“It starts by making sure that everybody on the team is incredibly clear about the mission intent. Stated and unstated. Why, what and how you’re going to achieve the mission.” –Mark Divine
In this episode, the Commander reads the new introductory chapter for his book “The Way of the SEAL.” In the new chapter called, “Leading in Accelerating Times,” he describes how to manage and lead and deal with the rapidly evolving challenges of the modern world. From this episode, learn about:
- The VUCA environment—Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity and how a leader deals with that challenge
- How to keep using the OODA loop (observe, orient, decide and act) to make decisions even when it’s hard
- The principles brought forward in the rest of the book about how to lead in business, including how to lead Millennials and how to use Rapid Planning Models
Listen in as Mark provides us with an insight to the new edition with a focus on how to lead in a changing world.
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Transcript & Shownotes
This is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind Podcast. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining me today. Today I have a solo recording. I’m super-stoked to be updating “The Way of the SEAL” for a 5th Anniversary edition to be launched April or so of 2018. The reason for the relaunch is the book continues to sell very well.
It seems to be actually picking up steam because the conditions in the outer and the business world, or any organizational world for that matter, seem to be speeding up, getting more chaotic and more dangerous. And the principles of “The Way of The SEAL” are designed to help leaders operate in that environment. That environment that we call a VUCA environment–Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.
So this first new chapter will open the book. And it’s called “Leading in Accelerating Times.” Here we go.
SEAL operators since 9/11 have dealt with rapidly changing landscapes on the battlefield. Dynamic tactics and advanced technology have come together to create a “just-in-time” warfare environment–where the enemy creates new techniques and improvised tools almost instantaneously. And where information and money-flow often determine the outcome of a conflict.
Yet the business landscape is mirroring this rapid change in many ways. And this book, “The Way of the SEAL,” is a treatise on leading in this accelerating world. Something the SEALs are uniquely qualified to do.
The 8 principles of “The Way of the SEAL,” and the tools that support you in learning and embodying each emerge out of the laboratory of elite operators committed to being the most forward thinking, prepared for anything, adaptable to changing weeks, mentally and physically tough bad-asses around. And when any leader is that prepared, that flexible, and that willing to embrace change and go with the flow without losing sight of goals. Then they are equipped to deal with anything that the world throws at them. No matter how fast the change comes.
That leader needs to be you.
Now let’s dive into the major themes causing this accelerating environment. The first is the pace of technology advancement occurring as a result of the impact of Moore’s Law of computing power. This law identified by Intel co-founder, Gordon Moore, in 1965, sees the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubling every year or so since their invention.
That means we’re nearing a single computing device having the computing power of the brain of a human and soon the entire human race. Combine this with a second trend of the intersection of the cloud, artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors, 3D printing, VR, AR, nanotech and the Internet of things. And we seem to be racing toward a future predicted by sci-fi writers. But one we never imagined to be on us in our lifetimes.
And finally, with social media and smartphones, we’re seeing the ability to connect globally through near-ubiquitous Wi-Fi with 6 billion plus people even in the remotest spots on the globe.
This is all extraordinary. And the impact on culture and industrial age institutions striving to maintain control makes us all feel like things are spinning out of control.
An added complexity for established leaders is that we have a generation coming into the workforce with a radically different relationship to technology and change than the quote “over-30” crowd. Which includes me by a long shot.
This millennial generation is made up of people like my son and a bit older. What some are calling the quote “i” generation. As in “iPhone, iRobot” etc. Tech savvy thinkers they are who grew up with ubiquitous Internet and mobile phones. This is the first generation that takes this crush of technology for granted and their brains have adapted through neural plasticity in a way that we don’t yet fully understand.
But we can see and appreciate the effect these millennials are having globally in business and the political landscape. They’re changing the rules of the game, both for better and worse.
IN the business world, we’re having to rewrite the rules of what a performance culture looks like. Millennials don’t value the same economic incentives as we did. Or any of the tried and true organizational paradigms for that matter. In politics and warfare, they are leading the charge and the change as well. One of the reasons we’re struggling, figuring out how to confront terrorism and ISIS is that they’re operators are primarily 15 to 25 year-olds using the Internet or the Dark Net, blogging, social media and video in ways that have never been used before in warfare.
We however, are fighting “last-year’s war” or the last war in terms of the tools and our traditional strategies. And the tactics have limited impact on the enemy.
They are acting and reacting much more quickly than us because they’re comfortable operating in a volatile, fast and complex environment. In ways that our conventional thinkers are not.
This has given them an edge. And has forced the West to turn to Special Operators to learn how to become more adaptable and flexible.
Now this book is not about warfare, of course, but the lessons of leading in a VUCA battlefield are now necessary for business leaders to learn and to implement for maximum firepower.
What is a VUCA environment? VUCA is an acronym the military’s used for some time. It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. The hallmarks of this accelerating business environment that we find ourselves in. SEALs and other SOF–Special Operations Force–teams have mastered leading in VUCA environments. Quite frankly, because they have to. If they want to survive and achieve their mission.
What does it feel like for the business leader to operate in this environment? I would say downright confusing and scary. Now the millennial generation which came up in the age of digital comforts, YouTube, Snapchat and social media puts high value on freedom of information and openness. They believe that content is meant to flow, not be siloed and fenced off with intellectual property protection or security firewalls. They will borrow, steal and share things that were created by others and think nothing of it.
So intellectual property protection is now a thing of the past, and the business leader or entrepreneur must simply outsmart, outrun and outperform the competition.
And if in the process of building a company, the leaders do something that it’s employees and the public (read customers) think is unfair even if legal. And making good business sense.
Then they’ll swarm like a drone army to scorn and effect change. Often leading to someone apologizing or stepping down. Or, these employees will leak documents to reporters or share them online. And once it’s out there, it’s out there.
Privacy is dead as well. Almost everything we once considered private–from our financial dealings, relationships, and ideas–are fodder for the Internet’s social engine. Political leaders are flailing to deal with the changes too. Leading to extreme polarization, propagandized news and break-down or paralysis as we see in the US and the EU.
Bottom-line, power that used to be fixed in the form of capital or legal protection–whether individually or with corporate or governmental institutions–is losing ground quickly to the power of social and idea flows. Humanity is using technology to affect massive change, intentionally and unwittingly, for better or for worse. The norms of behavior have clearly changed, so today’s leaders must change also.
And it isn’t accurate to say to the over-30 exec “You need to think a millennial.” But what I am saying is that to lead in a VUCA environment such as this, effective leaders will need to adopt and open, excited attitude toward mastering the new skills of “The Way of the SEAL.” To win in their minds first. To work the inner skills which tap greater quote “mind power,” which will facilitate wins in the field.
And shifting their perspective to work for the benefit of all. As world-centric leaders in this accelerating world.
Mastering the VUCA Environment
The one thing that you can count on these days is that things will continue to change and continue to appear to speed up. Knowing this, with the tools in this book, you can train to deal with this type of change.
Now there have been other books and schools of thought around the concept of “change-leadership” but none of them work very well in this new landscape. Because they are focused on trying to control the process for a known outcome.
SEALs on the other hand, understand that we can never control the process and that the outcome is often unknown. It won’t look exactly like you imagined. You can only focus on one mission at a time, aligned with your vision. And define what targets and criterion will lead to acceptable results. The rest you need to be flexible about as you fail your way forward.
Now you’ll hear me say this in the book, “no plan will ever survive contact with the enemy.” Or with the reality of whatever circumstance is out there. This is the first premise to accept. If you want to master operating in a VUCA environment.
Mastery over VUCA change requires that we embrace vertical leadership development. Vertical development is the type of development that creates lasting changes in neurological structures. Altering brain functions and world-views. It creates a quantum shift in mental complexity of the operating system itself. Leading to a more complex and nuanced, intuitive thinking, feeling and social relating. Evolving the leader 5 times faster than ordinary growth can. Vertical development–such as with “The Way of the SEAL” model–allows leaders to surf volatility with a powerful vision. To neutralize uncertainty and find mutual understanding. To simplify complexity, to gain clarity and clarify ambiguity by becoming agile and eliminating doubt with powerful action.
The VUCA driver of Volatility is overcome with “The Way of the SEAL” response of vision, radical focus, clarifying your intent versus reacting.
The VUCA driver of uncertainty is overcome with “The Way of the SEAL” response of understanding. Mitigating your cognitive bias. Finding that sacred silence. And taking small OODA loop actions.
The VUCA driver of complexity is overcome with “The Way of the SEAL” response of gaining clarity through perspective taking. Reframing, regrouping and recharging.
And the VUCA driver of ambiguity is overcome with “The Way of the SEAL” response of agility. Fast-twitch iteration. OODA looping and challenging everything.
Let’s start out with learning how to surf volatility. Learn to thrive in chaos. Surf volatility like it’s just another wave under your board. Easy day. Comfort with chaos requires complete control of the only thing that you can control. Your mental and emotional response to the external threat. All of the tools introduced in this book will train that. But let’s start by seeing how radical focus will lead to greater situational awareness, internal control and decision making power.
Get Radically Focused
Imagine you’re leading a SEAL team on an op to capture a key ISIS leader in war-torn Syria. The op is going down at 0300 and the weather has turned nasty. The location is fixed and the helo drops toward the target. Suddenly, a rocket blazes within inches of the bird. And the door gunner begins raining down lead into the darkness.
The chopper makes a dangerously steep descent and lands with a jarring thud a click away from the original drop-zone. You lead your team out the door, set security and then proceed to the target like nothing happened.
At the target, you breach the door and enter the structure to find it riddled with bad guys shooting in all directions. You and your team quietly dispatch them and secure the target, collecting any intel you can find.
On the way to the extraction site, you engage in a running gun battle with fighters attracted to the sound of gunfire. This doesn’t distract you from completing the mission. And as the helo lifts off with your team intact, you silently praise the training that allowed this op to be another easy day.
Now that level of focus needs to be yours in the chaotic missions of your business leadership. You will need superior situational awareness to discern the subtleties of what’s going on, and to maintain control of your thoughts and emotions as the metaphorical rounds are zinging near you.
The primary skill that will allow you to surf this type of volatility is radical focus. Focusing with SEAL-like precision on the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. And then to take, immediately, a powerful action.
When I was at SEAL team 3, I had the privilege of leading the same group of men for 4 years straight. With so much time working together so closely, I developed an uncanny sense of what my teammates were thinking and feeling during long missions that included extended durations of silence.
Often the thoughts of my teammates would flash into my mind. And I would just know what they were going to do before they did it. Because the heightened risk in the field, I was employing more of my mind’s skills. And my senses came alive to help me stay focused and on target. This included that sixth sense which told me when danger was close. I found that radical focus came from a combination of mission clarity and this type of situational awareness.
Now in principle 2 and 3 of the book, you’re going to learn how to clarify your mission focus, and bulletproof it. And then in principle 7, how to build your intuitive leadership skills. Now radical focus is the core skill while surfing volatility. Because it keeps you focused on key targets while simultaneously aware of the threats, distractions and even opportunities that seek to deter you from mission accomplishment.
It’s easy to let these simple business distractions pull you off target. Obsessive email communications, unnecessary meeting overload, negativity accruing from the constant pressure of volatility–can be from you or your team. Fatigue, or burn-out. And loss of vision or a deep knowingness of why you’re doing the work to begin with.
Maintaining radical focus is essential to avoiding these obstacles. Developing that level of focus begins not by trying to control or eliminate the obstacles–which will always be there. But by carving out time each day to focus and clear your mind. You can begin this practice with a Box Breathing technique described in the book.
Find Dynamic Stability
I surfed a bit when I was in the teams. And I always found it a challenge, because I didn’t grow up doing balancing sports such as surfing, skateboarding, or snowboarding. I was a linear guy. I grew up with a linear, fixed concept of sports, time, work and property. Compared to Millennial’s flexible, flowing concepts of these same things. And the business world is no longer linear either. It’s much more like balancing on a surfboard as it rides a wave of water. And inherently dynamic and somewhat unpredictable force.
Finding stability amid the dynamism requires retraining if you didn’t grow up with it. It requires training to be balanced and at ease in chaos. Otherwise we’re going to feel unbalanced, out-of-whack, and scared when things seem to spiral out of our control.
Navy SEALs are not comfortable when it’s quiet and things seem quote “normal.” We expect that those moments are the calm before the storm. There’s definitely something going on. And the shit’s about to hit the fan. There’s an ambush ahead, an IED out there somewhere. A part in the aircraft is about to break loose. Or my weapon, is getting ready to jam, because it hasn’t jammed in 9 months.
SEALs just expect that Murphy is always waiting to break something or make something go awfully wrong. And because we expect that, we get comfortable with the discomfort of it. Which allows us to find professionally enjoyment in solving the complex problems that arise on the spot.
The entire team is always aware that the situation is volatile and anything can and will go wrong at any time. So we’re not on edge or stressed about it, but calmly anticipating that soon, we will need to solve multiple challenges and grope our way forward to success. We’re stable in dynamic and volatile environments.
So how do you get yourself and your team to this same level of dynamic stability?
It starts by making sure that everybody on the team is incredibly clear about the mission intent. Stated and unstated. Why, what and how you’re going to achieve the mission. What are the boundaries and the indicators of success? What are you going to do when things go wrong? And where do you shift your fire when they do? And who’s in charge at each stage of the mission execution?
When you’re dealing with the unpredictability and rapid change of a volatile environment, having the team crystal clear on these mission parameters is crucial. Then when the change happens, you expect it, you’re ready for it. And the team maintains mission focus in spite of it.
The how of achieving mission success is dynamic. But the mission itself and its focus… the focus on it is stable. The elite way the SEAL operator fully embraces volatility and rides the wave of change with confidence
Let’s talk about uncertainty. Neutralizing uncertainty. It’s uncommon to remain confident and moving forward fast in volatile environments. There is an enormous amount of uncertainty and human beings, in general, despise uncertainty. We want to have the answers. We want to know what we’re in for when we jump off the ramp into the dark night.
But this innate need for certainty will paralyze you or get you killed in accelerating environments. When taking time to get to 100% solution, can mean the difference between success and auguring in. In order to get to greater understanding in uncertain situations, you will need to get comfortable with an 80% solution. By learning to mitigate your decision biases, eliminate doubt through action and use rapid planning tools.
Mitigate decision biases: it’s important to mitigate cognitive biases, especially when moving quickly. Daniel Connoman’s Nobel Prize winning work, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” is a must-read treatise on how the brain works under normal conditions. He found that our brains–wired by nature to conserve energy and avoid danger–operate with 2 systems that mutually support each other.
System 1 is the subconscious snap-decision brain. While system 2 is a slower, rational thinking through a problem brain.
Now this served us fairly well when the decisions we had to make were focused on survival, and keeping the human race growing. But our complex society now has exposed flaws in the human brain in the form of cognitive biases. Which inhibit effective decision making in the best of times. And render our brains an outright liability in uncertain and volatile times,
Now companies that have gone the way of the Dodo bird such as Xerox, Yahoo and Myspace were clubbed by cognitive bias. In particular, confirmation bias. Blind spots. Projection bias, and group-think. Leaders who have learned to mitigate decision bias such as Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, built agile and adaptable companies that change with the times and create entire new categories of business.
These leaders and many others like them display “Way of the SEAL” thinking by acknowledging that the brain can be a brutal enemy or fickle friend.
One of the best ways to deal with doubt, skepticism and uncertainty is to not trust your brain’s normal patterns. How your decision making worked in the past is not going to serve you well now. You need to access more mental resources than you have in the past. And the way to unlock these resources is through training in the tools of “The Way of the SEAL.” Breath control, concentration, visualization and meditation. These skills open you up to see the patterns of your system 1 mind, and give you the mindfulness to interrupt and even change those patterns.
As leaders, you must embrace and practice these skills. Both individually and with your team to dislodge the mental ruts of the industrial age and trigger that vertical development we spoke of earlier. Leading to greater awareness, perspectives and decision accuracy.
At my company, “Unbeatable” we Box Breath before important meetings and events. And we have space set up for yoga, functional fitness and meditation at work. And we visualize our mission and our goals. It’s expected that everyone participates in the team training as well as maintain a personal practice on their own time.
Now this has led to an environment where everyone trusts and respects each other more, while also challenging the status quo of flawed thinking. Everyone is quote “Doing the work” of meditating, contemplating and thinking about their thinking. And developing an intuitive ability to question their instinctual decisions and primed automatic reactions.
We’re going to get more into the intuitive decision making process in principle 7 of the book. And my companion book, “Unbeatable Mind,” digs into cognitive bias in greater detail. For now though, it’s just important for The Way of the SEAL leader to begin to question snap judgments, bottom-line feelings and strong emotional reactions to just about everything. They may be leading you into an ambush.
Avoiding decision bias requires that we question everything. Our own limitations, even. And test every new idea, product and sales pitch with a minimum viable effort. Eliminating doubt through action.
Rapid Planning Models
Use rapid planning models. Once you’re aware of your decision bias, you can move forward quickly and confidently by employing rapid planning models.
A rapid planning model helps you to slow down to think well before you speed up again to act. In the teams, we say, “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” Slow down and use a simple planning tool to make a decision on what’s next. Tools help to declutter the battlefield and to narrow your field of vision to the most important inputs affecting the outcome of your mission. You can quickly assess your opportunities and make a plan to move forward.
Now the best tools that I have found to eliminate doubt and get positive feedback as you go, are the FITS, PROP and SMACC rapid planning tools that I introduce in principle 1 and 2. I developed them for my businesses based upon some of the tools that I used during my SEAL operating days.
They’re go to decision models for uncertain times. One aspect of these models that many find difficult to grasp is that we use them to plan for failure.
Planning for failure is SOP–or Standard Operating Procedure–in the SOF community. It’s emulated by some elite entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk at SpaceX. Now failure after failure with his unproven, reusable rocket would have crushed most entrepreneurial teams who lacked a leader like Musk. Who has a big “why” vision and the ability to align his team around that vision. The SpaceX team planned to fail their way forward, learning from each evolution until they succeeded. And in the process they redefined the space launch industry.
This will become critical thinking for all leaders to thrive in this accelerating world. What better way to neutralize uncertainty and to eliminate doubt than planning for failure, and having backup plans on the shelf ready to roll when things go wrong. And SEALs visualize what can go wrong. But then they actually plan for what to do using their rapid planning tools. And to become masters at neutralizing uncertainty.
Then you eliminate doubt further by taking small but bold actions to learn your way through the unknown terrain.
Eliminate Doubt Through Action
Uncertainty, when not clarified will breed doubt. And doubt in the mission or the means to accomplish it is a death blow for the team. Doubt causes you to question your past actions and your current thinking. You can’t move forward with confidence and conviction when you have doubt. But the Catch-22 here is that you also can’t just think, or self-talk your way out of doubt.
Therefore The Way of the SEAL leader must eliminate uncertainty and doubt by checking back in with the vision. And to mitigate bias with those rapid planning tools. And then get things moving again with action.
As mentioned earlier, whether on a business or a SEAL mission, we expect we’ll inevitably run into an obstacle. Something will break or we’ll get ambushed. There’s always something. When that happens the common leader will head back to base to hunker down until help arrives. Or they give up. Which in the field can literally or figuratively get you killed.
The Way of the SEAL leader will bring focus back to the vision and align the team’s intent around that vision to get them moving again. It’s not the “how,” but the “why” of the mission that counts.
I concur. And it is that understanding of why things must be done combined with the action that eradicates doubt and brings confidence back to the team.
But what’s the right action now? That is for you to figure out by choosing the best option that represents the smallest arc to get the OODA loop–Observe, Orient, Decide and Act loop–moving again. Doubt, you see, disrupts the OODA loop because what you observe you can’t make sense of. It’s impossible to orient yourself or your team to it, so it interrupts the loop.
Which is a key strategy in combat. Causing the enemy to become momentarily blind or paralyzed. When uncertainty and doubt do this to you, jump a step in the loop by taking a small but bold action which will get you some immediate feedback. This is like probing by firing shots in different directions to find out where the enemy is.
I’m not talking about a major movement either. Just some small action that’s going to move you forward and bring immediate feedback.
And what does that feedback bring you? Confidence. When you plan your mission uncertainty can also be eliminated by mentally rehearsing what can go wrong and having contingency plans worked out that provide you set actions in advance. Plan for change. Plan to fail. But have built-in redundancy. The SEALs say that 2 is 1 and 1 is none. If your primary weapon goes down, always have a secondary at the ready. If your main website server goes down, you’ve got a secondary lined-up. If the first product idea fails, you’ve got a variation or another iteration to immediately roll out. You’ll learn more of the tools to deal with rapid action in principle 4 on cultivating mental toughness. And principle 6 on breaking things. And in principle 8 on developing an offensive mindset.
The 3rd element of a VUCA accelerating environment is complexity. This occurs when linear thinking just doesn’t work any longer. Now it’s important to differentiate between “complicated” and “complex.” A bureaucracy may be complicated, but it’s linear and understandable by the human brain. You can figure out how to navigate it. If you want a 30 year career and to end up at the top, you can reason that path out. And if you have the right stuff, you’ve got a good chance of getting there.
Now complexity, on the other hand is complicated in a non-linear way and completely unpredictable. The human brain simply can’t figure it out with traditional thinking and pattern recognition tools.
Our imperative is to know when things are complex, and to search for simplicity on the other side of that complexity. Captain Bob Schoultz, a friend and retired SEAL who teaches ethics and leadership to SEAL officers thinks it comes down to asking the right questions to get to the essential nature of why we are doing things. Said another way, what is the why behind the why?
When we can stay connected to this deeper why, we can find more simple solutions to these complex challenges. Here are some good questions to consider when you get stuck in complexity.
Why are we on this mission? What does victory look like to us and why? What are the acceptable norms of behavior or rules of engagement to achieve this vision and why? Why is this all important to us as a team? What will happen if we don’t achieve our vision? And what is the minimum viable solution? And finally, if we put ourselves in the mind of our enemy–or customer, or competitor–would we get the “why”?
Now the answer to these questions will help you clarify things to find simplicity so that you can regroup, reframe and recharge the team.
Regroup, Reframe, Recharge
One of the simplest ways I know to simplify things is to reframe the challenge in simpler terms. The Way of The SEAL leader will learn to problem-solve from a place of greater perspective. Shifting your perspective happens naturally as the result of vertical leadership development. As you develop across the 5 mountains of physical, mental, emotional, intuitive and Kokoro or heart/mind action. And you’re grow your complimentary leadership skill sets, you’re perspective taking and making skills as a leader also evolve.
At each level of development, aspects of your thinking expand then stabilize. And you begin to see patterns that you didn’t recognize before.
This process will help greatly when you’re looking for simpler solutions. And it is a critical skill for operating well in an accelerating world.
Joshua Ramos Cooper, author of “The Seventh Sense” agrees that we need to train our minds to be less fixed and to open up to the flowing patterns around us. In fact, this is necessary to avoid breakdowns and reality distortions caused by the inability to grasp onto familiar mental models in these accelerating times. Joshua’s Chinese meditation teacher told him quote “The disease of the agrarian age was pestilence. The disease of the industrial age was cancer. But the disease of the information age is going to be insanity.” Wow.
I believe he’s right, in the sense that the destabilization that we’re seeing in politics, business and the environment results in people feeling like they can’t figure anything out anymore. Traditional foundations of thinking and acting are not working the way they used to. Doing the same thing and expecting different results is making things worse. And that makes for a very anxious and stressful world. Globally this looks like mass insanity.
Many disagreements can seem complex because of the different points of view of the invested parties. How do you find the simple solution that can meet everyone’s needs? Everyone involved in negotiations know how hard this can be, as each party acts out of their own self-interest. Yet The Way of the SEAL leader, operating from an integrated perspective, will acknowledge the value of each party’s position as legitimate from their respective stage of development and world-view.
They also wouldn’t expect the other parties to understand where they are coming from. So the first step is to pause and regroup with some good questions to understand the other party’s perspective. Then you can reframe the issue to speak from where they are, not from where you are.
This applies to how you would lead a Millennial as well. Instead of just getting frustrated that they don’t share your values, or judging them for not being like you, you regroup to step into their shoes and say, “Oh, okay. I get it. She grew up in an age where everything was free online. Her instinct is to make things available. Not to keep them under lock-down. I understand why she has these values now. Knowing that, how can I reframe the discussion to better meet her needs and to communicate mine?”
This approach recharges the energy between the warring parties and gets things moving forward again with a simpler solution to what may have seemed like an intractable, complex or unsolvable problem.
Here’s an illustration. In 2017 there was an incident where a passenger was literally dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight. Everyone involved–from the CEO to the crew, and even the security officers–get a big “fail” for how they handled this incident.
The situation got out of control because all parties were acting from limited perspective. And not empowered to do anything but follow a rule of engagement that protected the airline at the expense of individual passengers.
Instead of pausing to regroup by asking, “What is the right thing for the passenger and the airline?” they reacted out of fear to try to control the outcome. Had the crew members simply thought “Let me regroup and put myself in the eyes of this passenger,” things could have gone much better. She may have seen that this individual felt really abused and upset. Further, by looking around, she would have noticed that someone was filming the incident, about to spam social media. Her response would have been much more nuanced and in everyone’s best interests.
This is a good example of the old, fixed rules not working in this world of social capital. Which flows instantaneously. United probably lost 10 years of credibility in 2 days with outdated thinking. Learning to slow down mentally to regroup, reframe and recharge when something bad or new happens requires that we develop the skills of pattern recognition and shifting perspectives.
This process allows us to simplify the battlefield by gathering relevant information from the different angles and then to turn that information into knowledge. Which we can use for wiser actions.
The United CEO could have seen that the pattern of social media flow and the perspectives of the passengers and crew weren’t flowing in a way that benefitted United. He could have regrouped and thought, “Ah, I get it. The pattern here is what’s been working in the past isn’t working now.” The simple reframe solution would be to acknowledge that oversight immediately, apologize to the impacted passenger and all customers, by saying, “This was a huge mistake. It occurred because of our blind spots. And we’re making immediate changes to correct our procedures and policies. Further, the impacted passenger will get free flights for 5 years.”
Everyone who flies and who was following this incident would have thought to themselves, “Wow. Check that out. This airline rocks.” And the trending hashtags on Twitter or Facebook would have been very different.
Blasting Through Ambiguity
If we know the world is appearing more volatile, uncertain and complex then it follows that it’s also more ambiguous. Ambiguity occurs when there’s no exact meaning or solution. There’s more than one interpretation to what’s going on. Things get very vague and obscure. Leading to even more doubt about one’s actions.
Ambiguity is one of the reasons that leading in an accelerating world is an art and not a science. It’s inexact, spontaneous, and creative. Rather than methodical and predictable.
Though the path forward will be obscured, we still have to find out an agile way forward if we want to achieve our targets and see mission success.
Obviously all 4 of these VUCA aspects intertwine and reinforce each other. Requiring new leadership mindsets that shape your actions. There is no steady state anymore. As soon as we think we understand the new situation, it changes. And then again. To clarify ambiguity, you need to be agile. And to be agile, you need to find space for reflection in the heat of the moment. Right in the middle of the storm. Train your mind to find stillness in the midst of movement.
Box Breathing and the “Still water runs deep” exercises are your primary tools for developing this stillness. Spontaneous insights come out of that stillness. Not from thinking your way through the challenges as they morph before your very eyes.
You and your team need to rely on this new mindset and to utilize the planning tools that zero in on the right actions to take.
Ambiguity causes us to lose focus, so we have trouble determining which targets are the right targets. Or you might know what your target is, but you lack the confidence to tackle it yet.
SEALs can’t execute a plan to go kill or capture an enemy until they fix the target’s location specifically in time and place.
As an example, when the SEALs highest value target was Osama Bin Laden, we kept him in our front-sight focus. But we couldn’t fix his location well enough for a mission order. So we shifted focus to other low-value targets that we thought would eventually lead us to the big guy. We would get lead after lead and go after the bad guys. And in the process, see who knew anything about where Bin Laden was. Over time, those missions smashed the ambiguity of his whereabouts so that we could fix his location, and take him out.
Let’s say your high-value target is to launch your business into a new market. But the details of that are just too ambiguous at this time, because things are moving fast. There’s many options and an elegant solution is obscure to you. In this situation, you keep your eyes on this target, but shift your perspective to learn more, and look for patterns and another target that’s going to move closer to your ultimate goal.
Apply Fast-twitch Iteration
My SEAL friend and retired admiral, Brian Losey coined the term “Fast-twitch Iteration,” to describe how SEALs plan in the heat of a fight. Like fast-twitch muscles in athletics, fast-twitch iteration is developed in a specific way.
In the last quarter of the 1900s leadership training focused on developing slow-twitch thinking muscles. If an obstacle arises, you go back to the drawing board, brainstorm a solution, come up with a new plan, test it, then roll it out en masse.
But this approach got many leaders stuck in decision ruts. Groupthink and confirmation bias–as we discussed–led to dismal results as the world changed around them.
Fast-twitch iteration denies the slow pace of traditional planning models and avoids the cognitive bias built into them. Because the operators closest to the change are empowered to pose solutions and solve the problems in a trial and error approach, the planning process becomes a process of how not to fail completely rather than how to succeed 100%.
The Observe, Orient, Decide, Act–OODA loop described earlier is the best SEAL tool for developing fast-twitch iteration. Using your situational awareness skills, observe the changing situation and the impact it is having on you, the team, your customers, processes, etc.
To observe well, you need to silence the external and the internal chatter. Then you’ll orient your mind using the fit/prop process described in principle 2. Next, you’ll make a quick “good enough” decision on what your next step is going to be. You’re looking for the smallest, most powerful thing that you can do to move the mission and the team forward.
Now finally, you take bold action and prepare for success or failure as you literally bite-size chunk your way forward. Since your actions are small and deliberate, you’re not risking the overall mission if they don’t work out. And this way, a success is nice, but a failure also yields valuable information. Kind of like finding your way in the dark with your hand. You’re doing it very, very quickly, constantly learning from the feedback that the environment is giving you. Each fast-twitch action ratchets in small successes or micro-goals and allows you to learn something new. And then you’ll gain more confidence and momentum with each turn around the OODA loop.
Challenge everything. In warfare a lot of the information we get is old news as soon as we get it. Or it’s intended to be deceptive or manipulative. Or worse, we can’t trust the source or our own biases toward it. It’s like that old game “telephone,” where you tell one person something at one end of a long line, and each person passes it on, and by the time it gets to the last person, the message is completely garbled. We actually drill this grade-school favorite in SEAL training because it so perfectly illustrates this point.
And what is the point again? The importance of challenging all information to get a better understanding when things are ambiguous. Challenge what you’re hearing. Challenge your assumptions. Challenge the information itself. Challenge the decision-making at all levels. Even challenge the mission if you think the targets have moved.
Mike Tyson famously said once, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” In those moments, it’s important to challenge the clarity of your vision and whether the troops are aligned in shared intent and action. This point is key, because even if the information is accurate and the plan sound, when the plan gets face-punched, ambiguity will take over.
But if the vision is clear, and the troops are aligned, that face-punch may cause a step back, but will be quickly followed with a forceful one-two punch to the enemy. With this unconventional mindset, you will develop a culture of shared intent in action. Whereby everyone on the team has clarity and alignment around the vision. And what actions will lead the team forward. They don’t wait around to be told what to do.
The SEALs are good at challenging things and solving problems at the lowest level possible and so must you.
This concept is what we call the “Strategic Operator.” We trust the operator in the field who’s closest to the ground-level truth. And knows more about a situation than the leader in the rear echelon.
When a situation is ambiguous and there’s more than one way forward, you trust the information as it is experienced in the field. Though you’ll still challenge it for quality. A culture of trust occurs when there’s such alignment of the troops vision and mission intent with that of the commander’s intent that the troops naturally act knowing that they’re acting with the leader’s intent. Not just their own.
A more in-depth discussion of trust is found on building elite teams. With The Way of the SEAL mindset your operators–read, employees–will solve the problems on the fly and challenge each other to come up with the best solutions.
Keep Your Eyes on the Target
Whether you’re trying to remain stable amidst volatility, confidently act despite uncertainty, find simplicity amid complexity or navigate forward through ambiguity, so much of operating in an accelerating world comes down to keeping your eyes on the right target at the right time.
It’s easy to get distracted in the middle of a firefight. Take your eyes off the target and see something go badly wrong. So many people quit when they’re close to mission accomplishment because they lose sight of the right targets which’ll get them to success. It’s hard to see clearly in the fog of war, or in an accelerating business climate. Especially if you’re not trained to keep eyes on the primary target. That main thing driving revenue or the mission forward every day. So many business leaders bounce from one target to another as the wind shifts. And they falter before the finish-line.
Now this doesn’t mean that you’re just gonna have one target that you fixate on to the exclusion of all else. SEALs recognize also that there’s multiple targets and multiple paths to win a battle or accomplish the mission.
But they stay radically focused on the right target at the right time. If the target moves, move with the target. Or if the target needs to change, be willing to step back and to realize that the initial objective is now irrelevant. And a higher value target now requires your focus.
Leading in an accelerating world doesn’t come with a clear set of step-by-step instructions. Instead, it’s all about mindset, values, and alignment. And getting into a state where we’re so in tune with the volatility and the uncertainty and the complexity and the ambiguity that that becomes our new normal. And I’m not just trying to teach leaders to deal with a new fixed world–I’m saying we don’t even know what that world’s going to look like from day-to-day. Except that it’s always going to change.
This is scary for a lot of people, but I think it’s fun and growth stimulating. And when you start practicing the 8 principles of “The Way of the SEAL,” when you train yourself and your team to follow these concepts, you too will step-up your game and open up to your full potential as leaders. Change is exciting. It’s what creates opportunity. And that’s something every leader wants to take advantage of.
Hooyah. Thanks so much for your time. Hope you found this interesting. Stay focused. Train hard. And develop the win in your mind before you step foot onto the battlegrounds of life.