Leading in VUCA
Stick to what’s in front of you…idea, action, utterance. —Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor (121 AD-180 AD)
If leadership is about character, what unique pressures will shape this character in today’s rapidly accelerating world?
Since 9/11, SEAL operators have dealt with a rapidly changing landscape on the battlefield. Dynamic tactics and advanced technology have come together to create a “just-in-time” environment where the enemy creates new techniques and improvises tools almost instantaneously, and where information and money flow often determine the outcome of a conflict. The emergent business landscape mirrors these rapid changes in many ways, and this course is a treatise on leading in this accelerating world.
The eight principles of The Way of the SEAL, and the tools that support you in learning and embodying each, emerged out of a laboratory of elite operators committed to being the most forward-thinking, prepared-for-anything, adaptable-to-changing-winds, mentally and physically tough bad-asses around. And when any leader is that prepared, that flexible, that willing to embrace change and go with the flow without losing sight of their goals, they are equipped to deal with anything the world throws at them, no matter how fast the change comes. You will need to be that leader, and the WOS is your developmental roadmap.
Let’s dive into the major themes causing this accelerating environment. The first is the pace of technology advancement occurring through Moore’s Law of computing power. This law, identified by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, predicts the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits will double every year or so—and this has been true ever since their invention. Thought leaders such as Ray Kurzweil believe we will see some form of artificial general intelligence with the power of the human brain by mid to late 21st century, and possibly an AI with the collective brain power of the entire human race quickly thereafter when it becomes self-improving. If this is true, it will be enabled by another big shift in how the world works—the intersection of the new technologies of the cloud, robotics, sensors, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, nanotech, and the Internet of Things (IoT)all of which makes it appear that we are racing toward a future most of us could never have imagined, or didn’t dream would happen in our lifetimes. And, finally, with social media and smartphones, we are seeing the ability to connect globally through near-ubiquitous Wi-Fi with six billion plus people, even in the remotest spots on the globe, providing a platform for a collective human “super-intelligence.” This is all having a profound impact on industrial age institutions and cultural norms, both struggling against this tide to maintain a sense of meaning. If you sometimes feel like things are spinning out of control, you’re not alone.
An added complexity for established leaders is that we have a generation coming into the workforce with a radically different relationship to technology and change than the “over 30” crowd (that includes me by a long shot). This generation is made up of twenty- to thirty-year-old millennials who are defining new work relationships, as well as the generation after like my 19-year-old son. This “i” generation (as in iPhone, iRobot, etc.) is the first of tech-savvy thinkers who grew up with ubiquitous internet and mobile phones, and they are impatiently awaiting leadership roles or creating their own. These generations take this crush of technology far more for granted than their elder peers, and their brains have evolved in ways that we don’t yet fully understand. But we can see the effect these generational forces are having in business and on the political landscape: They’re changing the rules of the game, both for better and worse.
In the business world, we’re rewriting the rules of what a “performance culture” looks like. The new workforce doesn’t value the same economic incentives as previous generations, or any of the tried and true organizational paradigms for that matter. One example is the US military’s struggle to confront terrorism and ISIS. The young enemy fighters are innovators in using new technologies such as blogging, social media, and video sharing for recruiting and information exchange. We are fighting a new war with traditionally successful tools and strategies, but they have limited impact on the enemy. The enemy is acting and reacting much more quickly than us because of their comfort operating in rapidly changing murky environments. This has given them an edge and forced the military to turn to its special operation forces, such as the Navy SEALs, to learn to be more adaptable and flexible. This book is not about warfare, of course, but the lessons of leading on a battlefield (a “VUCA” environment) are necessary for business leaders to learn and implement.
What is VUCA?
VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—the hallmarks of this accelerating business environment we now find ourselves in. Special operations teams have mastered leading in VUCA environments in Iraq and Afghanistan; they had to in order to both survive and achieve their mission. But what does it feel like for the business leader to operate in a similar, albeit less dangerous, environment? It’s not unreasonable to say it can be downright confusing and scary…but when you learn to deal effectively with rapid change, you will see many incredible opportunities to get excited about.
The millennial and “i” generations put a high value on the freedom of information and openness. They believe content is meant to flow, not to be siloed or fenced off with intellectual property protection and security firewalls. They will borrow, steal, and share things that were created by others and think nothing of it. This is neither right nor wrong, simply a cultural shift brought on by the technology explosion. The business leader or entrepreneur must outsmart, outrun, and outperform the competition, rather than just rely on their trade secrets and smarts. Outraged employees and customers will swarm like a drone army with viral videos and social media outrage to effect change when they think a company’s leadership has done something unfair, even if it is legal and makes good business sense. Often this leads to a major “mea culpa” and a leader’s career ends. In late 2017, for example, Uber’s CEO stepped down after the company was criticized for its unfair treatment of drivers and negative culture; Wells Fargo’s CEO was forced out after publicly downplaying the fact that some of his employees had opened more than 3 million fraudulent accounts just to meet sales quotas. And once information is out there, it’s out there. Privacy is nearly dead; almost everything we once considered private—our financial dealings, our relationships and ideas—are fodder for the Internet’s social engine. Political and business leaders are failing to deal with these stark changes in information flow, control, and philosophy. Both the changes and our leaders’ failure to deal with them have led to polarization, uncertainty, and decision paralysis, as seen in the American political process.
Bottom line: The confluence of rapidly advancing technology with two generations of productive individuals adept with this technology (yet using it to break old rules and norms) is causing changes to occur faster and faster. Power that used to be fixed in the form of capital or legal protection, whether individually or with corporate and government institutions, is losing ground quickly to the power of a more fluid information flow and rapid social response. Said another way, humanity is using technology, once again, to affect massive cultural change—intentionally and unwittingly, and for better and worse. The norms of behavior have clearly changed, so leaders must change both strategy and tactics and also how they learn and grow. It isn’t useful to say to the over-30 executive, “You need to think like a millennial.” To lead in a VUCA environment, leaders will need to adopt an open, excited attitude toward mastering the principles of The Way of the SEAL and to win in their minds first, before the battles are fought.
Leading in VUCA
The one thing you can count on these days is that things will continue to change and speed up. With the tools in this book, you can train to deal with this environment. There’ve been other books and schools of thought around the concept of change leadership, but none of them work very well in this new landscape because they are focused on trying to control the process for a known outcome. SEALs, on the other hand, understand that we can never control the process and that the outcome is almost always unknown.
You can only focus on one mission at a time, align with the vision, and define what targets and criteria will lead to acceptable results. The rest you need to be flexible about. No plan will ever survive contact with the enemy or with the reality of whatever circumstance is out there. This is the first premise to accept if you want to master operating in a VUCA environment.
Ultimate mastery requires that we embrace vertical leadership development, which is about developing your consciousness and evolving your mindset, rather than simply focusing on acquiring horizontal skills like communication or planning. Vertical development creates lasting change in neurological structures, altering brain functions and worldviews, and leading to more complex and nuanced, intuitive thinking, feeling, and social relating. In the August 2017 issue of The Atlantic, journalist Jerry Useem describes how CEOs in power for long periods show signs of mental degradation similar to patients with traumatic brain injury. He posits that this happens because leaders in powerful positions, such as corporate CEOs, stop stretching their learning muscles. They are focusing on cognitive “horizontal” leadership skills (i.e. those impacting the bottom-line in the short term) versus “vertical” development (i.e. deep skills of emotional, intuitive, and spiritual intelligence). In short, vertical development will more effectively evolve a leader in areas that are critical for navigating a VUCA world. The training I provide in this book and through my Unbeatable Mind courses is the first integrated, vertical development program for leaders that I am aware of. It will allow leaders to surf volatility with a powerful vision, to neutralize uncertainty and find mutual understanding, to simplify complexity to gain clarity and to clarify ambiguity by becoming agile and eliminating doubt with powerful action.
I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination. —Jimmy Dean (1928-2010)
Learn to thrive in chaos. Surf volatility like it’s just another wave under your board. Easy day. Comfort with chaos requires complete control of the only thing you can control: your mental and emotional response to the external threat. All the tools introduced in this course will train that, but let’s start by seeing how radical focus will lead to greater situational awareness, internal control, and decision-making power.
Get Radically Focused
Imagine you’re leading a SEAL team on an op to capture a key ISIS leader in war-torn Syria. The op is going down at 0-three hundred and the weather has turned nasty. The location is fixed and the helo drops toward the target. Suddenly, a rocket blazes within inches of the bird, and the door gunner begins raining down lead into the darkness. The chopper makes a dangerously steep descent and lands with a jarring thud a click away from the original drop zone. You lead your team out the door, set security, and then proceed to the target like nothing happened. At the target, you breach the door and enter the structure to find it riddled with bad guys shooting in all directions. You and your team quietly dispatch them and secure the target, collecting any intel you can find. On the way to the extraction site, you engage in a running gun battle with fighters attracted to the sound of gunfire. This doesn’t distract you from completing the mission, and as the helo lifts off with your team intact, you silently praise the training that allowed this op to be another “easy day.”
That level of focus needs to be yours in leading the chaotic missions of your business. The primary skill that will allow you to surf this type of volatility is something I call “radical focus”: focusing with SEAL-like precision on the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. And to develop radical focus, you will need superior situational awareness to discern the subtleties of what’s going on and to maintain control of your thoughts and emotions as the metaphorical rounds are zinging around you.
When I was with SEAL Team Three, I had the privilege of leading the same group of men through several deployment cycles, each 12 to 18 months long. With so much time working together so closely, I developed an uncanny sense of what my teammates were thinking and feeling during long missions that included extended durations of silence. Often the thoughts of my teammates would flash into my mind and I would just “know” what they were going to do just before they did it. Because of the heightened risk in the field, I was employing more of my mind’s skills—and my senses came alive to help me stay on target. This included my “sixth” sense, which connected me intuitively with my team and warned me of danger. I found that radical focus came from a combination of target clarity and awareness of my external and internal environments, the latter of which is the domain of intuition. With Principles 2 and 3 of the Way of the SEAL, you will learn to clarify your mission’s targets and bulletproof the mission, and Principle 7 will show you how to build your intuitive leadership skills.
Radical focus is the core skill for surfing volatility because it keeps you focused on your key targets while being simultaneously aware of the threats, distractions, and even opportunities that may deter you from mission accomplishment. It’s easy to let the many distractions tugging at your attention to pull you off target.
Find Dynamic Stability
I surfed a bit when I was in the Teams, but I always found it challenging. I was not familiar with the balance required of surfing. But I found that I could learn if I was patient and surrendered a bit to the flow experience. Leaders can similarly learn to “surf” changes in the business world that are inherently dynamic and somewhat unpredictable; it’s like learning to balance on a surfboard. Finding stability amid that dynamism requires re-training, and it is not comfortable at first.
Speaking of comfort, Special Operators aren’t comfortable when it’s quiet and things seem “normal.” We expect that those moments are the calm before the storm. There’s something going on, and the shit is about to hit the fan: There’s an ambush ahead, an IED somewhere out there, a part in the aircraft about to break loose, or a weapon getting ready to jam. And, because we expect that, we get comfortable with the discomfort of it, which allows us to find professional enjoyment in solving the complex challenges that arise from sudden change. The entire team is aware that the situation is volatile, so we are not on edge or stressed, but calmly anticipating that, soon, we will need to solve multiple challenges and grope our way to success.
So how do you get yourself and your team to this level of dynamic stability? Spec ops teams are trained extensively to deal with change, yet they understand that the key to maintaining dynamic stability in VUCA environments is to ensure every teammate is incredibly clear about the mission’s intent—stated and unstated—as well as the “why” behind the mission and what’s needed to achieve mission success. What are the boundaries and indicators of that success? What are you going to do when things go wrong, and where do you shift fire when they do? Who’s in charge at each stage of the mission execution? Having the team crystal clear on these mission parameters is crucial. The “how” of achieving mission success can morph when there is total clarity about the why and what. Mission focus remains stable despite the dynamically changing environment and information flowing to the team. That’s how the elite WOS operator fully embraces volatility and surfs the waves of change with confidence.
Some people feel affronted when something they thought to be true doesn’t happen. If that’s the case, then your sense of risk is much higher, and that leads to risk aversion. You need to be able to be comfortable in uncertainty.
—James Mattis, Marine Corps. General (Retired) and U.S. Secretary of Defense (1950- )
It’s uncommon to remain confident and move forward quickly in volatile environments. There is an enormous amount of uncertainty, and human beings generally dislike uncertainty. We want to have the answer, to know what we’re in for when we jump off the ramp into the dark night. But this innate need for certainty will paralyze you or get you killed in accelerating environments when taking time to get to a 100% solution can mean the difference between success and being left behind. To get to greater understanding in uncertain situations you will need to mitigate your cognitive bias, eliminate doubt through action, and use rapid planning tools.
Mitigate Cognitive Biases
It’s important to mitigate cognitive biases, especially when moving quickly. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a must-read treatise on how the brain works under normal conditions. He found that our brains, wired by nature to conserve energy and avoid danger, operate with two systems that mutually support each other. System 1 is the subconscious snap-decision brain, while system 2 is the slower, rational thinking-through-a-problem brain. This served us fairly well when the decisions we had to make were simpler, focused on keeping your family fed. But our increasingly complex world has exposed flaws in the brain’s software in the form of cognitive biases that inhibit effective decision making in the best of times and can be a serious liability in uncertain and volatile times. For example, our tendency to mistake very small samples of a thing for the whole, which might help us remain extra cautious in a life-or-death world, but more often nowadays just causes us to value our personal experience disproportionately in forming an opinion about how things are for others (Belief in the Law of Small Numbers). Or how our judgment is distorted by what we most easily or vividly recall rather than drawing upon older experiences that may, in fact, deserve more weight, a bias that may once have helped us stay focused on current threats and avoid imminent danger, but now leaves us incredibly vulnerable to influences such as the 24-hour news entertainment cycle (Recency or Availability bias). The WOS training can “update” the software of our brains to avoid the worst effects of these biases.
Special operators deal with uncertainty and bias by inherently distrusting the brain’s typical reactions, instead of learning to use the “whole mind” to gather intel, then filtering and focusing their thinking with decision-making models. If using the brain as delivered “out of the box” doesn’t serve elite operators well, then it probably won’t serve you well either; you need to access more mental resources. The way to unlock these resources is through training in the WOS vertical development skills of breath control, concentration, visualization, and meditation. These skills will open your system 1 mind and give you the mindfulness to interrupt, and even change, its biased patterns while simultaneously helping you improve your system 2 mind’s decision processing. As leaders, you must embrace and practice the tools of Principle 1 (Establish Your Set Point), Principle 5 (Forge Mental Toughness), and Principle 7 (Build Your Intuition), both individually and with your team, to dislodge the mental ruts of the industrial age and trigger that vertical growth, leading to greater awareness, perspective, and decision accuracy. At my company Unbeatable, Inc., we box breathe (see page TK) before important meetings and have space set up for yoga, functional fitness, and meditation. Together, we visualize our missions and goals. It’s expected that everyone participates in the team training as well as maintaining a personal practice. This has led to an environment where everyone trusts and respects each other more while also challenging the status quo of flawed thinking. Everyone is “thinking about their thinking” and developing an ability to question their instinctual decisions and primed automatic reactions.
It’s important for the WOS leader to begin to question snap judgments, feelings, and strong emotional reactions to just about everything—they may be leading you into a bias ambush. Avoiding cognitive bias requires that we question everything, own our limitations, and test every new idea, product, and sales pitch with a rapid planning model, catching biases before they create trouble.
Use Rapid Planning Models
Once you’re aware of your cognitive biases you can move forward quickly and confidently by employing rapid planning and decision-making models. Despite the term, a rapid decision-making model actually allows you to slow down and think well before you speed up again in action. In the teams, the saying “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” represents this concept. We slow down our brains so we can speed up our effective action.
The best tools I have to offer to shore up your decision-making are the FITS, PROP, and SMACC models introduced with Principle 3. I developed them for my businesses based upon some tools I used in my SEAL operating days. They’re go-to decision models for eradicating doubt and uncertainty. You’ll learn more about this later, but one aspect of these models that many find difficult to grasp is that we use them to plan for failure. This is because the tools identify the most favorable targets and paths forward but remain flexible on other targets and paths should the original plan meet resistance (what some would call a failure). This process keeps the team mission-focused, always selecting the best possible target and course of action at each moment of crisis.
Planning for failure is standard operating procedure (SOP) in the spec ops community, and it is emulated by some elite entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk at Space X. Failure after failure with unproven rockets would have crushed entrepreneurial teams who lacked a leader like Musk—a guy with a big “why” and the ability to align his team around that vision. Yet the Space X team planned to fail their way forward, learning from each evolution until they succeeded, and in the process redefined the space launch industry. SEALs similarly visualize what can go wrong, but then they plan for what to do using their rapid planning tools. What better way to neutralize uncertainty than planning for failure, and having back-up plans on the shelf ready to roll when things go wrong? Following that example, you too can become a master at neutralizing uncertainty.
Eliminate Doubt Through Action
Uncertainty, when not clarified, will breed doubt. And doubt in the mission, or the means to accomplish it, is a death blow for a team. Doubt causes you to question your past actions and current thinking. You can’t move forward with confidence and conviction when you have doubt. But the catch-22 here is that you also can’t just positive self-talk your way out of doubt. Therefore, the WOS leader must eliminate uncertainty by checking back in with the vision, mitigating biases, using the rapid planning models, and then get things moving fast again with some appropriately focused action.
As mentioned earlier, whether on a business or SEAL mission, we expect we’ll inevitably run into an obstacle, something will break or we’ll get ambushed…there’s always something. When that happens, most people will head back to base and hunker down until help arrives, or they give up (which in the field can get you, or your career, killed). The WOS leader will bring focus back to the vision and align the team’s intent around that vision to get them moving again. In his powerful book It Starts with Why, Simon Sinek writes, “Leaders never start with what needs to be done. Leaders start with why we need to do things. Leaders inspire action.” I concur, and it is that understanding of why things must be done, combined with action, that eradicates doubt. But what’s the right action? That’s for you to figure out by choosing the best option that represents the smallest arc to get things moving again. Doubt disrupts learning on the fly because you can’t make sense of what you observe if you’re second-guessing everything that comes in. When uncertainty and doubt do this to you, take a small but bold action. This is like probing by firing shots in different directions to find out where the enemy is. I’m not talking about a major movement, just some small action that’s going to move you forward and bring immediate feedback. And what does that feedback bring? Confidence.
When you plan your mission, doubt can also be eliminated by mentally rehearsing what can go wrong, and having contingency plans worked out that provide you set actions in advance. Plan for change, plan to fail but have built-in redundancy. The SEALs say that “Two is one and one is none.” If your primary weapon goes down, always have another at the ready. If your main website server goes down, have a secondary lined up. If the first product idea fails, have a variation or another iteration to immediately roll out. You will learn more tools to deal with taking fast action with Principle 4 (Do Today What Others Won’t), Principle 6 (Break Things), and Principle 8 (Think Offense, All the Time).
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” —Colin Powell
The third element of an accelerating environment is complexity, where linear thinking doesn’t work well. Before discussing this concept, I think it important to differentiate between complicated and complex. A big bureaucracy is complicated, but it’s linear in structure and easily predictable with traditional thinking models, meaning that reasonably intelligent leaders can figure out how to navigate it. If you want to end up at the top after a 30-year career, you can reason that path out and if you work hard, you have a good chance of getting there. Complex, on the other hand, is something that is both complicated and completely unpredictable. Traditional leadership planning and decision-making models fall short in comprehending what is really going on in complex systems.
Our organizations are now increasingly complex, which means we must find simplicity on the other side of that complexity. Simplicity can be defined as “easy to understand” and for the WOS leader that means it is an idea, plan, or proposal (“the mission”) that has clear targets that fit the team, have a high return on investment, and are easy to communicate, and that the time is ripe to attack. The leader who uses simplicity as a guideline for selecting missions will start with a clear set of desired outcomes and then select the best subordinate targets to tackle on the path to mission success. They will communicate this vision with simple metaphors, imagery, and words (think of the late Steve Jobs at an Apple product launch). My friend, retired SEAL Captain Bob Schoultz, teaches leadership to SEAL officers. He advises leaders to always be asking questions. What is the why behind a decision, system, or pattern of behavior? This advice to stay connected to the why is similar to Simon Sinek’s, and it is key to the skill of finding simpler solutions to our complex challenges. Here are some good questions to get us “back to simple” when stuck in complexity:
- Why are we, as a team, undertaking this mission? What is our vision for victory and why is this important?
- Is each teammate in sync with this vision?
- If not, why? What individual perspectives are causing a disconnect?
- Can we reframe the vision to be inclusive of our diverse perspectives?
- What is the most viable plan for the mission? Why?
- What is our main target to focus on first? Why? What about after that? Why?
- Would a complete stranger find our plan simple enough to execute?
- What do we do if /when A, B, or C happens on the way to the target?
Be forewarned, this is not an easy skill to learn. Steve Jobs once said, “It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” Asking and answering the above questions will guide you and your team to find simplicity n the other side of complexity. Only then can you focus on the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons. And when you hit the inevitable roadblock or ambush, you will get back to simple-town again through a process of regrouping, reframing, and recharging.
Regroup, Reframe, Recharge
I said earlier that SEALs know that no plan survives contact with the enemy. That is equally true for your business mission in the age of acceleration. The only way I know to simplify things when your initial plan comes into contact with “the enemy” is to immediately pause and reframe that new challenge in simple terms. When a SEAL squad gets hit with an ambush on the way to their target, they don’t lose their minds and throw the entire mission away. They pause, regroup to engage and dispatch the enemy, then deal with immediate repercussions. Next, they will reframe their mission and recharge to continue on to the next best target. This skill requires that leaders constantly seek perspectives on what is most important right now, what must wait and to shift immediately from a broad focus on the mission to a narrow focus on the immediate challenge (which becomes your new target).
Developing the skill to deftly shift perspectives like this is an outcome of WOS vertical development. The training in this book will deepen your ability to experience obstacles and people from multiple perspectives (let’s call this perspective taking), as well as the ability to create new perspectives based upon a deeper understanding of how your perspective and others’ perspectives can be combined (let’s call this perspective making). You will begin to see patterns you didn’t recognize before because you have trained to cut through the clutter of complexity and integrate the best of ideas to get you to the win.
I met Joshua Ramos Cooper, author of The Seventh Sense, on my Unbeatable Mind podcast where we discussed the need to train our minds to be less fixed and more open to patterns that flow around us. He believes this is necessary to avoid reality distortions (read: mental “dis-ease”) caused by the failure of our well-trained rational brains to deal with the growing complexity. An example of this can be seen in a large number of corporations that don’t respond fast enough, or at all, to change and end up being leap-frogged by startups. Joshua related the story of a Chinese meditation master advising him that the disease of the Agrarian Age was pestilence, the disease of the Industrial Age was cancer, and now the disease of the Information Age is insanity. I believe he’s speaking about the main issue in this chapter – that we are experiencing a destabilizing of formerly accepted norms in business, education, politics, and warfare, but are too distracted to see it clearly. Leaders must wake up to the fact that they can’t figure things out by doing the same old things over and over while expecting different results. This is the recipe for an anxious world, one where acts of insanity occur more and more frequently.
Another issue to consider is that often we make things more complex than they need to be because the other parties involved in your mission don’t share the same language, level of awareness, or view of what is important. Disagreements stemming from differing viewpoints can make decisions seem more complex when, in fact, they don’t need to be. The key for the WOS leader is to “step up” to a broader perspective to search for that simple solution that can meet everyone’s needs—a “think win-win” perspective that the late Stephen Covey talked about. You know from your own negotiations just how hard this can be, as each party acts out of their own self-interests. Yet you will learn to use your “whole mind” to operate from a more nuanced, and inclusive, perspective, from where you will see the legitimacy of each party’s viewpoint and integrate all good thinking into an acceptable vision or solution.
This is different than asking for compromises, where someone gives in order for someone else to gain. Rather, it is “perspective making” whereby you will create a new outcome that transcends but includes, the original perspectives of the stakeholders. This is where you pause to study this new obstacle, and then regroup (perhaps asking the “why” questions posed earlier on page TK) to get to a “higher” more integrated perspective. Then you will reframe the issue to address all parties where they are, not just from where you are, communicating the integrated vision. This applies to how you would lead teammates involved in complex business projects, where you will have a mix of genders, races, and generations all searching for meaning, jockeying for power, and wanting to be heard. Instead of getting frustrated that these disparate individuals don’t share your values, or judging them for not being like you, you regroup to step into their shoes and say, “Oh, okay. I get it. She grew up in an age where everything was free online. Her instinct is to make things available, not to keep them under lockdown. I understand why she has these values, now. Knowing that, how can I reframe the discussion to better meet her needs and communicate mine?” This approach recharges the energy between the “warring parties” and get things moving forward again.
Learning to slow down mentally to regroup, reframe, and recharge when complexity overwhelms requires we develop the skills of pattern recognition and shifting perspectives. This process allows us to simplify the battlefield by gathering relevant information from the different angles and then to turn that information into knowledge, which we can use for wiser actions.
Blasting Through Ambiguity
If we know the world is volatile, uncertain, and complex, then it follows that it’s also more ambiguous. All four of these VUCA aspects intertwine and reinforce each other, requiring this new WOS leadership mindset that shapes your actions.
Ambiguity occurs when there is more than one interpretation of what’s going on, as opposed to a team interpreting a scenario accurately but having different perspectives on the way forward. In the latter scenario, you can get to a win-win decision as discussed a moment ago. But when things are ambiguous, you will all likely have no idea whatsoever of what course of action to take! Ambiguity is one of the reasons that leading in an accelerating world is more of an art than a science. It’s inexact, spontaneous, and creative rather than methodical and predictable. The path forward is often obscured, yet we still must find a way, or make one, for mission success.
There is no steady state anymore. As soon as we think we understand a situation, it changes, and what we expected to happen, doesn’t. To blast through ambiguity, you will need to learn to be more agile by shifting fire immediately when things don’t turn out as expected. Basically, you expect the unexpected, train yourself to find new ways to look at things and seek insights from a place of deep reflection.
Ambiguity causes us to lose focus, so we have trouble determining which targets are the right ones to attack, or in which order. Or you might know what your target is, but you lack the confidence to tackle it because of the vagueness around the potential for your plans to succeed. SEALs deal with ambiguity by chunking their decisions down to the smallest bites possible. For instance, they won’t execute a plan to go kill or capture an enemy until they “fix” the target location in time and place. They can’t fix the target until they identify his or her patterns of movement and communication. And they can’t establish that until they begin to observe the networks he or she operates within. So the SEALs chunk it down to a mission of intelligence gathering and may focus on other higher value targets until they have all the information they need. Remember, we tackle one target at a time—the right one for the right reasons in the right order. For example, when the SEAL’s highest value target was Osama bin Laden, we kept him in our front sight focus. But because we weren’t certain of his location, the potential for mission success remained ambiguous. Since we couldn’t fix his location well enough for a mission order, we shifted focus to other low-value targets that we thought he might be connected to and who would eventually expose him. Lead after lead would net lower value bad guys, and we’d interrogate them to see if they knew anything about bin Laden’s whereabouts. It took eight years, but that approach allowed the spec ops teams to blast through the ambiguity until we could take him out.
Let’s say your high-value target is to launch your business into a new market, but the details of that are just too ambiguous now because things are moving fast; there are many options and an elegant solution is obscured. In this situation, you’ll keep your eyes on this target, but shift your initial focus to other targets to get some forward movement, learn more and look for ideas or opportunities that will move you closer to your initial goal. Then you will use your rapid planning tools to move forward fast while expecting the next “failure” challenge. This process will develop fast twitch iteration.
Apply Fast-Twitch Iteration
Retired Navy SEAL Admiral Brian Losey used the term “fast twitch iteration” at an event we hosted to describe how SEALs plan and execute in the heat of a fight. Like the fast twitch muscle fibers that contract rapidly to allow you to move powerfully in short bursts such as when sprinting, fast twitch iteration is developed to ensure ambiguity doesn’t stall a team in the field. Unlike the use of rapid planning models, which are deployed by senior leadership to speed up decision-making and avoid bias, fast twitch iteration is done by operators in the field when the plan hits that inevitable snag, or a new target opportunity presents itself. In the late 1970s through the 1990s, leadership training focused on developing what I’d call a “slow twitch” planning approach: If an obstacle arises, the leadership brass goes back to the drawing board, brainstorms a solution, comes up with a new plan, tests it, then rolls it out methodically. The change happened slowly, and those closest to the challenge were cut out of the loop. This approach is still baked into many organizations’ executive planning DNA.
However, my premise is that slow twitch iteration in the age of acceleration is causing even more resistance to change and hindering innovation. This is because the path forward is ambiguous and the operators who have the most interesting ideas don’t have the ears of leadership. Many long-running organizations are relying on mergers, acquisitions, and stock buybacks to increase shareholder value, rather than sparking innovation from all corners of the organization. They double down on what appears to work in the short term, scrambling for the next target while ignoring the best investment they could make: upgrading how their collective team intelligence works to innovate rapidly and deal with a VUCA environment. Complexity and ambiguity are leading to major disruption, and if leaders don’t unlock the power of vertical development to get comfortable in a VUCA world, many companies (and industries) will face existential threats and the good people who keep the gears turning will be looking at early retirement.
Fast twitch iteration rejects the slow pace of traditional planning and avoids the cognitive bias built into them because the operators closest to the change will be empowered by leadership to pose solutions and solve the problems in a fast, iterative approach. This makes the planning process a laboratory of how to test new ideas constantly, and “fail well,” thus moving forward better, and faster. They seek to avoid the old paradigm in which teams were afraid to move forward until they were 100% sure of success (a false certainty that meant they often moved too slowly to succeed and were more likely to miss new opportunities).
Everyone on the team is a change agent with fast twitch iteration. Using situational awareness skills developed through WOS training such as box breathing and sensory awareness, observe the changing situation and the impact it is having on you, the team, your customers, processes, etc. To observe well you need to silence your external and internal chatter (both individually and for the team at large) so you don’t react with old patterns. Then you will orient your mind to the new situation and begin to search for a new, more relevant target. Next, make a quick “good enough” decision on how to best engage that target. You’re looking for the smallest, most powerful actions you can take to move the team forward against that target. Finally, you take bold action focused on that one target, and prepare for success OR failure, as you move forward. (This process is called an OODA loop, something we’ll learn more about under Principle 8: Think Offense, All the Time.) Since your actions are small in scope and deliberate, you are not risking overall mission success if they don’t work out. In this way success is nice, but failure also yields valuable information. Like finding your way in the dark in your own home: You’re still groping for the right path, but you’re doing it quickly, constantly learning from the feedback that the environment is giving you. In the teams, we call this “failing forward fast.” Each small action ratchets in small successes and allows you to learn something new. You’ll gain more confidence and momentum with this fast twitch process.
In warfare, a lot of the information we work with is old news as soon as we get it, or it may be intentionally deceptive information. Often, we can’t trust the source or our own biases toward it. It’s like the old game, “Telephone.” You tell one person something at one end of a long line, and each person passes it on, and by the time it gets to the last person the message is completely different. We drill this grade-school favorite early in Basic SEAL training (yes, we actually play “Telephone”!) because it so perfectly illustrates the point: It is critical to challenge all information to get to a better understanding when things are ambiguous. Challenge what you’re hearing. Challenge your assumptions. Challenge the information. Challenge the decision-making at all levels. Even challenge the mission if you think the targets have moved.
Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face!” In those moments, it’s important to challenge the clarity of your vision and whether the troops are aligned in shared intent and action. This point is key because even if the information is accurate and the plan sound when the plan gets face-punched, ambiguity takes over. If the vision is clear and troops are aligned, that face-punch may cause a step back, but agility and fast twitch movement will allow for a forceful one-two punch response to the enemy. With this unconventional mindset, you will develop a culture of “shared intent-in-action” whereby everyone on the team has clarity around what actions will lead the team forward. They don’t wait around to be told what to do.
The SEALs are good at challenging things and solving problems at the lowest rank possible. We call this concept “the strategic operator”—we trust the operator in the field closest to the ground level truth to know more about a situation than the leader in the rear echelon. When a situation is ambiguous and there’s more than one way forward, you trust the information as it is experienced in the field, though you will still challenge it for quality. A culture of trust occurs when there is strong alignment between the troops’ intent and the commander’s intent (a more in-depth discussion of trust is found in The Secrets of Elite Teams). With the WOS mindset, your operators (employees) will solve problems on the fly and challenge each other to come up with the best solutions.
Keep Your Eyes on the Target
Whether you’re trying to remain stable amidst volatility, confidently act despite uncertainty, find simplicity amid complexity, or navigate forward through ambiguity, so much of operating in an accelerating world comes down to keeping your eyes on the right target at the right time. It’s easy to get distracted in the middle of a firefight, take your eyes off target and see something go badly wrong. So many people quit when they are close to mission accomplishment because they lose sight of the targets that will get them to success. It’s hard to see clearly in the fog of war or in an accelerating business climate, especially if you are not trained to keep your eyes on the primary target, that main thing driving revenue or the mission forward every day. So many business leaders bounce from one target to another as the winds shift, and so they falter before the finish line.
This doesn’t mean you’ll have just one target that you fixate on to the exclusion of all else. SEALs recognize that there are multiple targets and multiple paths to win a battle or accomplish the mission, but they stay radically focused on the right target at the right time. If the target moves, move with the target, or if the target needs to change, be willing to step back and realize that the initial objective is now irrelevant, and a higher value target now requires your focus.
Leading in an accelerating world doesn’t come with a clear set of step by step instructions. Instead, it’s about mindset, values, and alignment, about getting into a state where we are so in tune with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that that becomes our new normal. I’m not just trying to teach leaders to deal with a new world. I’m saying we don’t even know what that world’s going to look like from day to day, except that it’s always going to change. This is scary for a lot of people. But I think it can be fun and stimulating when you approach it with the right attitude. And when you start practicing the eight principles of The Way of the SEAL, when you train yourself and your team to follow these concepts, you too will step up your game and open up to your full potential as leaders, drawing enjoyment from the challenges a VUCA environment provides.