Special Forces as a Model For Design Teams

by Richard Banfield

We’ve embraced several counterintuitive approaches over the years. Probably the most controversial one is that we run our business and projects in the same way that special forces teams work. On the surface this management approach may seem inappropriate and even a little extreme for a company that does user experience design but once you break it down it makes perfect sense.

Before I explain how the special forces approach inspired us I want to clear up a misconception. Special forces are not just about blowing things up and killing bad guys. These are some of the smartest and hard-working people on the planet. Our interest in the special forces model was to get an understanding of how high performance teams work. This was not about how we would turn fresh faced designers into battle ready killers (although that would be fun to see).

The inspiration

The attractiveness of the special forces approach came from a conversation I had with a SEAL team veteran several years ago. At the time we were fortunate enough to work with the founders of NavySeals.com, a commercial website that sells high performance gear and training. Mark Divine, the company founder, gave me an insight I hadn’t heard before. “The average Navy SEAL candidate has the same characteristics as a professional athlete. They love pushing their minds and bodies. It’s not really about the weapons or killing people. Your average [special forces] graduate is smarter than most Harvard grads and as disciplined as an Olympic athlete. They are already out there doing everyday things. Finding them and focusing them is what our training does.” That idea stuck with me. I loved that there might be a way to find and craft a team of people that were latently super disciplined and performance focused.

My own experience in the military made up the best and the worst years of my life. The best because they taught me things about myself and other people that you simply cannot learn unless you’re in an intensely stressful environment. Being exposed to the cutting edge of military technology was exciting. The worst because of the overwhelming physical, mental, and emotional stress the army pushes on you each day. Sleep depravation and hunger was all I could think about for the first 10 months. I yearned for chocolate.

When I was conscripted into the Army I was sent to a somewhat unique training camp for bootcamp and officers course. I’m pretty sure I was sent there by mistake because only weeks before I had been applying to art schools. The base was referred to as “The Gym” in part because it was where the special forces instructors got their training. PT Instructors, as they were called, were the stereotypical guys you see on movies that make a living screaming mercilessly at newbies as the crawl through the dirt and mud. These guys are no fun. Being at The Gym gave me daily access to these guys. Most days we were on the receiving end of their sadism. Some days we just watched as the special forces guys got handed their asses. As my training progressed I realized that behind the testosterone and bluster was a brilliant process to get the best from people and build amazing teams (but I don’t recommend screaming at people in your office to get results).

The right people and the right training

Part of the mythology of good design is that you have to employ greasy haired, tattooed, creative-types and provide them with strong coffee, ping pong tables and beanbags to get results. Not only is it a paper-thin idea but that’s unfortunately what most design companies do. The price of buying into this story is high staff turnover, budget overages and missed deadlines. We are not running an art camp. Design is a business. It’s driven by real world restrictions and complicated project management. Just being creative isn’t enough. Creativity is the price of entry but it’s not going to carry you through the minefield of managing a six figure web application design project. Designing a team that can deliver on these high stakes projects while still making profits requires a different model.

Being consistently creative and productive is not about lightning bolt inspirations but rather methodical, iterative problem solving. You need people that have the discipline and training to do just that. That’s where the special forces model comes in to play.

The critical element to the special forces success is having thoughtful team players that are disciplined problem solvers. When the bullets start flying all the well-intended plans disappear out the window. When your plans fail you need to think fast on your feet. As Mike Tyson loved to say, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get hit.” That’s the kind of thing we face every day at Fresh Tilled Soil. Even with some of the best PM’s in the industry we’re constantly dealing with curveballs. For example, recently one of our largest clients was unexpectedly acquired – just three weeks before their new website launch. Deal with that!

Clearly this agility in problem solving is not restricted to special forces. It’s also true of high performing sports teams and companies that demonstrate long term success. The business version of this is superbly described by Jim Collins in his groundbreaking Good to Great. The common thread in all of these high-performance situations is that the people and the model are all team-focused.

Building these highly functional teams doesn’t happen by accident. Just putting the right people on the bus doesn’t mean the bus will go in the right direction. Having a very clear vision is the starting point but consistent emphasis on training is essential. Special forces teams are always training. They are the epitome of the lifelong learner. For example, Mark Divine, the ex-Navy SEAL I mentioned earlier, is a yoga instructor and successful entrepreneur with multiple degrees, including an MBA. We embraced deliberate lifelong learning and created multi-layered training paths. Over approximately a year we developed and rolled-out on-boarding and ongoing education.

The first stop on the path is our AUX program. To be part of the Fresh Tilled Soil team you’ll need to first complete our 90-day apprenticeship program. It’s our version of the bootcamp or basic training. Anyone can apply but we aim to attract serious designers and developers. Looking at the application data, the average age of applicants suggests they have already completed some tertiary education and a few years at another firm or in a full-time design position. These are not high school grads. These are people that want to make UX/UI their lifelong craft.

At the highest level, AUX is a series of filters to recruit and select the best possible candidates for our studio. This is something we learned from the special forces recruitment process. They don’t use recruiters or job sites. Instead, they use an incredibly tough entry program, BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALS), to challenge the best of the best into proving how good they are. I’m not sure if SEAL candidates get paid, but we do pay our recruits during AUX. This is because they work on real client projects, but it also allows us to set a higher standard of recruit. Non-paid programs feel like internships. That’s the opposite of what we’re creating with AUX. Once a candidate has completed the program, there is still no guarantee they will be hired as a full-time team member. Based on the current trend, only about 10% of AUX graduates will move on to permanent positions at Fresh Tilled Soil [3].

This might seem like a lot of effort for a small return but the outcome and the economics make sense. Paying a recruiter or making the wrong hire is far more expensive and disruptive. Making it hard to get into our company also has the result of increasing loyalty once you’re part of the team.

Beyond AUX here are some of the things we do to create a lifelong learning culture:

  • Almost every week we run either workshops or design reviews. The workshops are focused on teaching specific skills while the reviews are intended to provide internal feedback on client projects. Workshop topics range from responsive design to accessibility to color theory.
  • Although most of this teaching is done here at our offices we frequently attend local meetups, as well as courses at educational organizations like Intelligent.ly.
  • Business people and project managers are sent to exceptional learning events like Owner Camp and Digital PM Camp.
  • We hire subject matter experts like Steve Krug, C Todd Lombardo and Amy Bucher to teach us specific skills like user testing or design thinking facilitation.
  • To ensure that our team really understands the subject matter we also encourage them to speak at conferences, write guest posts, and publish articles in high-profile publications.
  • Our team also hosts speaking events and workshops for clients and the larger design/development community.
  • Finally, we have created larger events for the UX/UI community that require our entire company to be involved as panelists, domain experts, or hosts.

Team sizes and permanence 

As our approach has always been to have smaller team sizes, we were delighted when research indicated that other high performance teams share our preference. Scrum and Agile methodologies seem to reinforce the concept [1], and there is even some research (and lots of anecdotal evidence) that suggests this is the smart way for creative teams to do things. We’ve interviewed about two dozen creative firm leaders, all of whom affirmed that the optimal size for regional offices is in the 25-40 range. Most importantly, our own experience working on over 500 projects has proven the value of small, tight-knit teams. Specifics for team size tend to point at about 30 people for the main team with smaller functional groups within that. SEAL teams are generally organized into troops of 40, but some teams are as small as 18 operators. That troop of 40 is task-organized for operational purposes into four squads of eight 4–5 person ‘fire teams.’

We follow a similar pattern. Although our company is currently smaller than a traditional SEAL troop, we also break project teams into 4-5 person groups [2]. We’ve seen this work very well over the years. Bigger teams might sound like a better approach to tackle complex problems but the reverse is actually true. Small teams are more agile and nimble in both thinking and execution. Too many cooks leads to indecision and complexity.

We’re not sure if the SEAL teams get switched up so they can work with other members of the troop but recent books and anecdotes suggest they do. At our studio, the teams are constantly mixed up too. Designers, developers, strategists, and project managers get to work with different team members whenever there is a new project. They very rarely find themselves working with exactly the same team as they have in the past. This mixing of talent has the benefit of providing knowledge transfer and further deepening empathy between team members.

Another myth we choose to ignore is the one that high staff turnover injects the company with new ideas. We call bullshit on that idea. For most companies, that’s the excuse they use to justify high turnover rates. Our peers may argue with our logic, but keeping staff for the longest period possible is optimal for problem solving work like user experience design. Collaboration between team members is essential for high stakes projects. Having a team that’s worked together over multiple projects creates the right chemistry that you can’t get from constantly adding new people to the mix. If you’re a fast growing company, this isn’t always easy, but we think we’ve solved that problem with our AUX program. In the special forces, long-term loyalty is a key to their success.

It’s important to remember that your client is hiring you to be the fast, creative, nimble force that they can’t be. They are expecting your team to be the experts that can solve problems much faster than they can. In order to achieve that you need to have the internal chemistry of a well-oiled machine. Ongoing training, good chemistry, and long-term loyalty provide the ingredients for a team capable of performing at a level that is simply unattainable by bigger, more bureaucratic companies. Those qualities are attractive to our clients.

Our projects tend to be high impact initiatives with tight timelines, so we don’t have the luxury of staffing up when a new project goes live. With a strong, well-trained team that’s already developed its chemistry, we can be kicking butt on a project within days of signing a contract, if necessary. This is exactly how special forces teams work, too. When something requires their attention they don’t have time to recruit and train new team members.

One last note on teams: It is essential to know the limitations of your team. You will always need outside support and skills to complete any complex task. As we’ve become more focused on high stakes UX & UI projects we’ve become very aware of the need to bring in specialists. For example, we don’t have a vast depth of brand positioning skills in our team. Although we’ve all worked on branding projects and it’s a component of almost all our projects, we’ve often chosen to bring on those skills in the form of a contractor or partner. We borrowed this approach from the SEALs and DARPA. Both of these organizations bring on experts and advisors to help solve specific problems. The beauty of this approach is that none of your full-time employees gets benched. We staff for the core consistent work and contract out for the inconsistent work.

Rapid decision making

Though special forces teams each have a leader, operators are empowered to make decisions without having to ask their commanding officer at every turn. We’ve all seen companies where indecision is the major bottleneck to getting stuff done. We love the idea that each person in the team has the power to make decisions. This was eloquently described as hiring a Manager of One by 37Signals a few years ago.

At Fresh Tilled Soil we returned almost all the authority to our project managers and their teams so they can be as decisive as possible. When you’re designing a time-sensitive project you need the ability to go over or around obstacles without having to wait for others to make those decisions for you. The cost of a delayed decision can have a material impact on a UX/UI project. For example, a decision on a design review that is delayed for a single sprint (2 weeks) would be a 10% delay in the overall project (average projects are 6 months).

We also understand that not every decision can be dealt with at the project manager level. If executive decision making is required, we ensure our PMs have access to all the C-level staff. We keep our organization fairly flat so escalation is easy and timely. This allows us to keep momentum throughout the project. Organizational structure is not the traditional top-down but rather focused on domain expertise. Our organizational chart is a series of concentric circles with domain experts occupying positions alongside other experts. The company vision sits at the center. I’ll be writing more on this structure in a follow up article.

Leadership and commander’s intent

Closely related to decision making skills is vision and leadership. Even if you’re a great decision maker, you will lack the foundation to make those decisions if you’re uncertain of your company’s vision, values, and direction. Although our project managers bear the final responsibility for the success or failure of a project, they are able to rely on several layers of support. The first supporting layer is the physical structure of our company. Our office space is an open plan, and none of the executive staff have private offices. Principles and managers sit alongside the team with no aires or graces. This layout is by design and indicates that anyone can be approached for support, advice, or insight at any point in the day. For those of you getting ready to paste the recent articles in the New York Times about the inefficiencies of open plan offices into the comments box, we considered that carefully and created several private offices and spaces for private conversations or meetings. Open plan works when you have places to escape to. Our studio culture is quiet to begin with, so we never had the problems other open plan critics reported.

In theory, it might be nice if everyone could report directly to the CEO or COO on every project. In our small firm, that access is very possible but it isn’t necessary. This is because we have adopted a version of the military decision model called the Commander’s Intent. The Commander’s Intent acts as a basis for others in the organization to “develop their own plans and orders to transform thought into action, while maintaining the overall intention of their commander.” Basically what this means is that if everyone knows the leader’s stated vision, then the team can get to work solving the problems at hand in ways that they feel are best. Once we set our vision, values, and individual contributions, we expect the team to solve problems without constantly having to ask for permission or direction. This is the same for special forces teams. SEAL Teams cannot be expected to achieve their goals if they are constantly asking for input and decisions from their commander (who in some cases is the President of the United States).

Challenging projects

You can’t attract and keep great talent if you don’t consistently challenge those people. Smart people need bigger challenges. People value getting recognition for taking on challenging work more than they value money. This was brilliantly illustrated by Dan Pink in his TED talk. We’ve made it a mission of ours to pursue the most interesting and challenging projects we can find. We try very hard to stay true to that mission, even though it can sometimes conflict with the need to make profits.

If the solution to every project is either too easy to achieve or a pre-determined outcome of a defined process, then your smartest people will get bored. I’ve read that the special forces attracts A-type personalities because of the high-risk, high-reward nature of the work. Although we’re obviously not risking people’s lives in our line of work, we’d like to think we’re pushing our team creatively and intellectually, encouraging them to do things way outside their comfort zones. In contrast to what most people think, the more challenging the job, the more likely you’ll stick around to fight another day.

Selecting projects that have a meaningful impact on the world will also stimulate the team in a way that run-of-the-mill projects will not. It’s taken us several years to get to the point where we can choose the projects we’d like to take on. It’ll probably be another year or two before we can be totally selective. If we’re able to continue on our path of success, then we’ll also be able to be more selective, increasing the chance of success for both the client and our team.

That said, even though our preference is for complex and challenging work, it’s been our experience that our portfolio should include a healthy balance of complex and simple projects. Team members need time to breathe and refresh their thinking between tough engagements. The ebb and flow of challenging vs. easier projects allows the team to do just that.

That brings us to our next question: how do you track and measure success or failure in a project like a special forces team does?

Measuring success

We like challenges, but complex projects have a higher risk element to them. There are more points along the path that could lead to failure and generally more people that can make disruptive choices. Measuring the progress along the way can be both a blessing and a curse. Insisting that your team logs every task completed in an orderly fashion, like so many development methodologies suggest, does not account for the possibility that you will hit an obstacle and need to work around it. Instead of measuring tasks complete, we prefer to measure what was delivered against the overall vision of the project. Every project starts with a ‘Deep Dive’ to establish the highest possible mission of the project. This is much like the Commanders Intent. The output of the Deep Dive is a clear vision, an understanding of the user’s (or customer’s) needs, the journeys they might take to address those needs and then looping back those journeys to the intended outcome. Because the Deep Dive is focused on figuring out the final deliverable, we can often map more than one path to that goal. This has the added advantage of being able to develop a project plan that will remain flexible while still focused on achieving the overall mission.

You’ll often hear special forces talking about outcomes. This refers to their results of their actions and how it measures up to the Commander’s Intent. Outcomes should always be the primary metric for all projects. This maps beautifully with Lean UX principles or the ideas driving Rapid Prototyping where the team’s directive is to always be building something that can be tested in the real world. Outcomes are can only exist in the real world. We like that!

When the teams at DARPA work on a project, they assume that some future learning moment will possibly derail their plans. Their special forces approach allows them to adjust and recalibrate. From a recent Harvard Business Review article about DARPA’s approach:

“Insisting that a team steadily hit milestones established in initial plans can cause it to adhere to a path that—based on something the team has learned—no longer makes sense. Sometimes a setback or a failure is the most effective tool for discovery. If people working on a particular piece of a project experience a failure, it’s often because something they encountered surprised them. That’s to be expected in high-risk projects.”

In the space in which we operate, of custom-designed websites and applications, there is no such thing as a project without surprises. Developing a linear process is futile. Believing that everything is going to go smoothly all the time is delusional. Measuring success cannot be done at the granular level. We still track a lot of the daily tasks and activities but with the knowledge that these things are meaningless in the big picture. Our goal must always be to achieve the mission through action, even if we need to course correct along the way.

Final thoughts

I realize that drawing parallels between special forces training and designing websites can be a stretch. The emphasis of our approach has been to borrow the elements that work and can be transferred to our emerging firm. Elements like teamwork and continuous learning have been mastered by these high-performance teams and they translate easily to other organizations. We are far from perfect and still have a lot to do in order to come anywhere close to the level of execution special forces teams achieve. We’re looking for ways to improve all the time. Maybe that’s the key to their success: being just a little dissatisfied with yourself so you kick your own butt a little bit every day.

Have you been able to use methodologies like this to create and enhance your creative team? I’d love to hear about your experiences.


[1] We like the Agile framework but we’re not Agilists. There are real problems with using pure Agile in a design project.

[2] As we grow we have decided that each group of 30 would be located in a new city. Our team in Boston is now 28 people and San Francisco will be 3-4 by the end of the year.

[3] Not all employees at the company are AUX graduates. The program has only been live for 18 months, so obviously not everyone has gone through it. Senior hires may also skip AUX if they can demonstrate a long track record of delivering on high-stakes projects and good team management skills.

About Richard Banfield

Richard is a the CEO and co-founder of Fresh Tilled Soil. After completing a degree in Biology, Richard was attracted to the...