Friday, August 15, 2014

4 Business Strategy Lessons Learned from SWAT Training

By Robert Wood PE
Vice President, World Wide Manufacturing
Varian Medical Systems

I had the honor of spending an entire day training with a local SWAT team as a result of a charity auction. I had no idea of what to expect and as soon as we began our day, instantly, I was in testosterone heaven and I soon learned some valuable lessons that could be immediately applied to the business world. Because of my life-long familiarity with firearms, I was allowed to participate in all of their drills. One of the drills was door entry and room egress. Being a total novice, it bothered me that the SWAT team was required to knock and announce themselves to the bad guy in the building, giving him plenty of time to prepare an ambush for the team that would soon enter through the door. In the drill, the door is breached, and then a line of SWAT members file through the door very quickly, but controlled, with the goal of dominating the space they entered.

I noticed that they alternated left or right as they entered and thus filling every blind spot and space in the room. I asked the leader of the team if there was a strategy for which direction the first guy goes, either left or right. The leader told me that in shooting situations, it’s usually the second guy through the door that gets shot, not the first. I had two thoughts; first, I never wanted to be the second guy through the door, and second, the direction the first guy goes, either left or right, could determine the fate of the second guy and the rest of the team. I asked the leader if they decide prior to the entry which direction the first guy goes and the leader said something truly amazing and this strategy has direct implications to us in the business world. Looking me directly in the eyes, he told me, “It’s our strategy that whatever direction the first guy goes, it is the right direction. We never second guess that decision and we commit fully all the way through the exercise based on that decision."

In the little I know about the inner workings of the SWAT, I do know that they critique everything they do. They review every movement, every eye movement, and every decision- except this one decision which is the initial direction the first guy goes on a door entry. The other important thing is that once they begin to execute the plan, they commit 100% to the strategy until the very end.

In business, I find that in many cases, we lack the discipline and sometimes courage to follow a strategy completely to the end. In many cases, after meeting upon meeting, a strategy is hammered out, except that more than one on the team really hasn’t actually bought into the plan. They may have agreed to the strategy, but their heart is not in it and then during the execution portion of the plan, they find excuses why the strategy was flawed and they withdraw support. In other cases, as soon as the first bump in the project occurs, there is a call to abandon the plan and start the grinding planning process all over again. This would never be allowed in the SWAT world. Many times, I’ve been told, the team enters a room full of chaos – dogs barking, people screaming and crying, unplanned obstacles which trip team members, and walls standing where they are not supposed to be. Likewise, even in the best plan, we in business get hit with all kinds of obstacles and unplanned roadblocks. I think the impressive attribute of the SWAT that we should do more of in business is to stay committed to the plan, pull together as a team, and stick to the strategy. How many of our plans would have been successful if we just executed with the focus and spirit of the SWAT? Naturally, there may be a time to change the strategy based on market or business dynamics, but only after a fully committed and focused attempt has been made.

In the world of the SWAT Team, the Team is everything. Flawless execution of the strategy insures that the innocent are saved, the team member go home to their families, and the bad guy meets justice. I think we in the business world can learn a few lessons about strategy, commitment, and execution from these brave and loyal public servants. So here are my take-aways:

  • Have open and honest dialog during the planning portion of developing a business strategy. Here is where we, as leaders, should and must speak into the process. Our arguments must be data-based and factual. The SWAT team does the same before entering a house. They look at the risk, the situation, getting input from the team, and then they make a plan and they never have all the information they need.
  • Once a decision is made, stick to the plan. Here is where leadership comes in. When the going gets rough, how many times have you seen team members start second guessing the strategy? Many times, the lack of total commitment is the reason the plan fails; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The SWAT team upon entering a hostile space faces many obstacles and it’s their commitment to follow the plan that gets them through most of the time.
  • Even if you originally dislike the strategy, once it’s approved, you must become an advocate and full supporter of the plan. This might be the toughest attribute of leadership; even if you opposed the plan, now you must execute the strategy and be the champion. Everybody watches leaders and those who behave in this manner always set the best example for the organization. I’m sure that there are plenty of number 2 guys in the SWAT team egress team that wish that they would get the call on which way the first guy goes, but regardless of their feelings, they go with the team and risk their necks based on the strategy. How many of us in the business world risks our lives based on plan or strategy? It is critical that even if you opposed the plan originally, that once its approved, you act as if it was your plan from the beginning.
  • Once the plan has been executed, openly critique the execution with the goal of getting better and smarter. This SWAT team I visited has “open kimono” meetings where they review every little detail of an operation. No one is spared criticism or rebuke, but once the meeting is over, they put the past behind them and reaffirm and pull together as a team. Likewise, we need to do more post-activity critiquing with the goal of fixing what went wrong and developing better processes to insure better results in the future. Never in this critique are the words, “I told you so”.

So there you have it. Sound business practices from guys who risk everything to protect the innocent. My hat’s off to these brave public servants!

This post was originally posted by Robert Wood on LinkedIn. For more, read part two and part three of the series.

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