One of the constant challenges we face at Ideasphere when working on operational turnarounds with our clients, besides high debt leverages, inefficient operations, lack of technology management expertise, founderitis, Demday disease, etc., is how to improve performance of the current operations without burning working capital or taking on more debt. Following our People-Process-Systems model, we always start with the people and what we can do to improve everyone’s performance. 

This blog entry is a result of a research paper a friend sent to me on how the US Navy worked to improve the performance of the Navy Special Warfare Community and increase the completion rate of their SEAL training programs.  


The SEAL training program is one of the toughest military training programs in the US military, and probably the rest of the world.  For years, hundreds of military personnel applied, only few were selected, and of those, on average, only 25% graduated.  The graduation rate has been fairly consistent and it was considered a generally acceptable performance level.  Until someone decided to challenge that.  Considering the significant expense to put someone through those schools, and the need for more units capable of special operations in today’s asymmetrical warfare environment, improving graduation rates was a major objective for the leadership team.

So the US Navy Seals undertook an effort to understand what drove graduation rates and how to improve them.  Changing the profile of the people applying to the school would have not impact.  Stated simply, only the strongest, most motivated, and top performing soldiers even consider applying for SEAL training to begin with.  Alternatively, changing the program to make it easier to graduate would work in the short term, but would have a negative impact on the field, jeopardize missions, and cost real lives.  So the research team focused on the the people already in the program and what they did to graduate. 

Through research, they identified four areas common across all the graduates.  By helping other trainees focus on those four areas, they improved the graduation rate from 25% to 33%, an impressive improvement by any standard.  The actual research is classified, but what the final report indicated is a confirmation of many of the practices we bring to our clients, and my personal beliefs about people and performance.  The four components of improving performance are: Goal Setting – Visualization – Self Talk – Arousal Control.

Goal Setting –  The successful trainees established a list of short and long term goals and stayed focused on them, regardless of what was going on around them.  One of the trainees talked about setting two hour goals that kept him focused on making it through the next two hours, or completing one particular training segment.  Similar to the SMARTT goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant/Realistic, TimeBound, Trackable) we create for our clients, the trainees established short term objectives and focused on completing them.  Vision statements are great at the enterprise level, and strategies are critical for long term success at the operating level, but most individuals have to know what their immediate objectives are and focus on them.

Visualization – The trainees who completed the course created a visual image on what the completed goal would look like.   One of the trainees talked about visualizing his team being the first to complete a particular training segment and him being a major reason for their success.  As I frequently tell my clients, even though there is a fine line between a vision and a hallucination, keeping the goals SMARTT a visualization grounded in reality is a powerful weapon. It does a front line supervisor or a business unit leader little good to visualize global market domination.  It does improve performance to help them visualize the next twelve months and asking them to tell a simple story about their division twelve months from today that starts with the line “Today my division is generating revenues of x and profit of y and we got here by…..”.

Self Talk – The trainees were taught how to use positive self talk to re-enforce their goals and visualization.   The difference between, “I will not fail this training segment”, and “I will complete this training segment” maybe subtle but it is extremely important.  The simple act of starting staff meetings with a focus on what needs to be done, rather what needs to be avoided is a major step towards positive self talk.  When in a turn-around mode helping people to see what they need to do to keep their jobs has a significantly more positive impact that them working towards not loosing their job.

Arousal Control – On the battle field, staying calm under pressure and responding to a situation rather than reacting, can mean the difference between life and death, and so it can during the training segments.  By focusing on controlling their breathing, for example, the trainees kept their cool when in high pressure situations and allowed their training to take over.  Even though this one is a matter of personal control, it also apply to team dynamics.  Responding immediately to every challenge and thrashing about with disconnected short term initiatives is not a good answer to most problems.  Most of the times, taking a deep breath, understanding the impact, and responding with a thoughtful strategy and action plan is.