Serious About Innovation? Bring in the Elite Special Forces

Today’s businesses need to be stealthily ready for battle.

Conventional forces are prepared to fight and win conventional battles, but when military leaders and heads of state have seemingly intractable challenges, including the need for special reconnaissance operations and the conduct of unconventional warfare, they call on their special forces.

The concept dates back to the ninjas of feudal Japan and includes more recent examples like the French Foreign Legion founded in the 19th century, but modern special forces emerged during WWII when, among others, the British Commandos were formed following Winston Churchill's call for “specially trained troops of the hunter class”.

Similarly, businesses know how to succeed in conventional terms, but are today facing challenges analogous to those of their military counterparts.  Driven by the necessity to self-disrupt and rethink business with digital at its core, business leaders are calling on their own elite special forces, in the form of innovators and intrapreneurs, to conduct highly strategic missions, including finding breakthrough businesses. Winning in the digital arena requires a special type of leader.

Exceptional Qualities & Skills

To succeed at a wide range of unconventional missions, special forces must possess unique skills and receive specialized training to ensure they are prepared for any assignment.

In the realm of business innovation, the skills needed reflect breadth and depth including a deep understanding technology and its impacts, entrepreneurism, relationship building, characteristics like tenacity and objectivity, and strong leadership.  Perhaps most importantly, these leaders need the instincts of a hunter to find opportunities that others either do not see or are unable to realize


Special reconnaissance and intelligence operations are common missions for special ops forces. Decisions made based on the intelligence have real gravity, so accuracy and unfiltered objectivity are absolutely critical. 

In the business world, assessing the magnitude of customer problems and the willingness to take action to resolve them are intelligence operations of the first order.  Nothing replaces direct dialogue with customers to discern problems and needs that result in “must have” solutions from those resulting in “nice to haves”.

This objective requires a special set of skills: a clinical approach to customer interviews and relentless pursuit not of a specific outcome, but an accurate assessment of the need.

And as with their military counterparts, speed is essential.  The value of intelligence has a very short half-life so accumulating and analyzing the intelligence must happen at an extremely accelerated pace. Enter the theater, gather the intel, assess the situation.  Situational awareness is more a mindset than a skill, and successful innovators are driven by this mindset to ensure their risk assessment is the best it can possibly be.

Guerilla War

If the intelligence is proven accurate, special forces may then be called upon to conduct unconventional, or guerilla, war. Guerilla is the diminutive of “guerra” or war – a small war. In business, this may be an incubation of a minimum viable product or offering that addresses the needs of early adopters to determine product-market fit.

The guerilla analogy is particularly appropriate as incubation teams often need to use unconventional tactics like growth hacking to identify the most effective and efficient ways to grow the business, tactics not used elsewhere, or minimally, in the business.

And like reconnaissance, the incubation lifecycle must also be accelerated.  It is a test of the marketplace that, should a fit exist, will either be adopted into the existing business or, if it is fundamentally different (e.g., new business model), may then be made a new “conventional” method of operation or a new line of business.

And in both the military and businesses contexts, entering a guerilla war when the initial intelligence is faulty is a recipe for disaster (for businesses, this means building products nobody wants).  Wrong solutions can be fixed but non-existent problems can’t be fixed at all.

Recruiting Special Forces

Just as soldiers understand conventional warfare, employees understand conventional business so where do you find individuals to fill this special role focusing on the unconventional?

Recruiting your special forces may follow one of the best military models – go back to the rank and file.  Among them are ninjas-in-waiting, including those who forsake comfort and routine for a chance to make a big impact on the business.  Perhaps the biggest advantage of corporate entrepreneurship is the ability to tap into the hidden talents within.

It is worth noting the role requires real intestinal fortitude.  As with true start-ups, corporate entrepreneurship comes with extreme highs and lows so tenacity and a relentless pursuit of mission success through surgical execution, whatever the circumstances, are essential.

CA Technologies’ has its own team of special forces – a small but highly talented group of intrapreneurs – working within the CA Accelerator.  This team of uniquely qualified and motivated leaders is helping to define the digital future so our customers are equipped to win whatever battles they enter.

To succeed at digital innovation, find your specially trained troops of the hunter class.


David McNierney
By David McNierney | July 29, 2016