The Special Operations Forces / Agile Approach to Winning in Business


By JD Dolan & Frank Bennett

“Small, dynamic, and diversely trained teams, with the autonomy to execute rapidly, transition flexibly, and deliver solutions in near real-time, all while promoting high-levels of communication, accountability, and trust are the not-so-secret ingredients for success!” – LDR

This article explores a simple methodology that transformed both technology development and modern warfare. The Agile methodology has striking parallels to the methods employed by US Special Operation Forces (“SOF”). This article reflects on these parallels and how they can be leveraged to succeed in our complex and dynamic global economy.

Exhaustive academic and industry research has proven it difficult to identify a source that draws parallels between the “tech” industry and the defense industry, but experience in both reveals an uncanny resemblance in their evolution. We cannot help but compare experiences overcoming challenges as members of a US Special Operations Strike Force with experiences leading innovation and problem-solving initiatives on behalf of large multi-national businesses. The fact is, both the U.S. “tech” industry and U.S. Armed Forces utilized a similar methodology to evolve into their current, cutting-edge states. The methodology, commonly understood in the business world as “Agile” advocates principles over processes. These principles are: small, dynamic, and diversely trained teams, with the autonomy to execute rapidly, transition flexibly, and deliver solutions in near real-time, all while promoting high-levels of communication, accountability, and trust. These principles establish a framework that allows small teams to operate successfully in a dynamic and rapidly evolving environment. Empowering such teams allows organizations to innovate by helping them respond to the challenges of the modern global economy, where consumer demands and technology are changing at an ever-increasing rate.

  1. SOF & Agile Background & Analogous Operating Environments

Special Operations Forces (SOF) Background:

Admiral William H. McRaven wrote it best in his thesis on The Theory of Special Operations, when he described the ability of SOF to defy conventional wisdom. SOF are usually numerically inferior to their enemy and are usually attacking fortified positions. Both of these factors should spell defeat, and yet, time and again these missions succeed. There are a series of contributing factors, but fundamentally, SOF gains the advantage when they have a simple plan that is “Carefully concealed, realistically rehearsed and executed with surprise, speed and purpose” (McRaven, The Theory of SOF). Those basic concepts contained inside of a “simple” structure represent the foundation of the greatest and most effective fighting force in the history of modern warfare.

SOF arose out of a need, much like Agile; a need to win, rapidly. Conventional war-fighting wisdom and practice suggested that battles are won by superior numbers or superior firepower, along with a host of other contributing factors. Therefore, to understand the rise and current effectiveness of SOF, we must first appreciate the limitations and “friction points” of conventional forces that resulted in SOF’s creation. Conventional forces were designed to accomplish conventional military operations, – often conducted between two or more states in open and declared battle. Conventional units are often associated (not exclusively) with larger units, conventional tactics, traditional methodologies, predictable applications, weapons, uniforms, etc. Some would argue that unconventional forces have been in existence since the beginning of warfare but most consider the 20th Century as the rise of SOF, with a significant growth in the space during World War II, when every major nation committed resources to training and developing SOF elements capable of accomplishing “special missions”. “SOF arose when small, specially organized units manned by carefully selected people, possessing unconventional skills, were given a common purpose and empowered to champion adaptability, improvisation and innovation” (Spulak- theory of Special Operations).

Agile Background

Similar to SOF, Agile was born (in technology) in response to a need to respond to rapidly changing conditions (technology) and consumer demands. More traditional organizational structures and planning through a chain of command, with operations plans developed and executed in a siloed structure over a long period of time, rendered it virtually impossible to operate rapidly enough to be consistently successful in such a dynamic environment.

Agile facilitated success through the elimination of sequentially-phased project planning and management, often referred to as “Waterfall”, which involves hand-offs from one group of specialists to the next (e.g. architecture/design, coding, testing, etc.). In many cases, a development team’s output would be obsolete by the time it reached the marketplace. Agile was developed to bridge that gap. According to the Standish Group’s 2015 CHAOS Report, “Projects using Agile had a 39% success rate, compared to an 11% success rate for those that employed the “Waterfall” method. Agile is not limited to IT applications;70% of those…occurred in industries other than IT” (ScrumAlliance 2015 State of Scrum)

Analogous Problem Sets & Operating Environments

How to innovate begs the question, “how does a group of people organize themselves to produce a particular outcome?”. The challenge in the case of innovation is that the desired outcome is often unknown. Compounding the problem, change – social, technological, political, and economic – is fluid and dynamic. Bain’s 2015 report, “Agile Innovation” articulates the challenge well: “The problem is 70-90% of new products continue to fail. Lacking a systematic, repeatable and fast-moving method for designing and developing innovation, companies find themselves struggling to keep up with market changes”.

Our experience, in the battlefield and the boardroom, suggests that the Agile/SOF framework is the answer to the question posed above. Agile, like SOF, seeks not to define what needs to be done, but rather to understand what needs to be done. SOF’s genesis reflected the fallacy of making tactical plans in a vacuum for a dynamic operating environment; traditional organizational hierarchies and planning mechanisms lack the requisite perspective and responsiveness when the target is unclear. As demonstrated by SOF and Agile, a principle-based team structure can overcome the challenges associated with ambiguous, dynamic, and complex operating environments.

  1. Shared Principles of Agile/SOF

The efficacy of Agile and SOF is rooted in the core values and principles that define their respective execution methodologies. It allows a strike force, or innovation team, to perform situational assessments and align strategy in real time within a dynamically changing operating environment. The Agile methodology values:

  • individuals and interactions over processes and tools,
  • (ii) functionality over comprehensive documentation,
  • (iii) customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and
  • (iv) responding to change over following a plan.

The principles dictate that teams should be: small, cross-functional/multi-disciplinary, self-managing, self-organizing and united by a common purpose. These principles align teams to execute rapidly and achieve results.

Steve Jobs was famous for his mastery of and appreciation for elegance in simplicity; he once said: “In character, in manner, in style, in all things the supreme elegance is simplicity” The effectiveness of Agile/SOF teams is much the same. It is impossible to overstate the power of small, cross-functional, and self-managing teams that share a common purpose and a common set of operating principles. The key shared principles of Agile & SOF are:

  1. A small cross-functional team that possesses the skills required to rapidly overcome the challenge at hand.
  2. Self-managed teams constructed around highly motivated individuals, maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of the team. This structure seeks to eliminate bureaucracy and minimize the friction associated with decision-making. Decisions about what to do and how to do it can be made in real time. This is key to moving quickly, which is key to innovating.
  3. A common purpose and shared set of operating principles will empower the team and enable self-organization.
  4. The team must be capable of self-assessment at regular intervals. This promotes organizational improvement and personal/professional development. Routine retrospectives facilitate continuous improvement, which is foundational to continuous innovation.

Agile’s work prioritization and meeting rituals (daily stand-ups, bi-weekly planning and retrospectives) facilitate complete transparency and accountability within the team. This transparency and accountability was equally fundamental to our success in SOF teams. SOF teams prioritize work constantly, utilizing standing meetings (Operations and Intelligence briefings), target briefings, and mission planning to prioritize objectives, align focus, and communicate the “Why”. Following each operation (much like an Agile retrospective) SOF strike forces meticulously review their own performance in a process commonly referred to as an After Action Review (AAR) to identify opportunities to improve and grow as a team.

This structure is not only empowering for the organization, but necessary. The ability to swiftly and strategically pivot, is not a one-time event in today’s business climate, but an ongoing imperative that must always occur in the face of an evolving technological and competitive landscape.

  1. Agile, SOF, and Responding to a Changing Marketplace

By their very nature, dynamic operating environments necessitate the ability to learn and adapt; the landscape is an unknown. Agile, like SOF, is built specifically for success in this environment. It is a logical paradox to form a rigid plan in the face of such uncertainty. Agile turns this upside down and, like oxygen to a fire, absorbs the new information to make more informed decisions. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage. The ability to do this systematically, repeatedly, and perhaps most importantly, rapidly, is vital to an organization’s long-term viability. Changing technology will continue to evolve business models (i.e. Amazon and retail, Uber and transportation, Airbnb and hotels); therefore, organizations must champion evolving business models, or risk disruption.

Traditional organizational structures – bureaucratic, process driven, and hierarchical – stifle the intake of and response to new information. This structure creates natural barriers to innovation, including: (i) top-down management, (ii) risk avoidance, and (iii) ineffective communication between individuals, managers, and external stakeholders. The Agile/SOF framework increases communication and collaboration, and empowers a cross-functional team to execute rapidly. This leads to more informed and faster decisions across organizations. The statistics back this up; in VersionOne’s 2016 State of Agile Report, 87% of respondents said it increased their ability to manage changing priorities, 85% said it increased team productivity, and 84% said it improved project visibility.

Agile offers a systematic, repeatable, and sustainable way to turn opportunities, brought by a changing marketplace, into profitable corporate initiatives, investments, or competencies.


SOF/Agile methodology enables organizations to optimize their response to an ever-changing and increasingly complex world by deploying an innovation team that aligns strategy with a changing environment. Amidst the sophistication and complexity of the digital age, it is ironic that the greatest weapon for innovating, or winning in the mountains of Afghanistan, is people; carefully selected and meticulously organized into a team. The right people (highly motivated, uniquely talented, cross-functional) organized in the right way (autonomous, self-managing, self-assessing) and united by a common purpose is the key to winning, whether on the battlefield or in the business world.

John “JD” F. Dolan II is a Principal and Co-Founder of LDR where he leads the innovation infrastructure building executive initiatives, namely supporting the establishment of corporate innovation labs, cross organizational collaboration teams, and disruptive venture capital exploration. As a former US Special Operations Strike Force Commander, JD has led initiatives to introduce US Special Operations methodologies in innovation, problem solving, and leadership, to organizations- from startups to multi-billion dollar enterprises. JD earned a BA from Dickinson College and an MBA from Columbia University Business School. He is a published author, co-authoring “The Soldier’s Financial Leadership Guide” (published by LDR- July 2012), and his passions include family, fitness, and furthering his support for American veterans organizations including work with Operation Pay It Forward and Field of Dreams.

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