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Opinion | What special forces can teach founders about creativity and discipline

Thorny issues can’t be solved by solitary genius, effective teamwork is a must in all situations

Discipline comes through standardization of repeated tasks.
Discipline comes through standardization of repeated tasks. (Photo: Waseem Andrabi/HT)

A competent fighting unit is best known by its levels of discipline. Militaries across the world pride themselves on their predictability and reliability, and yet there is an elite section of these forces, the Special Forces, called upon for the most extreme operations. The rescue of cargo ship captain Richard Phillips in 2009 is among the high-profile missions carried out by the elite US Navy SEALs. In India, our Special Forces, the National Security Guard, were involved in rescuing the hostages and dealing with terrorists during the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It is unthinkable how such missions could be accomplished without creativity and improvisation. What’s inspiring is the way Special Forces maintain a delicate balance between discipline and creativity.

Discipline and creativity

Most people find it almost impossible to reconcile discipline with creativity. For them, discipline strangles creativity. But it’s quite the opposite. Jocko Willink, a retired Navy SEAL, podcaster and author, writes in Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead And Win, “Instead of making us more rigid and unable to improvise, this discipline actually made us more flexible, more adaptable, ad more efficient. It allowed us to be creative."

Think about it—if there were no rules, nor limitations, no constraints, who needs creativity?

Here are some ways you can cultivate creativity without giving up on discipline.

The big picture

The three principles are: Keep the “why" unambiguous and the “how" ambiguous; practice problem-solving in teams; and standardize wherever possible to reduce cognitive load.

An utmost clarity of purpose is non-negotiable in every mission. One of the more famous ones that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden was hit by bad luck from the very start, yet the SEALs carried out the mission almost flawlessly. A decade of intelligence gathered by the CIA led the team of two dozen SEALs to a compound in Abbottabad and even before they could land on the site, the Black Hawk was down. Yet they improvised, despite a severe time crunch, in an alien land, while being constantly monitored by the White House.

The years of training and planning crystallized the “why" in their mind but allowed for enough flexibility to figure out the “how" as they went about their purpose. It allowed for improvisation and creativity, and that too, at a team level, without losing sight of the big picture. That’s why a purpose can’t be overstated, ever.

Most missions conducted by the SEALs are in teams of four to six. The fine division of labour, code of conduct, exigency approaches, even the non-verbal communication gets refined by countless practice sessions and mock-ups. That’s how problems are solved—in teams, and this needs to be practised more often then not, in both field and the office.

Discipline comes through standardization of repeated tasks. In any mission, there are only a few tasks of high uncertainty, and the rest are of routine nature. It’s an imperative then that the activities that are amicable to be standardized as quickly as possible so that the cognitive capacities could be freed up to where they are needed the most.

Take, for instance, how precise and brief the communication is between soldiers in the field, or, for that matter, between the pilots and the air traffic control (ATC). It is aimed at conserving the cognitive capacities, especially in high-stake situations.

Without standardization you are forced to think from first-principle basis each time you encounter a problem and there might not always be enough luxury of time or cognition. Yet most people outside of the forces would despise the very idea of SOP, or standard operating procedure, citing that it strangles one’s free thinking or free will.

Bringing the discussion back to the corporate context, the foremost realization must be of the imperative of discipline in creativity. It calls for achieving a clarity of purpose and communicating it unambiguously, while keeping the approach reasonably vague to allow for improvisation.

It must also be stressed that thorny problems can’t be solved by solitary genius and that teams need to work repeatedly to develop a rhythm of problem-solving, especially in stressful situations.

Finally, to get the most of your creative juices, it’s critical to separate the routine from the non-routine. What’s more, activities should be standardized, wherever possible, so as to allow for a sharp focus on what matters the most. On this point, expert snipers are trained to just see through the cross hairs for a long time, while automating almost everything around, including their controlled heartbeat. Some have even learnt to pause a heartbeat.

Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.

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