What Navy SEALs Can Teach Us About Adaptability
PHOTO: Baghdad, Iraq – July 2, 2007: U.S. Forces ‘stack up’ with their weapons and infrared laser sights to demonstrate entry tactics used for counter terrorism operations. Coalition and Iraqi forces together make up the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force.
Adaptable organizations not only adapt to change but embrace it. In this article, you’ll learn about adaptable organizations, the characteristics present, and why it’s so important to have the ability to adapt in rapidly changing environments.
Iraq 2003 – 1:35 AM
“Failed breach, failed breach,” called our primary breacher. The explosive C4 charge had left a smoky mess of twisted metal denying us the ability to enter the house. There appeared to be a thick steel security door behind the main door to the house. Usually a good sign that bad guys live there.
Our platoon was stacked against the exterior wall along the driveway leading from under the car park out into the front yard. Night-vision-goggle-clad warriors with suppressed weapons scanning in all directions for imminent threats. The concussion from the blast had sent glass from the house’s windows flying in all directions.
A failed breach meant we had to adapt – and adapt quickly. We had just lost the elements of speed and surprise. All that was left was rapid execution. This would now become what we call a “manual breach” using a quickie saw (a large heavy gas-powered metal cutting saw) that the new guys always had the pleasure of carrying. That was me. So in addition to sixty pounds or more of gear I had to lug this awkward tool in and out of helicopters, down dark streets, over walls and through enemy targets. Super fun.
I raced forward to the aftermath of the explosion, slung my rifle, started the saw and began cutting. Burning sparks and pieces of red-hot metal were swirling all around searing tiny holes into any clothing and flesh they could find. Heart racing. Hands steady. Mind calm. Total focus.
After a minute or so of cutting we were able to enter. We flooded the first floor of the house. Two of our guys tackled the HVT (high value target) in the front living room after he sprayed us with a few rounds from his AK-47 – missing us by inches.
My fire team (four SEALs) peeled left and started up the central staircase leading to the second floor. As we were half-way up, we start taking heavy fire from two enemy shooters in barricaded positions above us. Time to adapt again. We returned fire while backing our way down the stairs and under the landing for cover. A few of us pulled flash bang grenades from our kit and lobbed them up and over.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Knowing the enemy was momentarily stunned, we moved quickly back up the stairs to secure the fighters and complete clearing the target. All of this adaptation happening in rapid succession – over the course of a few minutes. Oh and did I mention this was after we’d already hit the WRONG target house ten minutes earlier a few houses down on the same street!? Bad intel is always fun.
The battlefield of modern business can feel similar. In today’s fast-paced cultural environment, businesses can be here one day and gone the next, with very little wiggle room between the two. Organizational adaptability refers to the ability to quickly adjust business processes, frameworks and strategy to achieve goals. In short, adaptability is essential for competitive advantage.
To stay competitive, organizational leadership must remain vigilant and be willing to embrace change in the form of new organizational design, products and services, pricing, location, or concept. Sometimes all of the above. Highly adaptive organizations are resilient and not only bounce back from adversity and navigate obstacles quickly, but also anticipate the need for change before it’s too late.
Highly adaptable organizations share some common traits:
- They have well-defined expectations, goals, and corporate culture. Adaptable companies are forward-thinking and not only recognize the importance of change but anticipate it and actively seek it out. Adaptability is woven throughout everything they do. It is a part of how they do business. Every member of the team is emotionally connected in some way to the mission narrative.
- They value their employees and therefore have extremely high levels of engagement. In most organizations today, only a small contingent of people can be defined as highly engaged, which is why culture and engagement are at the top of the priority list in high-functioning organizations. They understand that their employees are the lifeblood of successful adaptation, allowing the business to work and innovate in a way that allows them to seize opportunities as they become available.
- They are creative. In the SEAL Teams, we operate with high levels of encouraged creativity. It’s part of our fast-paced learning culture and feedback loop. Organizations that excel at adaptability encourage creativity from their employees and model it as a business practice. Creativity is a natural derivative of adaptability because it requires employees to be open-minded and willing to embrace new ideas with flexibility.
- They have problem-solving mindsets. Many positive changes are led by organizations that can anticipate the solution to a problem before it presented itself. They enlist the feedback and participation of broad cross-sections of employees when developing action plans and solutions.
Creating a Culture of Adaptability
My bestselling book, TakingPoint: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Fail-Safe Principles for Leading Through Change, focuses heavily on the importance of what I refer to as Culture-driven Transformation. Where many companies fall short is the integration of the necessary culture factors as they relate to leading lasting change. Just like any cultural pillar, adaptability requires aligned mindsets and expected behavioral norms. In high-performing organizations, the culture aligns with the strategy and desired business results.
A culture of adaptability requires the following framework:
- Significant investment in proper talent acquisition, onboarding and professional development programs.
- Tools and processes for ongoing internal communication.
- A center of excellence where processes are documented, and learning materials such as case studies and after action reviews are available to all who need them.
- Accountability is a behavior that is publicly rewarded. The opposite isn’t tolerated.
- Proper planning and after-action reviews are the bedrock of the feedback loop.
- Leadership and management development resources are made a top priority.
- Creativity, innovation and risk-taking are not only encouraged, but expected.
- Everyone has a voice.
- People work cross-functionally across silos and barriers, while also working to break down those “walls.”
- They align high-quality management, with differentiating capabilities and cultural routines all designed to achieve sustained performance.
- Team members are lifelong learners in a constant state of personal and professional transformation.
- Leaders humbly serve their teams and embrace transparent feedback.
And the list goes on, but this is a good start. How adaptable and agile is your organization? Does it have a solid foundation from which to pivot? Or does it have a this is the way we’ve always done it mentality? The need for change and transformation isn’t coming. Its here! And been here for a while. Don’t fall behind!
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