What The Special Forces Can Teach Us About New Markets


When your spouse is working with the U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, dinner conversations can be surprising.

My wife operates in a different world than I do: I focus on helping companies to capture new markets, while she tries to stabilise a country.

But in the wake of the Special Forces’ triumph over Osama bin Laden, the lessons from her world seem more pertinent than ever to mine.  Here are five takeaways that stand out:

Adapt to new contexts

The Special Forces like to call themselves “hunter killers,” but in Afghanistan much of the need is to eliminate Taliban support at the village level and prevent conflict from happening in the first place.  Firepower alone won’t do the job.  Rather, the military needs to understand why their “customer” – local villagers – support the Afghan government or the “competition.” 

To do so they track the sources of instability at the village level, which can vary from insecure transport to lack of a court system. Then they must assess how their resources can productively change this context without exacerbating other issues. For instance, the military has sometimes flown in district judges to settle land disputes, rather than having villagers turn to the swift justice of the Taliban. 

Where the police isn’t functioning, they have provided scooters and radios so that villagers can form their own militias (the locals supply the guns, which is pretty easy in Afghanistan).  The Special Forces quickly recognised that they needed skills outside their extensive training, and they became intensely customer-focused in creating solutions to fit local circumstances.  Their program balances deep customisation with central efforts to disseminate best practices.  How many companies do that?

Create a system of allies

Although the U.S. military has an overwhelming military advantage against the Taliban, that is not enough for victory.  In recent years, U.S. forces have developed a broad array of allies that can enable a range of actions from positioning troops to educating young girls.  The Special Forces know where their competencies start and stop – they do the fighting, and they assess needs in dangerous spots. 

Beyond that, they call on partners such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, non-governmental organisations, municipal authorities, and others.  Businesses can over-estimate their ability to respond to threats, particularly when they come from untraditional sources that fight the competitive battle in an asymmetric  way.  For instance, many product-oriented companies lack alliances with service firms that can lock-in customers and provide flexibility to offer totally distinct solutions.  The Special Forces have learned that operating in isolation can lead to dangerous conditions.

Think like an opponent

The military has a corps of highly-trained “Red Team” staff that think like the enemy, probing for weaknesses and planning attacks.  The original Red Team was organised by the first commander of Navy SEAL Team Six (the unit that took down bin Laden) to spot vulnerabilities at U.S. military installations and other sensitive sites. 

How many companies use their strategic plans to scope the environment like an entrepreneur or a firm from an adjacent space?  For most firms, the strategic plan is really a financial plan, and there is little if any attention paid to how entrants could disrupt the historical order of a market.  If companies understood their vulnerabilities in-depth, they could quickly discern when seemingly trivial competitors pose a grave risk, and they could block off potential avenues of attack.

Plan for surprises

As the Chief of Staff for the Prussian Army once famously declared, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”    What was true for him 130 years ago is far more relevant today.  There are an immense number of variables in flux during fights in Afghanistan, and Special Forces have to expect surprises.  Accordingly, they take stock of changing conditions quickly, retain a high degree of flexibility in their operations, and constantly think through contingencies. 

It is ironic that corporate strategists sometimes refer to their outputs as “military-style plans” when they are highly prescriptive.  This is plain wrong.  A true military-style plan would be clear about strategic objective, and it would indicate a number of ways to achieve that goal.  Then it would devote substantial attention to contingencies and mechanisms for rapid adjustment.

Assess learnings fast

The military has codified a system of After-Action Reviews that are used in any operational context, from training seminars to platoon combat.  An AAR assesses what happened, why, and how things might have been done better. 

It focuses tightly on a handful of key objectives and pointedly avoids assigning blame – especially to people who have not been direct participants in the event.  The U.S. Army has helpfully posted its AAR manual online.  A system for intense customer focus and rapid iteration requires an outstanding process for assessing learnings fast and translating them into actionable recommendations.  How many companies can boast of that?

The mountains of Afghanistan have surprising similarities to the challenging terrain of new markets.  Faced with dire consequences from failure, U.S. Special Forces have developed a world-class system of dealing with unexpected challenges and winning over sceptical customers.  Their triumphs are frequently out of public view, but their methods deserve far more attention.

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