Elite Training for Elite Teams: Lessons from Special Forces for Startup Success

In the dynamic world of startups, the path to success is incredibly demanding and not for everyone. It requires a certain type of person with a specific mindset, very similar to what is required in Elite Military Special Forces. Remo Ojaste, a retired Special Forces Operator, and CEO and Co-founder of Combat Ready, a Leadership Consultancy and Training Company, shares his lessons from the battlefield in both worlds.

This blog was written by Remo Ojaste, CEO and Co-founder of Combat Ready 

In both aforementioned arenas, success hinges on teaching people how to think, not what to think. Such a mindset, particularly crucial in combat, cannot be simply acquired or transferred; you cannot recruit ready-made thinkers from other armies. Instead, these individuals must be built and developed, nurtured to be open-minded and to think outside the box.

Why is this crucial? The combat environment is fast-paced, constantly changing, and often characterized by a lack of resources and insufficient information. Yet, despite these challenges, decisions must be made and action taken. To operate effectively in such an environment, a specific mindset and set of skills need to be taught. This is the essence of what Special Forces do best, and applying their training methods can be transformative for developing leadership and operational effectiveness also in startups.

Part 1: Special Forces Selection, Onboarding and Training


The Right Talent

In Special Forces, the selection process is a critical first step in identifying the right talent. This two-week phase is renowned as one of the most challenging job interviews in Estonia. It's an intense period where we rigorously test candidates' abilities to be effective team players, their resilience under pressure, their reactions to constant challenges and mistakes, and, crucially, their capacity to listen and learn. These qualities are essential as they indicate a candidate's potential to evolve and develop.

This rigorous selection method has significant parallels to the civilian world. In business, just as in Special Forces, the ability to work in a team, endure under stress, learn from failures, and adapt based on feedback are invaluable traits. Enhancing civilian job interviews to incorporate elements of this testing can lead to a more effective assessment of a candidate's potential to thrive in high-pressure environments. In our 'Combat Ready' program, we simulate these pressures through Field Training Exercises (FTX), which provide a realistic test of these attributes. For a glimpse into this intense process, you can watch this video: FTX Training Video.

Adapting such rigorous assessment methods in the civilian sector could drastically improve the quality of talent acquisition, ensuring that candidates are not only skilled but also possess the mental fortitude and adaptability necessary for high-stakes environments.

The transition from Selection to Onboarding

After the grueling selection phase, the focus shifts significantly during onboarding. Unlike the selection process, where candidates are rigorously tested without assistance, onboarding in the Special Forces is about enabling success. It's a collaborative environment where the new recruits are supported and guided to harness their full potential.

Training Composition and Stress Management

The training regimen is predominantly practical, with a 65% focus on hands-on experience, 25% on demonstrations, and only 10% on theoretical knowledge. This structure ensures that recruits are not just theoretically sound but also practically adept. The training is intentionally designed to be stressful, both physically and mentally. By imposing short time limits, simple tasks become challenging, and complex tasks nearly impossible. This methodology is crucial in teaching recruits how to make decisions under pressure and adapt to rapidly changing situations.

Cultural Integration and Decision-Making

An essential part of this training is cultural assimilation – understanding what behaviors are tolerated and which are not, and how important each team member is to the collective success. This aspect of training is especially vital when making tough decisions during challenging times. In a simulated combat environment, recruits learn from their mistakes, an approach that can be equally effective in the civilian sector. Companies could benefit from mapping out past mistakes and creating training programs centered around these challenges. This approach ensures that the culture and standard operating procedures are rooted in real experiences and lessons, rather than being just theoretical ideals.

Encouraging Creative and Independent Thinking

The ultimate goal of this training is not just to instruct what to think but how to think. In the military, understanding enemy maneuvers and strategies is crucial. Similarly, in the business world, understanding market dynamics and competitor strategies is vital. Training must encourage creative thinking and innovation, not just adherence to predefined steps. This approach fosters adaptability and quick decision-making, essential in both military and business environments.

FTX training by Combat Ready

Part 2: The OODA Loop and Its Application in Startups


Failing Fast: A Military Perspective on Decision-Making

The concept of "failing fast" is often bandied about in startup circles, but its roots lie deep in military decision-making practices. This approach emphasizes the value of quick, decisive action – a principle I constantly find myself explaining to our customers. In the high-stakes environment of the military, and similarly in startups, hesitation or over-planning can lead to missed opportunities and potentially dire consequences.


Understanding the OODA Loop

At the core of this philosophy is the OODA Loop, a decision-making model comprising four stages: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This cycle allows for rapid assessment and response to changing situations. Whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom, the ability to quickly cycle through these stages provides a competitive edge.

Surprise, Speed, and Violence of Action in Business

In combat, the elements of surprise, speed, and violence of action are essential for gaining and maintaining the upper hand. These elements can be effectively translated into business strategies:

  • Violence of Action: When setbacks occur, bold and assertive measures are necessary to regain control. This could mean radical shifts in strategy or intensive efforts to meet critical deadlines.
  • Surprise: Just as unpredictability can disrupt the enemy's plans in battle, in business, releasing a product ahead of schedule or unveiling an innovative marketing strategy can unsettle competitors and shift market dynamics.
  • Speed: Once you have an initial advantage, maintaining momentum is key. In startups, this means acting swiftly on feedback, avoiding the paralysis of over-analysis, and staying ahead of the competition.

Applying the OODA Loop in Everyday Business Operations

The principles of the OODA Loop are not limited to high-level strategy but are also applicable in day-to-day operations. Office interruptions and casual conversations can act as 'mini ambushes,' resetting the decision-making cycle and impacting productivity and focus. Understanding and managing these disruptions is crucial for maintaining operational efficiency.

Cyclical Nature of the OODA Loop in Business

The interplay of surprise, speed, and violence of action in a business context is not linear but cyclical. Success in a competitive environment, be it military or business, depends on the ability to transition seamlessly between these tactics as situations evolve. This adaptability keeps competitors constantly reacting, losing their footing, and ultimately, falling behind.

Conclusion: Building Teams with a Combat-Tested Mindset

The invaluable lessons drawn from Special Forces training and the OODA Loop's principles are not just strategies to be adopted; they represent a mindset that needs to be cultivated and trained within each team member. In the realm of startups, just as in Special Forces, the key to success lies not only in recruiting the right people but also in developing and nurturing these essential qualities in your existing team.

Special Forces units are adept at transforming individuals into team members who are open-minded, resilient, and driven, with a mindset attuned to rapid decision-making and adaptability. This transformation is not a matter of mere selection but of rigorous and continuous training. In the startup world, this translates to an ongoing process of fostering a culture where these traits are valued, encouraged, and honed through everyday practices and challenges.

Incorporating these military-derived strategies into a startup's DNA means more than just emulating tactics; it involves a commitment to building a team that embodies the essence of a Special Forces unit – individuals who are not only skilled but also mentally prepared to face and overcome any challenge. This approach to team building and development is what sets apart truly resilient and successful organizations.

Therefore, the most important takeaway for startups is the realization that these qualities – resilience, adaptability, quick decision-making, and a team-oriented mindset – are not inherent but can and should be developed. Drawing from the wealth of experience and knowledge of military personnel, especially those with combat experience, startups can create training and development programs that instill these critical attributes in their teams.

By embracing and integrating these lessons, startups can forge teams that are not just equipped to handle the pressures and challenges of the business world but are also primed to innovate, lead, and succeed in an ever-changing landscape.

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You can discuss these concepts in more detail or explore how they can be applied in your context with Remo and the Combat Ready team at sTARTUp Day 2024.

Meanwhile, you can check out their content on Youtube 
https://www.youtube.com/@combatreadyee, on their homepage at www.combatready.ee/en, and Online Academy at www.combatreadyacademy.com.
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