Knowing (And Understanding) Your Operational Environment

Special Operations lessons for the business world
December 26, 2018 Updated: January 6, 2019

No element in the entire U.S. Department of Defense is more  time-tested and combat-proven than the respective Special Operations Forces (SOF) of each branch of the military.

Generations of the greatest strategic minds in the modern era have contributed to an unparalleled institutional knowledge inside these units; their collective souls possess the secrets of what it takes to perform at the very highest levels, in the most time-sensitive environments, in order to complete complex and challenging operations with the highest degree of success.

For such large organizations to conduct such complex operations in small independent teams—across a wide range of operational spaces, in austere environments, and with a diverse mission set from team to team—a consistent but flexible set of operational mandates must always be in place so the team’s agility is not sacrificed.

Experienced veterans from these teams have it hardwired into their very being what these “non-negotiables” are for operational success. They then combine them with the best problem-solving skills in the world to truly earn the designation of “Special Operations.”

Now, hopefully this isn’t news to you and you’re already employing veterans of these various special operations units inside your organization as force multipliers.

It has been proven time and time again in corporate America that a Green Beret or a Navy SEAL veteran is a more valuable asset to your organization than the honors graduate with an MBA from the top business school in the country.

These quiet professionals will be the ones who will enable your team to consistently outmaneuver and outperform your competition.

If you’re reading this and want to know some of the things they know and you don’t, buckle up—you’re about to get a crash course in the first of the “SOF Imperatives.”

SOF Imperative No. 1

The SOF Imperatives were created to give Special Operations soldiers a set of guidelines to ensure operational success while in the initial planning stages of a mission.

The U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) recognizes 12 SOF Imperatives, the first of which is “Understand the operational environment.”

Many times, conventional military leaders misunderstand this as being limited to just the mnemonic “METT-TC”: Mission, Enemy, Terrain and Weather, Troops, Time Available, and Civilian Considerations. Basically, the immediate environmental, personnel, and time constraints of your area of operations.

However, as anyone who has worked in any dynamic environment—military or not—can tell you, those criteria are only adequate when chaos is not a factor. Given that chaos is always an element you are going to encounter, it is wise to take the “unconventional” approach of U.S. Army Green Berets.

Don’t allow your team to settle for only playing by the basic playbook; you’ve got to empower them to envision a holistic version of the future.

Regardless of what industry you currently find yourself working in, it is beyond dispute that you must know what your mission is, who your competitors are, what the audience landscape looks like, how much time you have, and who your audience is.

However, simple demographics are not enough to understand the ground truth of what things look like and how they interact and influence each other; you have to understand the psychographics that are at play in your environment.

That is what we mean when we say to “understand the operational environment.”

You need to know more than just what your audience looks like; you need to know what their customs are, how many cultures are at play inside it, what they believe, what the taboos are, and what the audience wants. You need to understand their goals first if you want to have any hope of influencing them to help you accomplish yours.

Successful Special Operations veterans know that one of the first things to do upon arrival in a new area of operations is to identify both the friendly and hostile decision makers and influencers in the area.

You need to understand what their objectives are and how they interact with those who look to them for guidance.

Once you understand these things, you can start mapping out their strengths, weaknesses, and how these power centers are vulnerable; you have to have an understanding about how those who like you, those who hate you, and those who don’t care about you interact with each other.

An honest assessment of this reality is key to having lasting success in any operational environment, whether it be your customer base or inside your own office building.

Anticipate Change

One key skill that sets leaders apart is their ability to recognize that no matter what is going on, there will always be circumstances and events that cannot be predicted. They then need to be able to visualize this likelihood in advance so that when incidents occur, they can be analyzed and acted on with minimal impact on the overall operations.

One of the things that makes Special Operations veterans so successful is their ability to anticipate changes in the operational environment and leverage it to their advantage, rather than having plans so rigid that they shatter or derail.

Understanding the dynamic and fluid nature of your operational environment will allow you to bring this “super power” to bear so the uncertain can be harnessed and exploited in near real-time.

One lament from military historians is about when an army tries to fight the next battle like the last, rather than adapting to what the actual latest battlefield looks like. One of the fastest ways to fail as a leader is to insist on operating in the way you are used to or feel comfortable doing, rather than focusing on how best to conduct business where you are now.

If you aren’t taking periodic pauses to reassess where you are, what your compass says, and what is going on around you, you’re going to end up way off course … or worse. Don’t let complacency undermine your organization’s success. Keep your head in the game and pay attention to what is going on. Listen to those who have the most contact with the places you are trying to run your business.

Value the ground truth over your feelings or prior experiences and you’ll already have a foot up on the other guy.

Chris Erickson is a combat veteran and former Green Beret with extensive experience deployed to various locations across the world. He now works in the communications industry. Follow him on Twitter at @EricksonPrime.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.