Digital Transformation Lessons from the Navy SEALS

Chris Fussell

The challenges of our fast-paced world are overwhelming. Advances in technology have leveled the playing field, meaning your next competitor can unexpectedly spring from anywhere. Whether you describe it as dynamic, networked, or complex, one thing is clear: Keeping up with the churn of your environment is becoming harder and harder.

In writing Team of Teams with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our team examined our experiences fighting a networked threat in Iraq. We had discovered that the root cause of our struggle to move our teams fast enough sat within our own highly efficient but rigid organizational processes. The Information Age had changed the battlefield, yet we had stayed the same.

Despite the unusual environment in which we operated, our problems would have been familiar to most business leaders. Knowledge wasn’t being shared fast enough. Our less-capable competitor was innovating faster than we were. Our teams had different cultures, and aligning on common goals was extremely difficult.

In short, we were victims of the traditional hierarchical practices that we’d relied on so heavily.

Initially, we reacted by ramping up our efforts. It had little impact. The machine simply couldn’t move faster by pulling any more
traditional levers.

At the edge of defeat, we realized that we needed to create new ways to communicate and keep ourselves aligned so that we could make decisions—and execute them—more quickly. Luckily, the very technological advances that drove the shift would also become part of our solution.

Change Happens from the Ground Up

Logically, it’s best for teams to band together to achieve common goals, but the reality of how we are structured—with multiple teams assigned to different roles—often results in tribalism, miscommunication, work done at cross-purposes, or even
outright competition.

In our experiences, we had found that a shift from a “knowledge is power” to a “sharing is power” mentality would be necessary if we were to overcome these common challenges. This change in mind-set requires a relentless dedication to transformation. On our own journey, we began by looking hard at how we aligned and communicated as an organization.

In most organizations, change occurs more rapidly at the tactical level than at the strategic level. Enterprises typically align all the way down on a quarterly or annual cadence, as with level-setting at a company-wide off-site. But over time, tactical teams experience more churn, and the gap between strategy at the top and the people on the ground widens. Many leaders simply wait until the next scheduled off-site to communicate strategy, distribute information collected from the field, and realign their team. The cycle repeats itself, with teammates riding high after getting together but with alignment slowly dissipating as time and geographic dispersion take hold.

This is a fine approach, but only if the competition is playing the same game. We found this to be too slow for the new realities of our world. We had to share information much more broadly and align much more frequently if we were to maintain the pace required to win.

Transform with Collective Intelligence

Thankfully, we could unleash the power of technology to tackle our problem. We installed state-of-the-art videoconferencing systems across our operations and revamped our key forum significantly. For 90 minutes, nearly 7,000 individuals would dial into a carefully structured meeting to share information, learn from the experiences of others, and realign as a global team. Leadership could reinforce strategic messages, and tactical operators could share their experiences on the ground, informing each other in real time. It was an incredibly effective way to communicate and harness the collective intelligence of our internal networks.

For us, the gap for resetting was 24 hours, so we met every single day. And this was the tip of the iceberg. Leaders have to align themselves, model the correct behaviors, and become more open to frequent input—as well as decision making—from the field in order to make this type of forum effective.

In the corporate world, the cadence for realignment varies based on the needs of each industry. One consumer goods company we worked with met every week during their busy season and ramped down to meeting every two weeks in off-peak periods.

The disruption that is a hallmark of our new environment may be challenging, but the digital age also provides incredible opportunities to move faster—and fewer excuses to not communicate more. Use the power of virtual meetings and other digital communication platforms to link your strategy, operations, and tactics more frequently and to build more collaborative teams that are more interconnected and better aligned in the process. Ultimately, this will give your organization the power to decentralize to the front lines, where speed of execution is more critical than ever. D!

Chris Fussell is a co-author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, a former Navy SEAL officer, and a managing partner at McChrystal Group, an advisory services firm that improves the performance of organizations and builds teams capable of adapting to the world’s most complex leadership challenges.

For more insight on leadership, watch the replay of the SAPPHIRE NOW session “Lessons from the Battlefield to the Digital Economy.”


Chris Fussell

About Chris Fussell

Chris Fussell is a co-author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, a former Navy SEAL officer, and a managing partner at McChrystal Group, an advisory services firm that improves the performance of organizations and builds teams capable of adapting to the world’s most complex leadership challenges.