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 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


What’s So Special about Special Ops?

In 1970, Army Special Forces launched a daring commando raid on the Son Tay prisoner of war camp near Hanoi. To prepare for the mission, they conducted 170 full dress rehearsals at a mock-up of the prison camp in Florida. The operation went flawlessly, and although the U.S. prisoners had been moved before the raid, news of the attempt spread throughout POW camps in North Vietnam; many captured servicemen later said that it gave them the will to survive.

Is doing 170 rehearsals of a major sales presentation to a client a reasonable expectation for a corporation? No, but how about just one rehearsal? That would be above the norm for most managers. Walmart  Stores Inc. showed how powerful this type of preparedness can be when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency was woefully unprepared for the disaster. Walmart filled the gap in supplying aid to many Louisiana communities because of the exceptional preparedness of its emergency management department and emergency operations center, which had repeatedly rehearsed for similar contingencies and put in place a series of procedures and protocols for responding to a natural disaster.

3. Realism. Special forces training is characterized by extreme realism. Medics will treat “injured” soldiers who have pumps squirting “arterial blood” and sport Hollywood-quality makeup. For a simulated mission, men may be kept awake for two or three nights in a row and subjected to lifelike explosions and bullet fire. The final exercise to earn the Army’s Green Beret lasts a full two weeks and involves more than 1,000 personnel.

Some corporations use computer-based business simulations or lengthy case-study scenarios to teach executives — putting them in charge of a fictitious company for three days, for example — but it is not a widespread practice.

4. Constant feedback. A key feature of SOF training is constant and relentless feedback about performance. Nearly every exercise — from tying knots while holding your breath underwater to building a camouflaged shelter — is graded by experienced instructors, and most exercises have an “after action” review that bluntly analyzes what went well and what could have been improved. At regular intervals, instructors rank the men in their training units according to performance, and often ask each team member to rank everyone in his unit. They might very well confront a trainee and ask, “Why do you think your team members ranked you dead last?”

5. Physical and mental stress. Hell Week, or some variation of it, is a feature of most SOF training programs. Navy SEAL trainees, for example, are forced to function over a span of 100 hours while being allowed a total of five hours of sleep. These experiences have a purpose: They simulate actual combat conditions, they expand the trainees’ comfort zone, and they provide a benchmark experience that makes subsequent hardships more manageable. They also create a powerful (albeit painful) shared experience that is an indelible part of the culture of special operations.

Some companies create such shared experiences early on in their employees’ tenure, and it is a very effective technique. General Electric Company’s leadership development center at Crotonville, for example, is a legendary hotbed of intense learning experiences that form part of the shared culture of many GE employees. And Japanese companies have traditionally put new recruits through multi-month training and indoctrination programs. These experiences don’t approach the brutality of Hell Week, but they often require late nights or weekends spent with colleagues working to solve common problems.

Hanging Together

Business organizations talk endlessly about the importance of teamwork, but in special operations, teamwork is truly rooted in the culture. Training instructors take a black-and-white approach: If the team does well, everyone is rewarded; if a single individual commits an infraction, the entire team is punished. During SOF qualification programs, many activities are designed to promote teamwork; these might include carrying large logs together or doing “buddy breathing” underwater, in which four men must share a single snorkel to get their oxygen. The log-carrying exercise, in which a team of 10 or 12 trainees must carry around a 1,000-pound log for several hours each day — including to and from meals — looks like pure punishment but is actually a powerful team-building activity. One recently graduated SOF operator described it this way: “If you are not all perfectly in step as you walk, the log starts to sway from side to side and go out of control. You master the log together, as a team, or you just fall apart.”

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