Plan like a SEAL. My business colleague and I have been spending a great deal of time recently helping clients plan, re-plan and re-re-plan. (I know, but stay with me on this!).
Instead of working on a 90-day cycle of planning, execution and measurement, we are actively working with business owners to develop highly focused 30-day cycles instead.
This reminded me of an excellent book I read about 5 years ago called ‘The Navy Seal Art of War’ by Rob Roy. When you say Navy SEAL, people immediately think about heroic, fearless warriors. And whilst they no-doubt are, Roy, himself a 25-year SEAL veteran, explains that success is not about being the toughest person, but being the smartest person.
This means relying on careful planning and battle-tested approaches to leadership as much as strength and bravery. You see, a large part of the success of the SEALs is the team’s ability to decode complex environments, take decisive action, and seize opportunities when they present themselves. It’s not so much about heroics, as it is about process. Hence “plan like a SEAL” – because success starts with a plan.
Sound familiar? Well it should, because business is the same. Here is the seven-step process to help you plan like a SEAL.
Ask clarifying questions.
Clearly, in military situations it’s essential to be clear about your objective. You wouldn’t want to capture the wrong person would you? It’s the same in business life too. Success has to be defined first. So ask the same question the SEALs ask, “Exactly what do you want me to do? Who, what, when, where, how?” Adapt this sort of question for your own context and you’ve taken the first step to setting out your plan.
Identify all your resources.
The next step is to ensure all your resources required are defined and available. That means not only resources such as money and technology. It also means intangible ones like your network, skills, motivation and commitment.
Clarify roles and responsibilities.
Before SEALs go into any mission, they make sure each person knows their role, from machine gunner to medic, what each must accomplish, and when. So when planning, ensure that there is complete clarity around who is doing what, when, in what order, and how everyone’s roles fit into the overall objective and larger mission.
Focus relentlessly on your goal.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella commented that all good leaders take responsibility for the outcomes, whatever happens. In other words, there is no such thing as excuses, because true leaders always keep their focus on the goal and look for ways to adapt. The SEALs do the same – they don’t let ‘the new shiny thing’ distract them from what they set out to achieve. If something new does come along, like new intelligence for example, review it against the goal, ask yourself if it helps or hinders, if it is relevant or just noise, and then decide what to do with it. Just like in business.
I wrote about what it takes to build this kind of mindset previously – you can read about it here
Think through all possible contingencies.
In practice, this means letting your pessimistic imagination run wild to dream up every scenario you might face. Ask how can you work around these scenarios?
It’s worth reminding ourselves of the (greatly adapted) words of Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, (Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff from 1857 to 1871 and then of the Great General Staff (GGS) from 1871 to 1888) – “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”.
The point here is that you cannot accurately predict what will happen beyond the first stage of your plan, so expect to have to re plan frequently (hence the relentless focus on 30 day goals at the moment). You can limit the possibility of failure by asking and exploring the questions and indeed possibilities that may occur. In today’s world this might look like, “How am I going to achieve my goals in spite of COVID-19?”. In short, never let circumstances turn into excuses. “We’re in lock down. OK well, we’ll have virtual team meetings and increase our contact with our clients. We’ll ask how we can help. Yes but they don’t want to buy our services at the moment. OK, what do they want to buy and how can we provide it to them?”
You need to constantly think about what’s the next thing to do in that situation, because again, at the end of the day, you have to be able to accomplish your mission.
Train Hard, Fight Easy.
“When you’re a SEAL, you train a lot. You do everything repetitively over and over and over again, because you want muscle memory,” Roy explains. “The more you know about what you’re doing, the more frequently you train for the mistakes and the problems and the hiccups, the more you’re able to do a lot more in a shorter period of time without much effort.”
How are you training in your business? What do you need to know that you don’t? How are you improving your skills, abilities, execution, processes, feedback, reviews, planning etc? Unfortunately, I see too many people with a brilliant paper plan who fall down on the execution because they have underestimated the importance of training and overestimated their and their teams’ ability. There is no great accomplishment without day in, day out effort and training.
One, because that’s how you build skills and a body of work. But also because steady practice is how you teach yourself to handle the stress of striving for any audacious goal.
Reached your goal? Excellent, but there’s still one highly important final step left to go before you really can plan like a SEAL. “You do yourself and the people in the room or the people in the organization (sic) a disservice if you don’t debrief what happened or where the mistakes are at,” Roy concludes. This isn’t about assigning blame to people. It’s about figuring out what went right and wrong so you can do better next time. My first business coach, the brilliant and insightful Peter Knight, greatly improved my performance with the simple phrase “WWW / EBI – What Went Well / Even Better If”. If you’re not reviewing to improve, you are committing to mediocrity. So build review time into your plan.