Special forces teamsPosted: August 19, 2003
Innovation and speed to market. Ask any CEO these days and you’ll probably get these two responses to keys of success for the company. The high tech industry has always been a fast moving industry. But are there management organization structures that could speed it up even faster? Faster innovation, better customer focus, quicker to ship?
Most software companies divide themselves up into business units. For example, Microsoft has a Windows, Office and MSN business units. From there a fairly typical matrix organization is established along functional management lines (VP Engineering, VP Marketing > Manager Engineering, Manager Marketing > Software Engineer, Product Manager). VPs organize their employees around projects and disband them when they’re done.
If there is anything that slows down these organization types is management layers. The more managers you have, the more meetings you need, the longer it takes to get things done. Presumably, if you could reduce the need of middle management, perhaps speed to market and innovation could be positively impacted?
An article in Time magazine about special forces (Secret Armies of the Night) got me thinking about whether special forces could offer an analog for corporate organization. Rumsfeld has been the real driver for special forces getting a more prominent place in today’s military. His idea is that a few special forces with the right gear and intelligence should be able to take the place of a 3,000 man brigade. They can move far faster than a typical army division–critical for fighting quick moving world conditions.
So, what does a typical special forces unit look like? They appear to be made up of a squad of 6-20 soldiers and are trained for highly specialized engagements (terrorism, psychological operations, light infantry strikes). Any one who read or watched Black Hawk Down saw both the Army Rangers and Delta Force at work. Teams working within their functional expertise area have a certain amount of autonomy to do whatever it takes to complete their mission-though missions seem to be fairly targeted and short term in duration. For example, during the recent Iraq War, the Naval Special Warfare Task Group (five separate teams of 20 Navy SEAL commandos) were sent out to secure Iraqi oil-refining and shipping facilities. That mission was accomplished. 🙂
I do see a possible analog for the software industry. Let’s take Microsoft as an example again. During the browser wars, the company made a full assault on Netscape. The Windows business unit assembled a team to build a competing product (Internet Explorer) and set on a schedule of software releases, business partnerships (namely with AOL) and strategic moves (integration into Windows) to destroy their competitor. The goal was fast releases which a fairly small tactical team was able to accomplish. Just as the Army has special forces units, I think standard matrix based organization can have their own strike teams.
But the major difference between the military setup and a corporate setup is the ongoing nature of the teams. The military special forces teams make sense to be ongoing. We’re likely to always have a need for small tactically focused teams special trained in something (counter terrorism). But in the corporate world, a team trained in a very specialized area doesn’t make as much sense (at least in the software industry). Back to our Microsoft example, would it make sense to have that same Internet Explorer team stay together forever? Those “A” players were eventually disbanded and placed on other important projects. The one thing that would seem to be consistent to special forces, is teams are self directed. But they are only self directed in the sense that they decide how to achieve their objectives. Teams have a mission that military command or company senior management in this example assigns to them. They don’t come up with that on their own.
I think the notion of special forces teams have a place in the software industry. They’ve been around informally (like when the original Apple Macintosh team was formed and flew a pirate flag over their building on Apple’s campus). But it’s my theory that strike teams only work under the following conditions: 1) they obtain a mission for executive management, they don’t create their own; 2) they have a fixed time frame of existence, they are not ongoing; 3) they are self directed only in how they achieve their objective, they don’t act as an independent mini business unit; 4) they are a temporary group of seasoned personnel, staffing teams with new or junior members slows them down.