Sunday, May 26, 2013

Team Culture: Special Forces vs Conventional Forces

As startups succeed and add experienced executives, companies can undergo an internal culture debate between the early employees and new professional executives.  This debate is characterized as the choice between the startup culture and the professional management culture.  Startup managers focus on achieving results quickly through passion, get-it-done attitude and rapid adaptation.  Professional managers focus on scale and predictability through process, organization (hierarchy) and hiring.  Startup managers tend to elevate key outside interests (such as customers), while professional managers tend to be internal or organization centric.  The same debate occurs between a new, unproven business unit and a successful existing business unit.

This dichotomy between the startup and large company (professional management) cultures reminds of the tensions between Special Forces and the Conventional Forces in our military.  “For more than a generation, the large, conventional Army and the small, secretive commando community viewed each other from a distance, and with distrust.  Armor and infantry units trained and operated separately from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency teams.”  (Thom Shanker, NYT, Army will reshape training, with lessons from Special Forces) This photo from Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the tension between the two cultures – Lawrence as the classic special forces dressed to work with key outsiders (the Arabs) and the proud, highly disciplined and trained, regular British army officers:


The recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated the importance of both Special Operations Forces and Conventional Forces, because certain missions are best suited for each force.  "Images of bearded, SOF soldiers on horseback riding into battle with their Northern Alliance counterparts in Afghanistan, are in stark contrast to pictures of the US Army’s 3-7th Cavalry spearheading the mechanized assault towards Baghdad. Yet, each of these attacks was the decisive operation for their respective theaters.  In Afghanistan, conventional forces found themselves for the first time playing a supporting role to SOF. An infantry task force, the 1-87th infantry battalion (TF 1-87) from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division deployed to Uzbekistan to provide security for a SOF forward operating base (Briscoe and Kiper 2003, 74), and a US Navy aircraft carrier were tasked to provide direct support of SOF operations."  (Faculty of US Army Command, The Integration of Conventional Forces and Special Operations Forces)  Thom Shanker wrote in the NYT article:  “The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed that. The demands of combining high-end conventional combat and counterinsurgency missions for complementary and overlapping operations in Afghanistan and Iraq pushed conventional and Special Operations forces together.“  As a result, the US military is focused on the integration of the Conventional Forces and Special Operations Forces.  “Creating new sets of formal relationships between Army general-purpose units and the Special Operations Command would be a significant change in Army culture.”

Similarly, companies face multiple challenges, some best addressed by a startup culture and some by a professional management culture.  To succeed, companies must retain, value and integrate both cultures.

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