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Why veterans know how to use Radical Candor, Sprint, and Operate!

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As a veteran of 13 years in U.S military special operations and now working in the “private sector,” three recent articles and phenomena emerging from Silicon Valley caught my attention.  All three articles espouse tactics, themes, and leadership skills that are innovative but are actually over 200 years old.  And likely much older.  These skills and capabilities are taught to every non-commissioned and commissioned officer in either boot camp or a basic school, and used in military units all over the world every single day.

The first article that caught my attention was Jake Knapp and Google Ventures’ Sprint.  A GV Sprint is an incredible planning and execution methodology.  It’s also a military unit’s most fundamental planning, rehearsal, and FTX (field training exercise) cycle.  Most units do hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Sprints in one year.  At the center of a Sprint is the Operations Officer, and operations team.  In fact “Team,” as in selecting the correct people for the Sprint, is second only to picking the “big problem” or “Challenge.”  In Make Operations Your Secret Weapon – Here’s How, the second article that surprised me, First Round Review calls the operations officer “the most mysterious role in the C-suite.” In a special operations unit in the military, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) or Operations Officer, is the single most well understood command and coordination role in the unit. And finally, the third article was Ms. Kim Scott’s Radical Candor.   For the best military leaders and teammates with whom I’ve worked, Radical Candor is not the “surprising secret to being a good boss.”  It might be a “secret” to some but it certainly isn’t “surprising.”  However, Ms. Scott is absolutely correct in that it is key to being a good boss and teammate!

On the one hand, I was incredibly surprised to see these ideas presented as new and only now being discovered by folks at the world’s ground zero of innovation – Silicon Valley. Watching the leadership culture and shenanigans that recently came to a head at Uber, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at all.  It’s not fair to paint with too broad a brush but it seems Uber’s lack-of-leadership situationis emblematic of how much work there is to be done with respect to training and education for leaders and teams in Silicon Valley.  And it’s not only Silicon Valley.

I’m not trying to be critical of Silicon Valley.  What I’m hoping to do is make the case that for companies who find the right veteran, with the right fit, you’ll get a gold-mine of experience and leadership for your team!  Neither am I making a case that veterans are the onlypeople who know how to serve as COOs, conduct a Sprint, or deploy Radical Candor.  I’m writing this more out of concern for those employees of companies being robbed of great leadership.  This article is a success if it helps match one company with one veteran who has deep expertise in being a phenomenal COO, has done thousands of Sprints, and has used Caring Personally and Challenging Directly for decades.  And in both peace and wartime leadership roles.  The right veteran, at the right company, with the right fit, can bring all three of these skills to your company immediately.

After 18 years in the US Navy, and 13 years in special operations, I transitioned into the private sector in 2011.  One of my biggest personal challenges in transition was not only describing my skills but understanding what my skills actually were, and how they’d be transferable and valuable to a business or organization.  I was asking myself, “What do I actually know how to do?” and “How and where can I deploy my skills right away?”  I’ve been out of the service for six years now.  I’ve served as the executive director of a national non-profit.  I continue to serve as a consultant, trainer, educator, and researcher.  As a Partner in a small private equity firm, I’ve served our team on a number of transactions, and was the turn-around president for two of our acquisitions.  

What I learned very quickly is that I already possessed these three tangible, deployable skills (and for the veteran with the appropriate experience, you do too):

  1. Leading a process to answer critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas, whether in a GV Sprintformat or otherwise.
  2. Applying the tactics of how to make operations a “secret weapon.”
  3. Cultivating appropriate and effective Radical Candor in your teams.

I first learned about GV’s Sprint process while listening to an interview with Jake Knapp.  As he spoke, my mind raced while I listened to him describe a military unit’s most basic mission planning process.  A process at which I had become an expert while deploying all over the world on both peacetime and combat deployments.  As the interviewer continued to show genuine curiosity and delight with Mr. Knapp’s description of the Sprint as an innovation I realized the interviewer had seriously never heard of such a process before. The GV Sprint is nearly identical to a special operations mission planning cycle which we’ve used for decades.  For the veterans reading, the Sprint is a great example of something at which you’re already an expert.  Seriously.  There are literally hundreds of instances where we planned and executed missions (full design Sprint cycles) in hours.  A Sprint is fantastically simple and effective, and must be disciplined, but the process is not new.

Let’s take a look at a Google Ventures Sprint.  The sprint is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. This process was developed at Google Ventures (GV), which is Google’s Venture Capital arm.  There is no question that GV is world class at business strategy, innovation, behavior science, design thinking, and more.  It appears that their Sprint concept is being used effectively with all types of companies, and is seen as rather innovative.  The Sprint is even described as a “battle-tested” process!  I agree 100%.  It is a battle-tested process at which many veterans are…well, veterans.  I think I’ve personally done well over 1,000 mission planning sprints myself.  For any veteran involved in operations and mission planning, you’re a GV design sprint expert and may not know it yet! 

From the GV design sprint website, “Instead of waiting to launch a minimal product to understand if an idea is any good, you’ll get clear data from a realistic prototype.  The sprint gives you a superpower: You can fast-forward into the future to see your finished product and customer reactions, before making any expensive commitments.  On Monday, you’ll map out the problem.  On Tuesday, you’ll sketch competing solutions on paper.  On Wednesday, you’ll make difficult decisions and turn your ideas into a testable hypothesis.  On Thursday, you’ll hammer out a high-fidelity prototype.  And on Friday, you’ll test it with real live humans.”

For the experienced, operational veterans you’ll recognize this as taking the mission set, developing possible Courses of Action (COAs), working through assumptions, limitations, constraints, and detailed planning, hammering out an initial Operation Order (OPORD) with supporting elements, and finally running a ROC-drill (Rehearsal of Concept) and a field training exercise (FTX).

GV says that “working together in a sprint, you can shortcut the endless-debate cycle and compress months of time into a single week.”  As many veterans know, there’s even another level of Sprint where your team is so synchronized and “battle-tested” that you can eliminate the debate cycle and compress that single week into days or hours.  You can only do this if your team is well led and synchronized at the operations level.

The Chief Operating Officer (COO) or “Ops Officer” in military terminology is the company’s (the CEO’s) primary cross-functional coordinator, planner, executor, and feedback loop.  The COO is not a “secret weapon.”  It is THE weapon.  If sales and marketing are operating orthogonally, the Ops Officer has failed to synchronize their efforts in accordance with the the CEO’s guidance (assuming her guidance exists and is both clear and resourced appropriately).  If engineering is the primary, strongest, or only voice in the room then the Ops Officer has failed to construct an appropriate operating cadence and feedback loop in the team’s rhythm.  Given the Ops Officer’s macro view (and experience), she’s responsible for turning top-down guidance into properly resourced, aligned, and executable bits.  She’s the hub of managing a cadence that allows for fast decisions and bottom-up refinement of your tactics.  The Ops Officer never, ever let’s a team operate in isolated groups or silos.  By definition, this is a massive contradiction in their role.  If your Ops Officer doesn’t demand and facilitate synchronization across the organization all you’ve done is create another department, not a cross coordinating element.  The same qualities that make Chefs and Soldiers the Best Product Managers can also make the right veterans the best Chief Operating Officers.

I enjoyed First Round Review’s radical opening to their article on Ms. Kim Scott’s concept of Radical Candor.  First Round recommends creating “bullshit-free zones where people love their work and working together.”  And the first thing Ms. Scott calls out as the “single most important thing a boss can do…is focus on guidance.”  I couldn’t agree more. However, CEO’s guidance is way more than just “feedback” as the article describes.   More on writing commander’s (CEO’s) guidance in another article.  Another skill that young platoon commanders in special operations learn is that taking care of your team and accomplishing the mission are your two primary responsibilities.  Everything that happens or fails to happen in your platoon is the responsibility of the platoon commander.  Taking care of your team and teammates is your number one priority. Establishing deep knowledge about your teammates (who they are) – Caring Personally – always comes before learning “what” they can do.  Challenging Directly, from boot camp or basic training, to serving in senior leadership roles, challenging each other directly is simply a way of life in special operations.

It’s been six years since I transitioned from special operations to the private sector. When I’m asked what’s the biggest difference you see between your time in special operations and the way you see company’s operate, it’s an easy answer for me.  Very few teams and companies with whom I’ve worked in the private sector conduct real, honest feedback sessions.  In special operations, when done as a group, we call this After Action Review (AAR).  If you’re seeking comfort, don’t do AAR.  If you’re seeking excellence, build an AAR process.  A proper AAR follows some really basic rules and procedures, and requires some training, development, and habit building.  Done correctly it will be the single most effective mechanism your team deploys to Challenge Directly.  Setting the rules, expectations, and environment correctly for an effective AAR eliminates “shuttle diplomacy” nearly entirely.

For every company in America, if you’re looking for someone who understands Radical Candor, operations, and rapid planning and testing cycles, go find the right veteran that fits into your organization.  You’ll get a gold-mine of experience and leadership for your team!  The right veteran, at the right company, with the right fit, can bring all three of these skills to your company immediately and simultaneously.

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2 Comments

  1. Hold Fast
    September 2, 2017 at 4:30 pm — Reply

    Awesome stuff, Coleman. Ready, Clint

    “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” – D. Burnham

    Forgive typos. Big hands, small keyboard.

    > >

  2. Justin D.
    September 4, 2017 at 9:14 pm — Reply

    Coleman,
    Great post – well explained and referenced. For those still to the left of their departure from uniformed service, it might be worth checking out shift.org (https://www.shift.org/) – believe they have taken a few steps forward with the concept you raise here, which is the translation of military skills into the private sector. Appreciate the posts and the links – keep up the great work brother!!
    -JD

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