at them.
Chaby said that the enemy could have fired that RPG and taken out a large number of soldiers from secondary explosions. But one relatively junior officer had ordered a bunch of snipers to be deployed in the surrounding area. And one of those Navy SEALs drew a bead on that combatant. Then, on his own authority, in clear violation of the usual rules of engagement procedures (where you have to notify superior officers first), that SEAL fired his sniper rifle and took out the enemy as well as another who tried to pick up the RPG. That was the right decision. Under dire circumstances with threat to the lives of U.S. personnel imminent, SEALs are allowed to take matters into their own hands.
“The SEAL who did that had two years of training,” he said.
That SEAL felt empowered enough to make a split-second life-or-death decision. Chaby said that kind of decisive action comes from years of training. He said that, before he was ever deployed in Special Operations in the field, he had more than 31,000 hours of training — the equivalent of four consecutive years.
That training didn’t just include intense physical exercise. It occurred under battlefield conditions. Like at night, with muzzle flashes of guns going off, in as chaotic an environment as possible. Soldiers would go into a simulated battle and then were told that their top three commanders were all dead and they had to adapt. The soldiers had to decide what to do in a fast-moving environment. The only way they could do so was to trust each other as a team and make sure that everyone did their jobs.
During the 58 weeks of Navy SEAL training, the trainers constantly played “reindeer games,” where they woke the trainees up at midnight to tell them they had to go on a mission with incomplete information. The idea was to drill into everyone’s heads that war is unpredictable. The SEALs became accustomed to that.
“Embracing change,” Chaby said. “That’s the norm.”
The feedback from the trainers was also direct and candid. If someone was a screw-up, they were told that. Those screw-ups either improved or left the service. They were told to improve or get out, and they usually improved.
“You have to give people a chance,” Chaby said. “Empower them. Grow them. Give them time.”
Disclosure: The organizers of the Siggraph Business Symposium covered part of my expenses to Anaheim. Our coverage remains objective.