Pharma’s OpEx Mission

What Special Operations Forces can teach pharma about digital transformation

By Chad Storlie, retired US Army Special Forces officer, author, adjunct lecturer

Highly skilled soldiers lurking through the pitch dark of night and a manufacturer using digital tools to create better products for patients appear to be completely unrelated. When we look closer at the skills that Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel use to create mission success, we discover techniques that can drive and inspire digital business innovation.

Although the come from across the U.S., SOFs are extensively trained to deploy worldwide at a moment’s notice. They comprise just three percent of the overall military, but SOF teams are deployed in hundreds of countries to train foreign military forces, conduct reconnaissance on enemy targets, attack terrorist cells, and rescue downed military aircraft crews.

Business digital innovation teams can learn and capitalize on the planning and operational excellence that SOF teams embody.

Hire for personal character, train critical skills: SOF organizations have a highly specialized and demanding candidate selection process. During “selection,” candidates are stressed with fatigue, physical challenges, mental challenges, and leadership problems all designed to make the SOF candidates reveal their true character. It is only after a candidate’s character has been validated that they begin the unique and specialized training. Business can learn and understand that personal character, unique experiences, and diverse backgrounds are what generate true innovation. Unique skills can be taught, but character can rarely be developed.

Going from suggestion-driven to mission-driven is critical to success.

Deeply understand the needs of your patient: Before a SOF team conducts a mission, they undergo a detailed and isolated mission planning process. The purpose is to deeply understand the needs of the military commander ordering the mission and all the possible options the team can create. Pharma manufacturers must learn that understanding the patient, their current needs, and anticipating their future needs are the true bedrock of innovation. Great technology matched with an intimate understanding of patient needs are what fuels tangible innovation.

Identify and build success from data: SOF teams use data and analytics to support decisions on how to best accomplish a mission. SOF teams evaluate their own skill sets and those of fellow team members. The primary data that SOF teams use are the results of mission rehearsals. Rehearsals are full up experiments, in business terms, that prove or disprove if they can accomplish the mission. Following a rehearsal, SOF teams do extensive reviews of their performance to improve shortcomings and maintain actions that performed well. Organizations can use rehearsals, lesson-learned sessions, and iterations of experiments to test their ideas.

Share information and build external ideas: Internally, SOF teams share as much as they can on intelligence, operations, out-of-the-box ideas, and contingency plans. SOF teams also create extensive idea sets and different ways to accomplish the mission in case conditions change. Teams believe in extensive equality regardless of rank, experience, and skill sets so they constantly share, update and listen to new information. How SOF teams share information is an invaluable teaching point for non-military organizations that focus too heavily on position, roles, and hierarchy. Information needs to be set free to inspire and guide innovation.

Go all-in on your plan: SOF teams disagree during planning, rehearsals and mission preparation. During these stages, SOF team members know everyone is expected to provide input, suggestions, and ideas to improve the outcome of the mission. However, once a mission is decided, all new ideas end and the entire team is “all in” to make the mission a success. This characteristic of SOF teams — to go from suggestion-driven to mission-driven — is critical to the success of SOF. Non-military organizations need to have vibrant discussions to allow full input on ideas. Then, they need to fully support each other for the hard tasks of mission execution.

When it comes to digital transformation, the pharma industry can find inspiration from unique sources like SOF teams to learn how to create, test, and execute innovative business plans.

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