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Special purpose teams are agile by design and follow mission-based approach.

Importance of Special Purpose Teams in Innovation

“I am sorry, gentleman, but I cannot recommend you for the duty in armed forces,” said the high-ranking officer of defense forces from across the long and big office table. Unfortunately, in 2004, despite being one of the top 3 selected candidates, I missed the opportunity to join the IAF (Indian Air Force) by 0.5 on medical terms (long story). 

Nonetheless, my interest in learning more about defense, their strategies, and tactics did not fade. I remained curious about how those apply on a day-to-day basis as well as in business. If you have been a fan of the “Art of War” type books, it was something like that for me.

Dig deeper and try to make connections. You will see that corporates can learn from two key characteristics that defense forces exhibit. 

The first is agility by design. And the second one is the mission-based approach. These two traits not only make defense teams resilient but also help them in handling disruptions effectively.

Last year I was exploring more on these ideas, particularly the special-purpose teams’ concept. So, I talked to one of my army veteran friends to understand more. A lot of intel I have gathered to form this concept comes from him.

The key is to understand and acknowledge that agility by design and using a mission-based approach can make your business resilient. It will also help you in handling disruptions more effectively. 

Agility by design and using a mission-based approach can make your business resilient.

How does it work in the defense?

For any defense mission, at least three things are critical. Tasks, resources, and success guarantee. It is much the same for business projects too. Each defense mission begins with a small team. Then, that team follows three high-level steps.

The first step is intelligence gathering. It is also known as probing. At this stage, the team is relatively small and may have only three or four cross-functional experts. The goal is not to take any action, only watch and learn. Then, probe if necessary to gather more intelligence.

Once the information is gathered after probing, it is converted to wisdom or insights, as they would call in data-analytics parlance. And they start to gather actionable intelligence. Something that can be used to take significant action. Something that is more reliable and can guarantee success. The team often uses SWOT analysis to direct their efforts and utilize resources efficiently. Until this point, the core team is still the same. However, it now starts to deploy more members on a need basis. This way, the functional team grows slightly. At this stage, typically, seven to ten members may get involved in those activities.

And as soon as the intelligence is available, it is action time. That is when the overall command is handed over to someone who will see through the whole mission. The mission head is empowered to choose their teams. They are also empowered to define their strategy for maximum success guarantee. 

The usual approach is to start with small battles and gain a foothold. Later these small battles morph into several breakouts. These breakouts then may (or may not) result in a full-fledged war.

Regardless of all the above, nearly every mission has a high reliance on composite units. This is because composite units are competent teams with all the resources necessary for their operation. In a way, they are small but self-sufficient teams.

Composite units are competent teams with all the resources necessary for their operation.

How it translates to business?

Now let us look at how does it translates in the corporate? 

If we were to learn anything from defense here, let us learn how it operates with minimal resources, speed, and agility. 

If your company’s mission is to explore new markets or launch new products, it is good to use a small team for scouting. You may have seen that startups usually have two co-founders, and it works quite well for them.

Once things start to take shape, this small team can get more hands to help and generate actionable insights. When I worked with LG Electronics, we extensively used the concept of the TDR teams, that is,  tear down reengineering teams for such projects. These teams functioned like composite units, completely self-sufficient to execute small projects independently, starting to end. 

Once you get more comfortable with the outcomes, you can align all the necessary resources and commission a full project. I strongly believe that you must master the art of experimentation to master the art of the future of work! 

Special purpose teams can make experimentation feasible.

But remember that small, focused project teams need cross-functional members. They need autonomy. Some latitude to operate. Proper access to the infrastructure and resources. They also need access to decision-makers, and there has to be the shortest path to make that happen. So let us say that they are corporate equivalents of a composite unit.

Why should you try it?

Now the question is, why should you try it? You see, it is extremely critical to have the ability to change directions quickly and reorganize in the time of disruption. It is a must-have. Plus, adaptability is a crucial trait when you operate in a highly volatile, uncertain world. And you can improve all this significantly when you have resizable and modular teams.

Special purpose teams can help you to innovate. They can help you improve outcomes. And while doing all that, they will also help increase your agility by several notches. Imbibing startup culture is something many businesses dream of. Having special-purpose teams in your organization will enable you to do that.

As I mentioned earlier, more and more organizations now have at least three different generations in their employee mix. So, these types of new team structures and management principles are becoming a necessity. And none of it will work until you take intentional steps.

I would invite you to test these proven strategies in your domain, in your business. Do it on a small scale. Try them out. See what works for you and what does not. 

Make the future of work, work for you!

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