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What marketers can learn from the US Navy Seals

By Richard Fouts | June 28, 2015 | 0 Comments


By now, every marketer has toyed with (or has subscribed) to agile marketing which argues for the frequent measurement of vigorously prioritized, small, time-bound activities.  By launching and learning in smaller chunks we avoid the trappings and risk of big bang models. Of course, success in agile requires cultural and process adjustments (its most famous being ‘permission to fail’).

The key to high performing teams

Over the past few years, the emergence of dozens of cross industry case studies have taught us that agile marketing can indeed propel higher performance and higher quality while reducing risk. It has successfully moved from organization theory … to organization practice. One of the learnings from the agile marketing movement reinforces what we’ve known for a long time: that high performance teams are small, often cross discipline, and comprised of members that are committed – not just to the team goal – but to each other. This finding which came out of landmark research detailed in John Katzenbach’s marvelous book The Wisdom of Teams.

Why the military?

Ironically enough, the military (the most hierarchical, command-and-control organization in the world) is teaching us how to scale high performing, agile teams (because, as they say “urgency inspires greater genius”).  In life-and-death situations, or those of extreme urgency, decisions can’t afford to go up lengthy approval cycles. Moreover, decisions from the top can never be as fully informed as people closest to the situation.

Putting teeth in the idea of empowerment

Hence, the military introduced an innovative organizational construct they call the US Navy Seals: highly trained, cross-discipline teams, empowered to make rapid decisions (even change strategy on the fly) once on the ground, having assessed a situation. The model (which, when adapted by civilians is called leadership cells) combines both agility and speed (for a nice description of what discerns speed from agility, check out Kirsten Newbold-Knipp’s post here). If you think you already manage on the principle of empowered people, take a look at an interesting take on the topic by management consultant, Bob Frish,  If You Think Your Team Makes Decisions, Think Again.

Get self-organized

Companies ranging from GE, Amazon and Zappos to Unilever and Harrah’s (the hotel and casino operator) are part of a movement known as self-organization.  Holocracy, another movement that borrows from the concept of self-organizing teams, provides a compelling alternative to traditional organization structures.  Self-organizing teams feel risky because you can’t predict what they’ll do. But as we enter digital business, an era where old models simply don’t work because they operate on ideas from another era (where product lifecycles were 10, even 20 years)  we must consider alternatives.

For a larger description of how business leaders are borrowing concepts from the US Navy Seals to form what we at Gartner call leadership networks, take a look at this Gartner research note led by Gartner analyst, Patrick Meehan.



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