Smithson: Put Navy Seal in your HR planning

If there’s a lesson this story brings home, it’s that…reacting effectively is the key to success.

The book No Easy Day, by Mark Owen, is a first-person account of the lead up to, and execution of, the U.S. Navy Seal mission that killed Osama Bin Laden.  If there’s a lesson that story brings home, it’s that there’s only so much value to planning and that reacting effectively is the key to success.

In the spring of 2011, Owen was assigned to a highly secret operation which would train at a military base in North Carolina.  Every detail of Bin Laden’s suspected compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan had been reconstructed from aerial surveillance (video and still images).

The plan was to airlift in, in the dead of night, in two helicopters.  The first SEAL team would split into two groups—one “fast roping” down onto the roof of Bin Laden’s home and the other taking up position outside the compound to provide “external security.”  The second team would rope down within the compound’s walls and secure the buildings at ground level before working their way up from the first floor of the residence.

The two SEAL teams would converge on the third floor of the home where the C.I.A. suspected Bin Laden was residing.  The assault teams rehearsed every detail of the mission before flying to the departure point at Jalalabad, Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.

The night of the mission, things started going awry almost immediately upon the helicopters’ arrival at the Bin Laden compound.  The Black Hawk in which the author, Owen, was riding became uncontrollable and ended up crash-landing, leaving its tail stuck on the compound’s wall.

The pilots of the second Black Hawk, having seen the first one crash, pre-empted their plan and landed outside the compound’s walls so nobody “fast roped” onto the roof of the residence.  The advantage of surprise was surely lost through all the noise and delay.

The first obstacle faced by Owen and his partner, a set of metal double doors to a guest house, proved to be a greater challenge than anticipated—the doors were locked and a sledgehammer had no effect.  Before they could set off a charge to blow the doors open, they were being shot at from inside.

The second team, already behind schedule and out of position, tried to blow open a gate to gain access to the compound.  When they did, they found a brick wall obstructing their route and had to try another access point—they were supposed to be hitting the third floor of the residence but still hadn’t even gained entry to the compound.

As the two teams gradually converged on the residence and worked their way upstairs, detonating explosives along the way to bypass locked doors, the occupants—especially those up on the third floor—had ample warning and plenty of time to grab weapons and plan their defence.

They made their way to the third floor without injury and Bin Laden was shot at the first opportunity.  As Owen described it, “BOP.  BOP.  The point man had seen a man peeking out of the door on the right side of the hallway about 10 feet in front of him.  I couldn’t tell from my position if the rounds hit the target or not.  The man disappeared into the dark room.”

The man had, indeed, been Bin Laden and he had been shot through the head.  According to Owen, there were weapons in the room but they were still sitting on a shelf above the doorway, unloaded, and it appeared Bin Laden “had no intention of fighting.”

The SEALs now had to destroy the crashed helicopter, but the explosives tech initially misunderstood that order and started distributing charges around the ground floor of the house until someone clarified that they wanted him to blow up the helicopter, not the house.

Finally, with time already run out on them, their departure by air from the site was delayed by the pending detonation of the crashed aircraft.  Ultimately, the remaining Black Hawk and a called-up CH-47 helicopter made it back to Jalalabad with their payload—24 Navy SEALs and one occupied body bag.

So, what does any of this have to do with human resources?  The point is that in many, many difficult situations involving employees there are simply too many variables to accurately predict the outcome.

Whether it’s a question of accommodating a disability, of terminating an employee for cause, or of negotiating terms of settlement, I often say to clients:, “The picture in the crystal ball gets fuzzy very quickly.”  Although it seems to be the objective of business people to try and predict and control every possibility, they really can’t.

This doesn’t mean planning is unimportant.

But the practical reality is that when there is someone pushing back against every action you take, it is difficult (if not impossible) to control how a scenario will play out.

At some point, you just have to take off and head for your target and know that your experience and intuition will help you make good decisions along the way.  As the Admiral in charge of the teams raiding the Bin Laden home said: “The most important thing is to get them on the ground safe, and they’ll figure out the rest.”


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